I had not intended, mind you, to purchase a sad iron.
And yet there it is, in my trunk, waiting to find its new home.
Let me go back.
When I read Maria von Trapp’s autobiography, I was intrigued by her description of all the really nice furniture that she bought at a discount at the local auction house near where the family lived in Pennsylvania. The auctioneer understood that Maria wanted to rescue items that were underappreciated, and hoped to put them to better use, so he often steered her to such things and manipulated the auction so her bid could win. She stored the pieces in her barn while her husband grew increasingly concerned as the tables, chairs, and beds accumulated But when the family wanted to retire from touring and bought the property for their music camp that later became the Trapp Family Lodge, she was able to use her stash to furnish each of the rooms for the guests who came to sing, swim, and find friendship. I longed for a place like that auction house. Every American wants to be the catcher in the rye. I wanted to save underappreciated things, with no real sense of what or how or why,
Since we moved to Ohio, a friend whose taste I admire told me about the website she uses to find rare and special things, often at a good price. The first time I logged onto it, “Everything But the House,” I was captivated. Books, maps, furniture, clothes, toys, antiques, overstock – so much available, and often for so little money. I have a large family and many godchildren, besides, and so I started searching for and acquiring unique gifts.
My favorite part is the lots, and they have become a metaphor for my life. I bid for a lot because it contains one thing I want, and I find myself with other, unexpected items. I bid on a lot for the clear plastic storage items, but it came with non-stick pots and pans from Germany and a set of three stacking orange, plastic mixing bowls. The pots became my go-to for bringing things to church. The mixing bowls serve as serving bowls for autumn themed parties. And the containers, the thing I wanted, have replaced some of the sour cream containers as homes for our leftovers. It was a very good upgrade.
The site has its Proustian moments. They had a glider just like the one that graced my grandparents front porch in West Medford back in the day. I did not buy it, but I shared the link with my cousins on Facebook and we all had a chance to remember sitting with Grandpa in the cool of the evening.
And I have found gifts for those for whom it is hard to shop. One brother-in-law is a Revolutionary War re-enactor, and he sometimes camps out at re-enacting sites. I never know what to buy him, but when I found a wooden box meant for carrying yak butter, I knew it was for him. And nobody bid against me. My goddaughter’s sister wants to be an “archeologist nun” when she grows up. In a lot of Dynasty Dolls, I spotted a nun in a white summer habit and black veil. She sported wire rim glasses and certainly could pass for an archeologist. The entire lot cost less than a Barbie doll, and the future monastic was thrilled with her gift.
I put things to use or give them away as fast as I can, so they don’t accumulate, but sometimes I have a residual stash. And so I have three hand crocheted afghans that came in handy at the River Blessing but that we won’t need till next year. I have extra copies of some Longfellow poems that I bought from a classroom set. The song books from 1973 that I just purchased came, inexplicably, with a roll for q player piano. And then there is the sad iron in my trunk.
Sad irons are not unhappy, they are just heavy, “sad” being an old form of the word “solid.” This formerly useful item came in an eclectic lot that included a cobalt blue oil lamp that I am saving for the next power outage, a beautiful glass bottle in the same shade that now holds our Holy Water, and an assortment of “bridge scoring sheets” that turned out to be useful small notebooks.
I have a plan for the sad iron, which is why it is in my trunk. My first plan is to offer it to our local museum, an old house that has been furnished with period pieces. If they don’t want it, I will have a good excuse to visit local antique stores trying to sell it. My seemingly random purchases give me the means of helping and meeting others. They tickle my fancy. They give me something to share. And they give me something new to write about!
Writing prompt: Look among your things, choose something unusual, and write about it.
How did you acquire it?
What were you thinking?
How is it of use?
What is its significance in the larger sense? Write about it touching on memory and desire, times and places it brings to mind, things you don’t want to forget.
