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October 12, 2015

My grandmother’s china

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“I have your grandmother’s china for you,” her mother said. “She took good care of it.”

I highlighted this line from a story in Kelli Deeth’s The Other Side of Youth when I read it, the china emblematic of all the ways in which the lives of women my age have failed to progress in the manner that previous generations might have foreseen. All these boxes of china wrapped up in paper and boxed up in basements, and it means nothing now. I grew up in a house with a china cabinet, is what I mean, and it is very unlikely that I will ever have such an item myself, let alone a place to stand it.

Which is not to say that the domestic has no hold, that we don’t give any value to stuff. My Pyrex fixation certainly speaks to that (and I realize now that since the photo in the link was taken, I’ve acquired a set of turquoise Cinderella bowls, and also put a halt on all non-essential Pyrex acquisitions to keep things from getting too out of control). But what I don’t need is a massive collection of dishes and cups to be hauled out on special occasions, just the same way that I don’t need a parlour for afternoon callers. What I like about Pyrex is its usefulness, and then it occurs to me that there is a similar way around the grandmother’s china as well—what if I actually used it?

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I have no recollection of ever seeing this china before—I didn’t pay attention to things like plates as a child, particularly if they were patterned with wildflowers. It is also possible that my grandmother didn’t set the table quite so formally when I was coming to visit. Although I do know my own mother’s wedding china intimately. I have no wedding china, but I have a vast collection of cracked and chipped dinner plates that it’s starting to seem shameful to feed my children from, and so I asked my mother if perhaps I could take a look at my grandmother’s china. If we could use them for everyday. Would that be more or less troubling, I wondered, than the plates remaining boxed up until the end of days, or else given away to a consignment store (where I would have totally bought them if I’d happened upon them)?

And so we took them, and now they’re here, unpacked in the kitchen. Some of them need cleaning—the gravy boat is still stained from some dinner more than a decade ago. But for the most part, the plates and cups are in excellent condition. Plates of various sizes, 10 of one, 8 of another, 11 side plates, 11 saucers and 9 tea cups. I wonder what they started with? Only 2 soup bowls—what happened to the rest of them? Or was soup more an intimate course, something best suited to a couple?

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Predictably, I’m now a bit obsessed with my grandmother’s china. Who knew? Spode China in the cowslip pattern with a chelsea wicker design. There turns out to be a busy online marketplace for fervid Spode collectors, and now I’m lusting after Spode eggcups and a teapot. I also admire the buttercup pattern (seen here). The former curator of the Spode Museum Trust blogs about all things Spode here (and this is why I love blogs so: there is almost nothing under the sun that has not been blogged about yet).  Spode was founded by Josiah Spode in 1770 in Stoke-On-Trent—Josiah Spode was almost an exact contemporary of another pottery-maker called Josiah but instead of a Spode he was a Wedgewood.

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We spent this morning at the museum, which re-enlivened my delight in the thingness of things, and it occurs to me how much of my boredom with and dismissal of my grandmother’s things has to do with the idea that this is baggage, something to be carried and put somewhere. (My grandmother never ever put her china in the dishwasher, my mother tells me. We don’t have a dishwasher, so we will quite easily be able to continue in the same tradition.) But with the idea that these things could be used rather than put up on a shelf to be dusted—it changes everything. The best part about things in museums is what they tell us about ordinary life, and so it seems fitting that my grandmother’s china should become part of our ordinary life as well.

Which ensures, I suppose, that each piece will be eventually get broken and never be passed down to anybody, leaving nothing for us to be known by, our ordinary life an enigma to those who come after us, should they even care to wonder. A paradox—the Pompeii exhibit is case in point; does it matter if your frescoes are preserved if you’re dead? But I wonder if it isn’t better to simply live in the moment after all. From a person’s point of view, I mean, if not from that of an archivist.

15 thoughts on “My grandmother’s china”

  1. theresa says:

    “The best part about things in museums is what they tell us about ordinary life, and so it seems fitting that my grandmother’s china should become part of our ordinary life as well.” How lovely — and the china is too. My friend has her grandmother’s Meissen and each plate has a different flower, hand-painted. She remembers her grandmother’s food on them and not know which flower was on her plate until she finished her meal. The plates came with the family from Germany to Vancouver and then a wild coastal bay where my friend’s parents ran an oyster business in two former logging camp bunkhouses dragged to the beach and turned into a house. A home. What better museum than a family kitchen, the plates holding both food and that family’s own domestic history?

