It is getting to be that time of year when we all start thinking about getting together for the holidays. Though still a ways off, the discussions of who is going to whose house are starting to occur. And this always brings me back to the holiday meals as a child.
It’s not pretty.
My mother, who I have written about before, was a child of the Great Depression. Part of living in that time made her value possessions to the extreme. What she owned defined her worth, not who she was. Enter my nemesis, the GOOD CHINA.
Oxford Bryn Mawr, ten place settings. Dinner plate, salad plate, soup bowl, butter plate, cup and saucer. Plus various bowls and platters. She loved it. She idolized it. It had its own china cupboard in the dining room. You couldn’t wash it in the dishwasher because of the silver banding on the edge. So precious, so special.
I hated it. Hard to believe that I had sibling rivalry with a set of china, but I did. Yup, I was jealous of an inanimate object. I actually fantasized about throwing each piece down the basement stairs and watching it shatter, all the while laughing a maniacal laugh. I even did a stand up comedy bit about my rivalry with the good china.
And the worst part of it was, she hardly ever used it. There it was, all comfy and on display in the china cupboard in the dining room, which we never used either. My mother had the formal dining room and the formal living room, and both rooms NEVER got used. It was like living in a museum. All we needed were the brass poles and velvet ropes to block it off. We would cram ourselves into the kitchen on a small table for all of our meals instead of using the damned dining room.
Except at the holidays. Then, all of a sudden, we were supposed to be that Norman Rockwell family. Four times a year, we were the perfect family eating the perfect meal.
The stress was enormous. My mother would become obsessive about the family being together for the holidays. She would start two months ahead, badgering my sister and me as to when we would be there, what we had to make, etc. And no guests. We were not allowed to bring a friend or a date because “they weren’t family”. I remember a time when my sister wanted to bring her friend Buddy to Christmas dinner. Buddy was hilariously funny, and would have been a break from the usual tension that surrounded these meals. He was Jewish. My Mom responded with “no, it’s not his holiday”. Yikes. (Turns out, I did my Ancestry DNA test, and I am 26% Eastern European Jewish on my Dad’s side. Had I known , I could have gotten out of that meal…)
The actual meal was full of tension as we all tried to fulfill my Mom’s wish for the ideal holiday family. We would all smile and nod, while secretly wishing for it to just be over. And its not like we weren’t an ideal family during the rest of the year. But at the holidays, the bar was set really, really high.
So the china became the symbol to me of what a family meal shouldn’t be. It held a place of honor all year, to be paraded out on those occasions that she deemed worthy. I vowed that in my own home, I would never have rooms that I wouldn’t use, or dishes that only come out for the pomp and circumstance. And I have held to that with my own family.
Over time, both my father and my sister passed away. I relocated my mother to be closer to me. And of course, we moved the china. Where it took up all kinds of space in her tiny kitchen. And she continued not to use it.
I asked her one time about why she didn’t use it, just to enjoy it. Here it was, taking up all of this space, and she never would take it out and have a meal on it. She thought about it, and then said she was going to use it. Just her, even if it was a grilled cheese sandwich. I was thrilled! Finally!
But she never did. There it sat. When it came time that she could no longer live on her own, we had to move her again. So I boxed up the china, and packed it into my garage. I labeled the boxes and stored it for her. And my intention was to sell it.
But I couldn’t. Somehow, even though the china represented everything that I hated about a family meal, I couldn’t bring myself to sell it. It meant so much to her, whatever her reason, that I just could not sell it. I refused to use it for my own family, that was too much for me. So it languished in boxes.
When we moved my mother into a nursing home, I decided it was time to sell the china. I tried selling it online, but no one wants dishware like that anymore. The tradition of the china, silver and crystal pattern being part of the marriage ritual is really just about gone. So, no buyers. I decided to take it to a local auction house. And it sold….for ten bucks. Wow. All of that importance over the years, and someone bought all ten place settings plus serving pieces for ten bucks.
So here is my takeaway from all of this. Whatever her reasons, this was important to my Mom. And although I didn’t understand it, I learned to respect it. She made it hard on us, and I still get anxious around the holidays. But at some point, you have to stop looking at your parents as only your parents. They are people, with their own history and baggage. They have their flaws and their challenges. And she did try her best, with what she had to work with, to be a good parent. Maybe her best wasn’t ideal, but it was her best.
So along with letting go of the china, I let go of my hatred for it.
And I am looking forward to the holiday meals, however they turn out. And all are welcome.