I didn’t write a writing prompt this week because I am gearing up for my second cataract surgery and Wednesday was the day when I could bend and clean. That’s not what I did, but it reminded me of a second person essay that I wrote for one of my FUMFA (Fairfield University MFA in Writing) on why you, or I, don’t write more.
We all should write more.
Today is the fourteenth anniversary of my auntie Rita’s repose. I still miss her.
And so this excerpt is in her memory. Make yourself some good pasta and a nice salad, and eat with people you love.
Auntie Rita, Before Cancer. Borrowed from one of my aunts.
(Background: At the time, we lived in Connecticut and my daughter was in college in Massachusetts, not far from the part of Boston, Roslindale, where I grew up.)
When your Auntie Rita gets cancer, the other aunties step in, and teach you how to have a cancer party at hospice. You tell Auntie Chee Chee the story of Auntie Betty and the Spaghetti Sauce. It’s a wonderful story. You kick yourself for not having written it down.
Here’s the story.
Auntie Rita said, “Betty’s kids came to my house, and when they came home, they raved about my spaghetti sauce. And so Betty called me, and she sighed, and said, ‘My kids can’t stop talking about your sauce. So I guess I’d better ask you for the recipe.’ And I say, ‘I hope you have a pen and paper handy to write it down, because it’s complicated.’ So she gets a pen and paper.
“And I say, ‘Are you ready?’ And she says ‘Yah.’ So I say, ‘Here’s what you do. You take a stick of butter.’”
And because she’s Auntie Rita and her Boston accent is so thick, of course she doesn’t say “butter”. She says “buttah”, and she says it like it’s the best thing God ever made.
“’You take your stick of butter, and you melt it in the pan. You got that?’ And she said yes. And I said, ‘And then you pour in a jar of Ragu and you heat it up. And that’s my secret recipe.’ Betty was so mad.”
And she laughed.
But when you tell the story to Auntie Chee Chee, she says, “Ann Marie. If you’re coming to see your daughter, you could stop by hospice and see us.” And you think it strange that she says “us” but of course you agree.
You stop by your stepmother’s house on the way, the one that used to be yours, the one that your grandfather bought for your grandmother before both of them died, before your mother died, before your father died. It is not your house any more. It is your stepmother’s, and she is working late and cannot see you this visit.
You bring her dinner, because she is alone now, and nobody ever cooks for her. Without you there to remind people that it’s her birthday, her name day, the would-be anniversary of her marrying your dad, then sometimes your siblings drop the ball. So while it’s not an occasion, you are there, and she has to work late, which is hard. You go shopping at the new yuppie market where two angry Irish brothers used to have a terrible grocery store with warm milk and stale bread. The new store, like so much of Roslindale, is dazzling, expensive, and completely foreign. But their food is good — wholesome and fresh, displayed with care. The vegetables are clean and attractive. Shopping here is a pleasure.
The rotisserie chicken at the store looks like something from a painting. The chickens are brown and glistening. They sit in a puddle of their own juice, and each looks so good that you get one for your stepmother and one for your aunt. The other aunties say Rita is not eating much, and you want to fix that.
Women want to fix things.
Sometimes even more than they want to write.
You take a look around the changed house that you didn’t always especially enjoy living in, and you head on to to the North Shore, to the gorgeous new hospice that they thoughtfully built halfway between Auntie Rita’s house and Auntie Chee Chee’s.
Because your husband is a clergyman, you have been to several different hospices before, in three States, plus the former run-down hotel in Houston that became run-down housing for Aids victims and their caretakers. So you are a connoisseur. This is a very nice hospice. Because you are near Boston, because you are from Boston, you even pronounce it to be “pissa” before realizing that this is like laughing in church. You straighten your face and walk down the hallway to find your aunt.
But you don’t find your aunt. You find all your aunties.
