Karen Ginther Graham
I stand in front of the fine china display on the third floor of a department store where rich people shop. The atmosphere is all hush-hush and muted voices like in a library but without the solid reassurance of books. Instead, sample china pieces are arranged on glass shelves backlit by a translucent wall. “Pick one,” my soon-to-be mother-in-law, Eleanor, says. She then steps away to converse in a low tone with the sales clerk.
I remain planted in front of the showcase as directed. My palms sweat and my hands grip tightly to the handle of my purse in an unsuccessful attempt to ground myself to something real. Eleanor and I barely know each other. Things started off awkwardly between us. What a shock it must’ve been for her to learn of her son’s hasty marriage plans and about the child that’s on the way. Nevertheless, after taking a week to recover from the news she reached out to me.
For my part, I want to soothe things over, show her I’m intent on being a devoted wife to her son and a good mother to her future grandchild. I’m anxious for her to like me, which is how I came to be in my current predicament. This place might be part of Eleanor’s world, but it’s an alien one to me. Entering these ritzy stores with their stuffy atmospheres and scowling salespeople has always intimidated me. I’ve never ventured very far beyond their entryways, and certainly not up here in their inner sanctions.
My own mother knows nothing about china, and couldn’t care less. If her household is short on dishes she picks up the odd one at a rummage sale or Pic ‘n Save. Scratched plastic ware was it for us. I grew up, distanced myself from my mother’s impoverished mindset, and forged my own tastes. Though discriminating, those tastes don’t include what this store has to offer. To hold one’s pinky in the air while sipping from a delicate teacup isn’t my style. The last time I cared about fussy china was for doll parties around age six. After that, fast bicycles and trees with strong limbs held far more appeal.
For me, quality translates into the latest ultra-light camping gear, including mess kits to go into my backpack and up mountainsides. It’s a passion of mine Eleanor’s son happens to find impressive.
Yet my future mother-in-law’s graciousness in reaching out makes me want to return the gesture, so I endure. Is this a test? Is my upbringing being subtly scrutinized? Even at twenty-five, this situation causes the low self-esteem of my youth to come rushing back. The coarseness of my childhood must be obvious. Any good breeding in my background is accidental. All I have are wit and instinct to rely on, and they’ve abandoned me at the moment. I dare not ask Eleanor’s opinion for fear that even the way in which I pose the question will reveal ignorance. I long to be anywhere but here, like a wild animal caught in a snare.
Distracted by my discomfort, I spend no time in deliberation. Amid the simple patterns before me an elaborate one catches my eye. Delicate maroon and pink cabbage roses with tiny green leaves appear to be in motion against an ivory background. I pick up the plate and turn it over because it seems like the thing to do. Johnson Brothers, it reads, Made in England, Genuine Hand Engraving, Rose Chintz. There’s an intricate seal and the words: By Appointment to H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. I take care to set the plate back down soundlessly. “This one,” I say. Eleanor remains silent but gives a modest smile and a quiet nod of approval while handing her credit card to the clerk. Her glance reassures me. It’s a good omen.
When our son is two, my husband Mark and I move fifteen hundred miles away from home for his career. The dining room of our new house has a built-in china hutch. At last, I have somewhere to display my pretty dishes. The style of the oak hutch, and that of the china, is in perfect harmony. I choose wallpaper for the room in a simple cream and tan trellis print as a flattering backdrop to the china’s lively pattern. The cabinet’s shelves have preset grooves for a traditional arrangement, dinner plates tilted upright in back; salad plates next, tea cups and saucers in front. I’m proud of the way the display is noticed by everyone who visits. I keep the hutch dust-free and oiled to a deep shine.
For each of our wedding anniversaries, at Christmastime, and sometimes on my birthday, place settings are sent from my in-laws. Even after Mark and I have service for twelve, additional pieces arrive. By far the most elaborate is the tea pot. I lift it from the familiar corrugated gray box decorated with pictures of dishes and think for the first time how closely the china resembles a little girl’s play set. This realization doesn’t lessen my infatuation with it.
On winter holidays, Mark and I aren’t concerned that we’re a diminutive party of three with no extended family nearby. Instead, we make our own traditions. Dressed in comfy woolen socks, fleece, and flannel, we begin at sunrise and spend entire days cooking great feasts for ourselves, huge turkeys with all the trimmings, everything made from scratch. On the dining table, cranberry candles are lit and the festive Rose Chintz sparkles. We ooh and ah at the sight of our cornucopia, and then sit down to a delicious meal. My gratitude toward Mark, his mother, and providence wells up within me.
Time passes, our son grows up, and the marriage doesn’t endure. I’d always been a scrapper; verbal fisticuffs were all I knew. I had no knowledge of how to remove my proverbial boxing gloves and had no other coping skills. Mark had been too nice; he could no longer endure the verbal combat. After twenty years of trying, contentiousness cost me my marriage.
