When I was in graduate school, my mom started collecting pieces of china from the grocery store. They were plain, simple white china plates with gold edging. I have about twenty of them and cups and saucers and salad plates that match. I even think there is a gravy boat that goes with the set—somewhere packed away in a box.
I’m not sure why Mom collected these for me so diligently. I was in graduate school, broke and certainly not throwing lavish dinner parties requiring china.
I think she did it because she could. The plates were one dollar a piece each week with her order of groceries, easily affordable. And she was always looking for the bargain.
I think she did it because she was dreaming of a better life for all of us—one in which we could afford to live a life of leisure and throw dinner parties requiring china. Mom loved pretty things, and a pretty dinner table decked out with the china she never had, would have made her smile. Mom’s dinner ware never matched. Whenever we had company for Christmas or other events, if there was a big family dinner, flatware was mismatched, glasses were a conglomeration of whatever had survived over the years, and frankly I don’t ever remember her having her own complete set of plates, cups, saucers and salad bowls. The only time things matched was when we used paper plates, and often those were a collection of whatever we could find.
I never thought twice about it growing up; those mixed up tables were fine with me—they were home. They meant a meal cooked by Mom and my family being together. The times when Mom, Dad and all three kids were in once place were rare after we grew up; their memories treasured now.
I think it really bothered Mom who, in all her Southerness, felt somehow she was judged by the quality of her table layout rather than the love that held it together.
I also think Mom was a little confused about where I was in life. After all, I was in my mid- to late-twenties, single, poor and in school. Part of her applauded my independence and my pursuit of a PhD, and part of her longed to see me married, established as the queen of my own home with my own children and my own china pattern. Her confusion echoed my own, frankly.
Today I have my PhD and a career. I have a salary that enables me to afford matching dishware, china and glasses, but more often than not, when my husband and daughter and I gather around our table for dinner it is with mismatched glasses, flatware and plates, because matching table settings just aren’t all that important to me. The meal served and the company in which it is eaten is the focus—that is the legacy I have from my Mom.
She always preached “people are more important than things”. I think she believed that, although sometimes I think she preached it most vehemently when she was trying to convince herself.
Recently my husband and I traded in our first-apartment/Goodwill dining room furniture for a more stylish dining room set. The first thing our daughter said when she saw the new table was: “There is room for everyone when Grandma and Papa come over.” And she’s right, but she also says that she prefers the old table. I understand her view point. The new one is intimidating. But in many ways it represents the life my husband and I are making together, and when I serve home-cooked meals on mixed-up plates, with unmatched glasses and flatware—our new table is tamed, and becomes a family place.
The other thing this new furniture has is a china cabinet—a big imposing one with a mirrored back and glass shelves. I chose not to display the dinner wear from my wedding registry or the Spode Christmas Tree china I have collected over the years (mostly as gifts or at half-price after-Christmas sales; I am my mother’s daughter after all).
No, the plates displayed are simple white plates with gold trim, collected week by week by Mom when she did the grocery shopping at Winn Dixie—a gentle reminder that people are indeed more important than things.
©2013 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.