They used to have different colored hair, but now everyone has settled on shades very close to your own. Mary, whose hair was black and who always was skinny, is there, and Chee Chee, with reddish gold hair, and Katie, with goldish red hair, Peggy who has eight kids and still looks to be twenty, and Betty, all the way from Maine, and Dorothy, a darker red than the others perhaps because she’s an actress, and Rita, who has always looked like you, all looking up, all so glad to see you. You hug and kiss them all and admire their sweaters – turquoise, lavender, blue – and say, “I always could figure out what colors would look good on me by looking at my aunties.” And everyone smiles.
They are seated around a table with teacups, crumbs from pastries, and pictures of all their children and grandchildren. It doesn’t have to be this new century. It could be your grandmother’s dining room in 1972, uncles and aunts smoking and talking over Salada tea with milk, only, nobody smokes anymore, and they are done with half the husbands.
And your weary heart rejoices as they call out your name, and marvel that your daughter could be so grown up, and ask about the play she is in. She is not in the play. She is in the pit orchestra. But for your aunties, that makes her the star, because she is their grandniece.
And oh, Rita is so happy with the chicken. “That looks so good,” she says. “That looks so good that I want to eat some right now.”
And all the other aunties beam at you. And they make you sit down and have a muffin and some tea.
And Auntie Chee Chee asks you to have a little supper with them, only, of course, it’s “suppah,” and who can resist suppah with the aunties?
So they serve out some salad, and each aunt talks about the parts that she can and cannot eat, and Rita makes everyone have a little bit of chicken, and Auntie Chee Chee brings out spaghetti, and it’s so good, so good. And you smile at her.
Because you taste the butter.
And you know the recipe.
And you feel like you’re sitting at the grown-up table, a very special treat.
It is a kind of coming of age, to have a seat at the cancer party. It is as if you were given the mantle that nobody wants, but that you need. You wear it, and you wear it well, because it comes in turquoise, lavender, blue and green, your colors, and it was draped on your newly squared shoulders with love, for when you need it, in time, yourself, to stay warm.
“Please Lord, don’t let this kill me,” I prayed, silently, as I stepped in.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just spontaneously jump into the water, in January, in Ohio, just after it had stopped snowing.
I planned this, and prepared, and prayed.
I got a blessing first from one priest, then from another.
And I went to work figuring out how to make it work.
Let me go back a little….
I knew this year, 2021, was going to be difficult. And yet I was also grateful. We had survived 2020.
The pandemic did not hit our parish as hard as it hit others, for which mercy I am grateful. But like the rest of the world, we went through a huge upheaval. Church changed, not the structure of the services but the attire and the gatherings. We had masks, sanitizing, spacing, and even set up a livestream candle counter for those who needed to be home to be able to put up candles for their loved ones. It was Different and even off-putting but it was much better than no church at all. We, as a jurisdiction have a history of setting up storefront parishes and small missions wherever we have enough people gathered to pray; these have grown into cathedrals, schools and monasteries. And so from our history we know that we can survive, grow, and thrive if we are faithful in the small things for the duration. It just was a setback, which led to more changes.
My husband and I had settled into our “semi-retired” life somewhat before the pandemic hit. We had a townhouse apartment that held our books, half the windows looked out onto trees, with good internet access to streaming services when it wasn’t our turn to be at church. It felt a little like we were sitting out WWII in Switzerland, in that we didn’t have children home and we had already established the home offices from which we do our work. And while we weren’t praying together as a parish in one place, there were more services rather than fewer. Our parish took a maximalist approach to having services — if we had x people and were allowed y people per service, we had x/y services each week. It was a lot of church, sometimes four liturgies per week, which is a blessing, but hard work.
