China Tales

By Linda DeMers Hummel

My friend married into a family of means, New England types who for generations had been distinguished bankers and lawyers. They were known for keeping a stiff upper lip, a group who never discussed money, disease, or gossiped about anything worthy of gossip. And for generations no one had ever had to buy a set of fine china when they married. Full place settings for twelve in Royal Worcester or Wedgewood were waiting for them immediately after the wedding reception, thanks to grandparents or great aunts and uncles who had either died or no longer felt the need to set each place with a bone dish or a charger under every plate.

It was the 1970s, and young married women like us were not drawn to such formality. We were more the ceramic pottery Pfaltzgraff types who tied napkins with twine and a pinecone and basked in our creativity. My friend was grateful for the gift of her china, though a little overwhelmed at the thought that she would have to haul it all out and pretend she knew what she was doing in front of her brand-new in-laws.

Her dilemma was short lived.

Her husband, carrying a carton of the fine bone china that had once graced the table of a long-lost relative, lost his footing on ice on the way to their apartment. In horror they looked at the dinner plates–all twelve of them–in pieces, all over the icy cement.

My friend looked at her new husband and, with problem-solving ability I have admired for years, said: “Well, we can’t ever have your parents over for dinner.” They made an instant pact, right there on the sidewalk, and stuck to it all the years they needed to. Luckily, his parents lived an entire state away. Luckily, they didn’t get out much. Luckily, they never seemed to notice.

When I got married, we bought an inexpensive ceramic pottery knock-off pattern I was in love with. My mother told me it would go out of style immediately. I didn’t care. I used the plates every day, for everything from eggs in the morning to (eventually) the meatloaf we’d beg our kids to eat in the evening. My mother was right about its hippie-flower pattern going out of style by 1980, but I still didn’t care. I supplemented with cheap stuff I found on sale that sufficed if I served dinner for more than six people at a time. I was fine.And then when I was in my thirties, my mother called with an opening line that often put fear into my heart: “I have a surprise for you.”

Her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Pichkoskey, had a garage sale. She was selling her complete china set for twelve. My mother bought it. All of it. For me.

She described it as a classic pattern, something I’d be able to use forever. “Won’t it be nice to have a really nice set of china for company?” she asked.

As I opened the box, I worked on my happy face for my mother, who clearly thought this was the deal of a lifetime. The china looked like it had never been used, a result I guessed from some serious buyer’s remorse on the part of Mrs. Pichkoskey.

Because it’s ugly. That’s probably too strong. Let’s say it’s dull. Each piece is circled in gray leaves and vines. Gray. It was manufactured in the 1950s, a time when American housewives everywhere were saying; Let’s not get too crazy about anything. Gray is fine.

I used the china begrudgingly for the first ten years or so. It made my mother happy. At the very least everyone had a matching plate. And then came the holiday when my mother was no longer at the table, and that’s when I realized the china carried its own memories. I didn’t see it coming.

And now my friend and I are grandmothers, and the family gatherings fall to us. My clever friend has taken to using the salad plates of the grand pattern she inherited so long ago. With the sauce plates and the bread plates, she serves tapas meals her family loves, a long way from the beef wellington those plates saw in previous lives. It’s the strangest tapas presentation ever. She doesn’t care.

At my house this past Thanksgiving my daughter was helping me set the table. The house was noisy – raucous at times – with lots of kids and a new baby. My sons talked to each other about fishing as they settled toy disputes among cousins. My brother sharpened the carving knife – ready for his official duty. The living room was whirling with activity.

I watched my daughter carefully pull the china out of the cupboard.

It’s still ugly. I don’t care either.

About this writer

  • Linda DeMers Hummel

    Linda DeMers Hummel

    Linda DeMers Hummel is a Baltimore-based writer who has recently completed a memoir, “I Haven’t Got All Day.” She spends a lot of time lately hoping to get good news from her agent.

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3 Responses to “China Tales”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Enjoyable story. My daughter bought two sets with a rose pattern for her children, but neither wanted them.

  2. John Bates says:

    Great Story, I haven’t heard Jean Pichowski name in so many years. Love your stories.

  3. Lovely story. I wonder what’s going to happen to all the crystal and china that Baby Boomers accumulated as wedding gifts. No one wants my ivy-patterned Franciscan china or silver plated flatware.

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