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:
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?