I had been pressed back into service. When we moved here, I joked that I was the Princess Eugenie of our choir — so many capable people were ahead of me in line to conduct the choir should the need arise that I could go put my tuning fork away and just sing alto, contentedly. I had been sight reading the new-to-me settings and translations of church music for a year, and had begun to learn our parish’s ways. But most of those people ahead of me to conduct were related and had forged what one person calls a “germ pod,” singing together with one priest while the deacon or I sang when my husband served, to cut down on the change of cross contamination should anyone be sick. God was merciful and nobody from among our singers or servers came down with COVID. But my husband and our rector did what I called the “Bruce Wayne and Batman” thing, not coming to the same services and having different altar servers, which was lonely because we like each other. We saw only so many people from church at a time, whether on the screen from the livestream or in person in church. The absence was disquieting.
And my mother-in-law, who reposed a month and a half ago, was suffering once more from the sarcoidosis that had plagued her for over thirty years and from two bad falls. She lived alone and only needed sporadic help, but it was clear that her condition was worsening and things could turn sour quickly. She had spent her previous birthday alone because of Michigan’s restrictions, although we came to celebrate as soon as visiting was allowed. (I will always be grateful to the people from Village Kitchen, in Ann Arbor, who brought lunch to her porch from another restaurant because they were not yet reopened. Beautiful people, wonderful food — worth a trip if you are out that way!) My mother-in-law was a trooper and an inspiration, keeping in touch by phone and through cards. But we lived under the shadow of the threat of unpleasant change.
I was grateful that things had not been worse and wanted strength for when things were no longer better. I wanted to do something inconvenient and beautiful for God. I wanted to be strengthened for whatever was to come. And I wanted to revel in the goodness of God and the mercy He had shown, so far. And an opportunity arose.
After Leaving the Water
I had often seen the videos that others shared of people in Russia dunking themselves three times in the freshly blessed outdoor water on Theophany, and my response was always, “Yeah, that’s something I never will do.” Then we moved to Ohio, and our parish had the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Little Miami River and three men from the parish plunged in. In January.
“Can girls do that, too?” one of the parish children asked, and the answer was, “Of course!” I started to think.
Our parish would be together again for the blessing of the water. Only one of the three men who had taken the plunge in 2020 were planning to do it this year. My aunts have a very strict rule: “Never go into the water alone. And don’t let your friends swim alone, either.” I couldn’t let our friend V. go into the water alone. After all, he could be swept away, and who would be able to get to him on time? But if the current took him, I could slow him down till help arrived.
And so a few months before January, I approached our rector and said, as casually as I could, “If one were to want to go into the water at the river on Theophany, theoretically, hypothetically, what would one wear?”
Fr. Daniel is hard to shock, and after a second to process the question he said, promptly, “Clothes. Clothes as opposed to a bathing suit, because it’s still church, and also because it’s cold. The water is cold and after you go in you will be wet and it will still be cold outside the water. So you will want a thick robe to put on immediately after, and towels.”
When I talked to his wife, later, she added, “We did this in Russia at one of St. Seraphim’s pools there. When you first go in, it’s so cold that it takes your breath away. So you will have to remember to wait and catch your breath before you go under again.”
I did online research about how to prepare. I read about cold water swimming, and learned the belly fat that I keep fighting may, in this case, be my friend. It would protect my organs. The Canadian Red Cross had some advice, as well. They said not to plunge in, but to wade. Well, our river is shallow on the edge, so that wouldn’t be a problem. They report, “Wear socks, aqua boots, neoprene surf boots or running shoes to stop your feet from sticking to the snowy or icy shore and prevent cuts and scrapes from the frozen ground.” I had water shoes, and decided to pair them with fuzzy socks.
I read about how a scuba suit works, and decided to wear nylon, and lots of it. I chose a dress that I could wear both to church and into the water. Then I took a cold shower while wearing it, and looked in the mirror, alone, to check for wardrobe malfunction.
I was going to need more undergarments.
I chose underwear: a synthetic girdle that would dry fast and hold things in when I was wet; something thicker than a sports bra, for the same reason; a half slip to keep the skirt from clinging; leggings (but I accidentally wore yoga pants instead) to keep my legs warm; my fuzzy socks; and water shoes to keep the rocks from tearing up my feet.