    1. Kerry says:

      Oh, your friend’s plates sounds wonderful! Such a good story.

  2. Rohan says:

    I love this post – and your grandmother’s china. My own grandmother insisted on using her ‘fancy’ china — Royal Albert — and as a result had almost none to pass on. My mother-in-law carefully preserved hers, left it to us, and now it is really only an inconvenience. It is a lovely pattern but has platinum edges that would be ruined, apparently, in the dishwasher. And we are not interested in reverting to handwashing after all these happy years using a dishwasher. But we can’t get rid of it: antiques dealers aren’t interested (the china market is apparently “soft”) and it’s not really collectible stuff. I like your idea of just putting it to use and devil take the consequences.

    We mostly use horrible cheap white Corelle plates and bowls for everyday use. I understand the utilitarian payoffs here but I do find the ugliness disheartening. I dream of sturdy, practical, but attractive Denby dishes in deep blues and greens. One of these days …

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you, Rohan. And I have Denby dreams as well. I’m hoping someone will bequeath these to me as well.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Oh, yes. I have boxes of china in my basement that belonged to my great-grandmother. I’d love to bust them out and put them to good use, too. But there are two problems. First, I really don’t love the English rose pattern. Second, my aunt (who was given these by her own grandmother) has decided the tradition should be that these dishes are handed down to every *other* generation. Since she only has grandsons (who apparently should never be bequeathed china), she has given them to my Irene. Great. Now I get to be the storing house of heirloom china.

    1. Kerry says:

      At least you have a basement, Rebecca! If I did, it would make all this so much easier (and eventually, someone else’s problem). Also, yes, I’m lucky I like the pattern. Inheriting hideous china would be inconvenient indeed.

  4. Lindy says:

    Kerry,
    You are such a fantastic, wonderful, talented writer. I absolutely loved this post, especially this line, “…the china emblematic of all the ways in which the lives of women my age have failed to progress in the manner that previous generations might have foreseen.”
    Guilty as charged. My Victorian china tea-cups with their 22 carat gold etchings sit wrapped, stacked, and tucked in a box labelled, OLD CHINA TEACUPS. Ditto the china dinnerware. And most of the silver which I quickly tired of cleaning. The only difference being the labels on the boxes.
    And then I got to this… “We spent this morning at the museum, which re-enlivened my delight in the thingness of things…” So fabulous. I’m going downstairs now to retrieve a box marked, “Bunnykins and Peter Rabbit china.” I may just have enough if i mix and match them for a dinner party. Imagine my new delight in the thingness of things! If only you lived closer and could could come for dinner and we could revel together in the thingness of things like Spode and Pyrex and Peter Rabbit.

  5. Joan Clare says:

    This beautiful Kerry. Grandma Reynolds would be so happy. Enjoy!
    xxoo

  6. Jennifer says:

    This is my grandmither’s china! My mother does use it as her everyday dishes and truely appreciates eating off of beautiful plates. I once saw the yellow daisy pattern china set at an antique store. I didn’t buy it, and am still regretting my decision. I look forward to the day my family will be using these beautiful dishes.

    1. Kerry says:

      I am glad to hear we’re not the only ones indulging in Spode every day. I hope the collection makes it down the line to you!!

  7. Melwyk says:

    I love this post. I have a large, full set of “Friendly Village” china — but it wasn’t my grandmother’s. It originally belonged to the mother of the neighbour of a coworker….who didn’t want to be burdened with all of it. I was the only person who wanted it! It is so lovely 🙂

      1. Kerry says:

        I love china like that! We had some when I was little, and I spent so much time imagining the life going on in all those rustic scenes!

  8. Alexis Kienlen says:

    My boyfriend doesn’t believe in saving things for special occasions. So he uses china every day. I think it was his grandmother’s.

  9. Margie says:

    You are so lucky to have these. Your grandmother probably had to save up for them or they were a cherished gift. They are absolutely gorgeous.

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