The Good China
My grandma always kept the good china in a dark, imposing hutch that sat grumpily in the corner of the kitchen, guarding the special dishes like a soldier presiding over prisoners of war.
I used to stand in front of it, gazing at the rows and rows of gold-edged plates and fancy crystal stemware in all shapes and sizes. I wondered what all of those fancy dishes were for. I longed to take one out and run my fingers over all the fancy filigrees and gold detailing.
But I could never touch them. The evil Hutch was always locked. He sneered at me when I tried to open it. “Oh HOOOO you thought you could just use the heirloom china for your chocolate milk and graham crackers, did you, little girl? I don’t think so!”
The good china came out without a guard only twice a year– at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I could see the fancy plates sparkling like diamonds on a table set with a white tablecloth freshly pressed by my mom or grandma. We spent days before the feast polishing the real silverware, turning it from black to glistening silver, using a toothbrush on the details and crevices until it gleamed and sparkled in the light. It was like watching someone beloved come back from the war– slowly turning back into the beauty that we remembered.
Hutch would watch nervously as we sat around the table, his precious charges briefly out of his clutches. I’m sure he breathed a sigh of relief when my grandma put the regular, beat up melamine plates at “the kids’ table” for us to use. “The good china is just for grown ups,” she would laugh. “Everyday is good enough for you kids.”
I gazed longingly over at the beautifully set adult table, and Hutch laughed. I glared at him. “Just you wait,” I muttered under my breath. He pretended to ignore my words, but I know that he heard me.
As soon as Thanksgiving was over and we had washed what felt like ten million dishes, Hutch gratefully accepted his charges back with grasping, dark wooden fingers. He glowered at us from the corner, once again reminding us that the good china was back inside where it was as safe and untouchable as the gold in Fort Knox. Another whole year would have to pass while I stared at the imprisoned dishes and wished I could eat, oh, I don’t know . . . a sacrilegious peanut butter and jelly sandwich on them.
*thunder rumbles in the background*
The dishes looked out at me wistfully. I thought that they wouldn’t mind holding a lowly PB&J. They were tired of just sitting there, looking fancy. They wanted the dish equivalent of Netflix and chill. They knew I’d be careful. They wanted to come out and play. Just for a little while. But no. Hutch was immovable on the subject.
Years passed. I eventually graduated to the “adult table” at Thanksgiving. Ohhhh, the bliss of AT LAST seeing my sweet potato casserole overtop of those gloriously taboo plates that I had sooooooo longed to use! Sitting at the adult table meant that I now had to trade in my “go play outside and don’t bother us” card while the adults cleaned up, and now I was expected to start helping to clear the table and wash the dishes. Oh my gosh. SOOOOO many dishes. What I lacked in their presence throughout the year I more than made up for in washing every single one of them after holiday dinners. Somehow, though, even washing them was a thrill. It’s always more fun to wash pretty dishes than boring, everyday ones. If dishes are pretty enough to make dishwashing fun, then I say that’s a WIN, folks. And these beauties were winners.
The number at the table was always changing, too– some years there were new, happy little faces introduced at the kids’ table. Other, sadder years, there were beloved older faces missing.
One year, for the first time, my grandma’s face was missing.
We decided just to use paper plates that year. No one felt up to getting out all the silver and polishing it. No one felt like washing ten thousand good china dishes. That had always been her thing. It just wasn’t the same without grandma. Our hearts weren’t in it.
Hutch seemed to watch us as we ate in near silence, everyone quietly thinking of years past– the loved ones who were missing or whom we had lost. He didn’t seem to gloat, for once, over holding his dishes hostage for an extra year. If anything, he seemed as sad as the rest of us.
That summer I went to a big flea market. I saw a lot of dishes. I saw a set of dishes exactly like the set that my grandma had always stored so carefully in Hutch. I asked the lady who was selling them what the story was behind them.
“Oh you know,” she said sadly. “Back then every woman got a good set of china for her wedding. Usually it was just kept packed away or displayed, but never used. It’s kind of sad really because now my mom is gone, and even though she loved these dishes so much she died without ever having really used them. She was so afraid of breaking them that she missed out enjoying them.”
I bought the whole set for $20. I took them home to be loved.
I gently unwrapped them from the box where they had lived for decades. I washed their dusty faces. I dried them and put them on the table, just admiring their beauty. I sat down and drank my coffee in one of the fancy china teacups. I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and ate it off of the fine china saucer. I was very careful. But I used them. I felt like a rebel– that is, if rebels ate classy sandwiches off of fine china plates. I curled my pinkie to sip my coffee. And I smiled.
To this day I still love fancy dishes– beautiful teacups and plates with delicate floral decorations. I love to take pieces that others have cherished– pieces with a story– and use them– both in photos and to add a little kiss of luxury to everyday life. They are too beautiful to spend their lives hiding away in the cupboard. My favorite table setting is mismatched china plates. Little bits of loveliness. Little bits of someone’s love story. Altogether beautiful.
I’m sure that most of the pieces I have (mostly collected from yard sales and flea markets) were once someone’s pride and joy, banished to Hutches everywhere where they were most anxiously guarded into lonely oblivion. But now I set the table with mismatched china plates. I use mismatched silverware. I think of the people who loved these pieces. And I think the dishes are happier being used. I think they like their beautiful china faces being clean and not dusty. I think they even kind of like Peanut Butter and Jelly.
Sadly, occasionally we do break one. But at least they have a chance to live first. At least they are loved.
Instead of waiting for the perfect time, we are enjoying the perfect moments all around us, right now. Beauty in the everyday. Little sparkles of magic all around us. The laughter of our loved ones becomes the perfect reason for celebration. We need no other occasion.
When we moved, I had 1 box marked “clothes” and about 10 boxes marked “dishes.” *snicker* What can I say. I have my priorities right.
I packed the dishes carefully, because they were more important to me than the clothes. They were stories. Memories. Fragments of time past. They were little treasures meant to bring a sparkle to everyone who was lucky enough to use them.
And just between us, I think Peanut Butter and Jelly tastes better when you serve it on a china plate.
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
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