My husband and I discussed the matter more than once. He reluctantly blessed me to do this, if I really wanted to, but also blessed me to change my mind at the last minute. He said that I shouldn’t tell a lot of people that I planned to do this, so I could back out graciously if need be. But he agreed I would need allies, or, as I called them, co-conspirators. So I told my goddaughter and her mother. They agreed to hold my robe and coat and towels. And they would take pictures.
We also brought a hot water bottle, which I filled at church at coffee hour, and my leg cramp medicine, in case I needed them.
The great day came. Our parish chose the Sunday after Theophany for the blessing of the river, because the feast itself was midweek. It was snowing when we left church, raining as we drove in caravan to the river, and by the time we parked the sun was out, though the shore was lined with ice and snow. We approached the river.
I kept my headscarf and coat on but left my eyeglasses and purse in the car. The hot water bottle was in a thermal bag. My husband opened my door and said, “Still doing this?” I nodded. He smiled resolutely. We’ve been married a long time. My co-conspirators caught up with me and took all my accoutrements, God bless them.
The place where we bless the water is off the main drag by a little and we had to walk down-hill over not yet dry rocks. We formed clumps of people, walking down, and some friends made note of my footgear. “Oh! Matushka is prepared! Look at her shoes!”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going in.”
“Wait. Really? In the water? All the way?”
V. the other person who planned to go in, and his wife and daughters gasped and then beamed. “Really?”
“Yes!” I said, and showed them how my goddaughter’s mom was carrying most of my gear. My goddaughter beamed and said, “I’m going to hold her coat!” Word spread as the service began.
It was a glorious day. The air was fresh from the rain and snow, the ground clean, the sky blue and open. The children scattered down the shore, the girls gathering pretty stones and the toddler boys digging in the stony sand with sticks. There was still ice on the surface around the edge of the river, but in the middle, the water flowed.
The men of the parish held banner and icons, backs to the water, and our rector and my husband blessed the water using long poles with a cross on them.
“Okay,” said Fr. Daniel, “now it’s time, if anyone wants to go in.”
V. bravely drew near the water and I stood next to him. His wife explained the situation to him quickly. “Matushka! You are going in, too?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay! We will go in together!” And he held my hand and we started to wade. I made my cross, prayed silently, and we took one cautious step after another over the slippery stones.
I grew up in New England, and that water was cold, yes, but it wasn’t that much worse than Powder Point Beach, where I had spent most summers. My brother and I watched each other, in those years, and knew it was time to get out of the water when the other one’s lips turned blue.
We walked. My feet were wet, my ankles were wet, my calves, and then there was a sudden drop off, and I found myself gasping while standing in thigh-high water. V. made sure I was okay and took a few more steps, further out, so we would each have space.
“Okay!” he said, and he in Slavonic and I in English said, “In the name of the Father!”
And we dunked.
I tried to stand up and I couldn’t. I was floating, and hanging on, with my toes, to the nearest underwater rocks before the drop off. “And of the Son!” I dunked my head and tried to lower my backside, as well, but I was swimming rather than standing. “And of the Holy Spirit! Amen!” And we were done and V. walked over to me. I tried to stand but my feet could find no purchase, and a current started to carry me, slowly but steadfastly, away. I was in the very situation that I had hoped to keep V. from facing.
V. took it all in quickly, took two big steps, and grabbed my arm and tugged. I floated back toward him. He helped me stand and we walked out together, where we were greeted with hugs and shouts and towels and robes.
My brave husband prayerfully watches.
I was baptized when I was eleven. The monastery used an oil drum, cleaned up and painted blue. On days when my courage fails me and melancholy threatens, I remember the sensation of the cold water on my skin that day, and I am refreshed.
And this? This was a booster shot.