The day I move out is one of long last looks. I want to take the china, but don’t know the protocol of this situation and am determined to do the right thing. The set came from Mark’s family, so it seems to me it isn’t mine to take. I stand before the china and concentrate on searing its image into my memory. Then I turn away and leave it behind. Soon after, Mark requests I come get it. I don’t pause to question his motives but run out for packing material and plastic tubs, and then make a beeline to retrieve the entire set.
There’s no place in my small house to display the set. Their storage bins take up valuable space in the spare bedroom that’s needed for more pertinent things. To use the china means I have to remove the bubble wrap, wash each piece before and after use, and then put it all away again. What a lot of bother. It sits packed and unused. My tastes evolve to sleeker, more modern styles. The Rose Chintz looks old-fashioned and countrified. In addition, it represents a failed marriage.
I ask my former sisters-in-law if they want it. They have china of their own and do not. I list it on eBay, but receive not a single nibble. No doubt I’ve set the price too high. A mail-order company dealing in replacement china wants to buy certain pieces. They make a pitiful purchase offer. I decline. An antiques dealer expresses interest in taking the whole set on consignment. She says she loves it, and then I learn she intends to use my dishes as decoration in her cabinets and on her tables to enhance their sales. I collect my pieces and leave. It seems the more I try to get rid of the china, the more I realize my attachment to it. Back into the bins it goes, once again lined up along the wall in the spare bedroom.
I like to decorate for holidays. On St. Patrick’s Day, a cauldron is filled and brimming over with gold coins. Miniature leprechauns dance in circles around it. In April, white ceramic rabbits begin to appear. They gather in small clusters throughout the house, discreet but multiplying year by year. In the fall, out comes my eclectic pumpkin collection. For Halloween, the dining table is covered with a tattered black tablecloth. The cauldron now holds a stew of bones, bats, and spiders. Each February, a three-foot-tall white Christmas tree transitions into a Valentine centerpiece with glittery pink and white bulbs and heart-shaped ornaments I’ve collected over time.
This year, Valentine’s Day falls on the day I’m scheduled to host a book club luncheon. While preparing for it, I glimpse my china through its clear plastic bins and give a start. How had I overlooked so obvious a decorating opportunity in the past? The red and pink roses lend charm to the romantic holiday. My valentine-themed luncheon is a hit, and I fall back in love with the Rose Chintz. I realize that despite my evolving tastes, various styles aren’t mutually exclusive. Old and new, rustic and refined, classic and contemporary, with the right kind of flair all can coexist and even flatter one another. I can have the best of each.
A new man enters my life. It means a second chance at love. He’s due to arrive for dinner any minute. I’ve cooked up something special, and begin to remove china pieces from storage. With each plate, cup, and saucer I unwrap, unavoidable memories rush forward. This bittersweet reminisce is like a luxury tax for enjoying the dishes. I try to focus on the sweet.
Maybe there’s a daughter-in-law in my future to whom the Rose Chintz can be passed, someone who will cherish the set and always find room for it. A tense moment all those years ago, a selection made in haste, has become an endearing family heirloom symbolizing the hopefulness of shiny new beginnings and the lasting result of well-intentioned generosity.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
I am humbled by the task of describing beauty because it is interpretative, as unique a thing as the soul of every human being. Beauty is everywhere, in everything. When heartfelt assistance arrives at the scene of a tragedy, even then, in so dire a situation, the act of unselfish kindness creates beauty. On a derelict city street, a single flower pushes its way through a crack. Beyond it towers an awe-inspiring creation of steel and glass. Nearby is an elegant structure erected in a bygone era. Thousands pass each other every day without a nod, yet here and there, a passerby exchanges a kind gesture or simple smile with another, creating beauty.
Yet for me, the essence of beauty lies beyond concrete and cars. The natural world is where I retreat to immerse myself, body and soul, in earth’s generous bounty. Mountains and hills, wheat fields and high meadows, brooks and waterfalls, soaring trees—these are the images of beauty that give my spirit ease. It is here that we human beings leave our mark in the least obtrusive manner, merely by way of a narrow footpath to allow quiet ingress. I meander through a terrain of browns and greens amid a dappled blue and white sky. My fingers brush tall grasses and wild flowers still wet with morning dew. I hear a symphony of birdsong and inhale the scent of pine wafting on a fresh breeze. I am in nature, the world’s grandest beauty
Karen Ginther Graham’s creative non-fiction piece LETTING GO is featured in the 2017 winter edition of The Dragon Review, an on-line publication. Karen is the author of an autumnal romance fiction book titled FINDING ROSE ROCKS, first place winner of the 2014 Oklahoma City Writer’s contest and second place with Chesapeake Romance Writers. More at: facebook.com/GintherGraham/