I smiled all the way home. There was going to be a wedding at three, to which we were invited. Fr. Daniel needed to set up the church and greet people, so we drove his son home. He had held a banner on a metal pole for the whole service while not wearing gloves; I let him defrost his hands against the hot water bottle. I didn’t need it. I didn’t need the leg cramp medicine. I only shivered a little. My endorphin level must have been off the charts.
My husband dropped me at home so I could change clothes for the wedding while he drove Fr. Daniel’s son home. “You’ll probably want to take a hot shower!” he said.
“No, I don’t think so! The water has been blessed. I think I will just let it dry.”
My bravodo did not last. When I entered the house, the cold set in. Once more I showered fully clothed, this time in the hottest water I could stand, and I let the sodden clothes fall one layer at a time to the bottom of the tub. I changed into wedding clothes, the warmest I could find of my nicer dresses, and bundled back up again. We were only a little late for the wedding, which was beautiful even if I shivered through the whole thing. It was a day of grace and blessings.If you start the year by jumping into near-freezing water, it changes your perspective. You come to see that everything else, also, won’t be as hard to bear as it looks from the distance.
God gives us what we need — a dress from Mom, water shoes, friends to keep us from floating away to Indiana, bathrobes and coats and a beaming goddaughter to hand them to you. Mercy flows, more strongly than the current of the Little Miami River.
Also, sometimes you’re the one who needs to be dragged back because she’s been swept away. It is a blessing to save and it is a blessing to be saved. On days when fatigue speaks more loudly than reason, when my heart is overcast and everything looks bleak, I remember the sensation of the river water on my skin despite all those layers.
And I smile.
And I might even try it again next year.
Writing prompt: What is something you swore you’d never do, and then did do, and it changed everything?
I am grateful to everyone who still reads my blog after this difficult year of learning and love. I went back to Music School, I visited all three of my former home towns, I got to see and hug all of my siblings and children in a variety of places. I lost important, powerful, relatives and friends and am still reeling. I have been inconsistent in posting things, and one of my pocket full of New Year’s Resolutions is to try to set up more posts in advance, so if something happens, there will still be content. May God bless us all with a good, healthy, fruitful 2022.
“There’s no Prince Spaghetti here. There’s no Hood Ice Cream. There’s no Salada Tea. What do they even eat here? How am I going to feed myself?”
My older brother had just taken a new job at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and his first trip to the grocery store was an exercise in culture shock. We are Bostonians, and that means that we grew up drinking Salada tea with milk and sugar around our grandparents’ dining room table, we ate Hoodsies (ice cream in a cup) at birthday parties, and Wednesday was always Prince Spaghetti Day. Our family did not buy a lot of name brands, but these were staples. When we move from Boston and can no longer smell the ocean, these are among the things that we miss.
I understood his shock, because when he called me, my husband and children and I had been living in Texas, where one also could not find these things. Tea had been the first shock. Salada teabags had sayings on their tags. Some of these were profound, others were bad puns. In Texas, when I drank a cup of tea and looked at the tag, all it said was the name of the brand. I took to drinking coffee, instead. But at restaurants and gas stations, one could not get coffee “regular” (milk and two sugars), which was a New England Thing long before Starbucks had people ordering ventis and lattes. No, because it was hot outside, coffee came not with cream but with non-dairy creamer — in powder form.
I had a sister-in-law to guide me through this strange new world. She and my husband’s brother had moved from Michigan to Houston to work for NASA back when there were fewer Yankees in town, and at the local Kroger no one had heard of rhubarb or Vernors. But after one of the hurricanes, Kroger diverted all their trucks to Texas, to fill the emptied shelves, and these strange products became popular. My children grew to love Vernors, and after we moved to Connecticut, our trips to visit my in-laws in Michigan always ended with a Vernors run. The soda was rationed, saved for birthdays and illnesses.
My sister-in-law explained to me about heat and food, about how Yankee food has to be kept cold and Southern food was designed for warmer weather, and for people who, before air conditioning, needed more salt and sugar, both of which my children’s classmates put on their watermelon slices. People needed sweet iced tea, and buffet foods that could be kept warm without losing their flavor.
She gave me brands to try. Blue Bell Ice Cream turned out out to be as good as Hood. Skinner Pasta had as much of a cult following as Prince Spaghetti, in part because they made Texas shaped pasta for the State’sSesquicententennial and they were so popular that they just kept making them. Over the course of our time in Texas, each of my children glued Texas-shaped pasta to an outline of the State of Texas for “Go Texas Day,” something my son was sad to learn, when we moved, that Connecticut did not celebrate. “That’s okay,” he told his first grade teacher. “Just tell me, when is ‘Go Connecticut Day?'” Alas, there exists no such beast. Texaroni cost no more than any other pasta, so it became part of our Wednesday pasta supper, and also made a nice gift for visitors.
I told my brother he had to adapt, and learn to eat for the region where he was living, and come to appreciate the good things that Missouri had to offer. He tried, but told friends who asked where he was working that he was “living in the State of Misery,” and when he had a chance to teach at Princeton, it wasn’t just the prestige and the salary that attracted him — it was that he could find good Italian food at the local Shoprite.
When you are young, you don’t know what is local and what is everywhere. A friend from Long Island who was planning on visiting Wellesley as a prospective student asked me if Wellesley got New York television stations. I told her no, Wellesley got Boston stations. Her face fell. “I’ll die if I can’t get NBC, CBS, and ABC,” she said. I explained the difference between nation wide networks and their affiliates, and it made more sense to her once she started classes.
The Prompt: What brands did you assume were everywhere, and not find when you moved? How did you cope? Or, what things did you think you would never see again, and were surprised to encounter?
Using brands in your writing: Name brands can ground a story in space and time. In “Summer of My German Soldier,” the narrator hears the family maid singing the “Rinso White” laundry jingle. This small nod to 1940’s Arkansas domestic life also subtly hints at race issues which arise later in the book. The cleaning products your characters use, the brand of coffee that they prefer, the brand of detergent the family can afford, all can be a shorthand introduction to their lives.
What you remember: Some brands don’t exist any more. Some people who preferred these brands also are no longer with us. Write about a product that you remember that you can no longer find, whether because you moved or because it no longer exists.
Write about revisiting something you used to love but don’t buy any more. It can be those disgusting orange candy peanuts or your father’s aftershave, lemon oil furniture polish or your ex-boyfriend’s brand of soap. Smelling and tasting things again brings back a flood of memories that do not exist in words. When you put words to them, you gain some mastery over your past and present. You can find many discontinued products online.
There is one value in a planned encounter. But you could also write about finding an old friend in a strange place. There was one dessert my late mother made that I could not find a recipe for anywhere. We had called them “date nut bars,” and all the recipes that I had found under that name were…wrong. Then at an estate sale, I bought a cookbook that did have the recipe. I made them and brought them to church. “Oh! Chinese Chews,” the ladies said. Had I known the other name, I could have found the recipe sooner.
You were a different person when you ate these foods, used these products, smelled these scents. There may be things you forgot that you did or thought that will come back to you when you explore.
Growing up, I understood that my mother’s mother’s china had a special place in our lives. They were not just dishes; they were “your grandmother’s good china.” We used them for company and birthdays, for special occasions and holidays. Grandma Rooney died before I was born, and these dishes were, with a few other items, my connection to her. These dishes were kept in a special built-in rosewood cupboard in the dining room, and stayed behind glass when it was not a special time.
Dishes can be a shibboleth. When we read “Jane Eyre” in ninth grade, I was struck by how important a treat it was for ailing young Jane to receive a pastry on a special dish:
Bessie had been down into the kitchen, and she brought up with her a tart on a certain brightly painted china plate, whose bird of paradise, nestling in a wreath of convolvuli and rosebuds, had been wont to stir in me a most enthusiastic sense of admiration; and which plate I had often petitioned to be allowed to take in my hand in order to examine it more closely, but had always hitherto been deemed unworthy of such a privilege. This precious vessel was now placed on my knee, and I was cordially invited to eat the circlet of delicate pastry upon it. Vain favour! coming, like most other favours long deferred and often wished for, too late! I could not eat the tart; and the plumage of the bird, the tints of the flowers, seemed strangely faded: I put both plate and tart away.
Some dishes are an honor; others serve a less honorable function. When my children were young, once all of them were sick at once, and we followed suit. I handed out buckets and basins and finally designated one of my cheaper mixing bowls as the Emergency Barf Bucket. After everyone was better, all the receptacles were washed and sterilized and the mixing bowl was put in the kitchen but not with the dishes, just with the canned goods, in case I needed to hand wash something or soak an item of clothing. Everyone knew not to use the plastic green mixing bowl — everyone who lived with us all the time.
Then as a special treat, some weeks later, my husband and I hired the daughter of our son’s pre-school teacher to babysit for the evening. She was a teacher in her own right, and the children really loved her. I told her she could help herself to anything and could even make brownies, if she liked. I put the box of brownie mix on the counter. I should have been more thorough. When we came home, she told us how good the children had been and told us they had even saved a brownie for each of us. I was about to pick one up and bite it when glanced across the kitchen and saw the green mixing bowl in the sink, with brownie batter still clinging to it.
An object that has meaning and history for one person is just a thing to another.
Here’s the background: Everyone has a special dish, a favorite coffee mug, the plate that everyone wants to use or the dish that no one wants. My husband and his brothers each had their own colored cup, and it was unthinkable to drink from the green instead of the blue.
Getting the Dishes You Want: I learn from my friends. One bought her sister a beautiful gold china set that their parents gave away upon the sister’s death. This left a hole in my friend’s heart until she saw a way to fix it. On Ebay, she found the same set and bought it, setting it up in her dining room where it shined on her quilts, statues, paintings, and carpets, part of the warp and weft of her daily life. That inspired me. When my stepmother moved, she had given each of us siblings some of what remained of my mother’s good dishes. I chose the big glass plate with metal decorations that had held so many birthday cakes, the tray that had held the celery that I stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts for hors d’oeuvres as a child, and as many of the Wentworth plates as still were intact. I lamented that there weren’t really enough for a full dinner, so my husband encouraged me to go through an online website to obtain enough matching plates to have eight place settings. The day they arrived, I could hardly breathe with anticipation. Unwrapping them felt good, initially, and I set aside the bubble wrap, removed the stickers, washed the plates, and put them in our new china hutch with the rest of the set. But after, I felt like a fraud. I could not tell which dishes my mother and grandmother had held and which were from strangers. I was almost as unhappy as Jane Eyre. Later, when we had company, pre-COVID, and I served a formal meal on the good china, with flowers and candles such as I could not have done with four children home, some of my joy was restored.
Here’s the prompt: Every family has their own special dishes, for better and for worse. Write about a time when someone let you use the good thing, or when someone made you use the bad thing. Think — who or what kept you from having the one you wanted? Was it love on your part, giving your husband the big cup or your child the plate that wasn’t chipped, or was someone making a statement, or, worse, oblivious to your happiness or sorrow?
Here are examples: You might write about choosing your own china pattern for your wedding, or about seeing dishes like those someone you love had at a yard sale or flea market. Or you could write about what happened when a dish that you didn’t know that you treasured broke.
You might write about a mother and daughter arguing over whether an old, chipped dish should be discarded. To the daughter, it’s old; to the mother, it’s a gift from the departed. Or, vice versa, it may be important to the child to use the pink cup and a parent may try to give her juice in the white one.
How many ways can you reveal a conflict, using dishes, without actually spelling out the source of tension?