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The China Road

January 8, 2015

Until I was seven years old, my mother had never had a set of matching dishes. She almost got some early in her marriage, but she never even saw it. Here’s how the story goes: my dad, in a fit of generosity one payday, bought her a set of service for eight, complete with platters, a teapot, and two vegetable bowls. Pleased with himself and in the mood to share his surprise, he stopped at the local tavern on the way home and had gotten a little drunk.

Now, let me set the stage. Mama and Daddy lived on the banks of the Little Tennessee River in those early years, and their house was accessed only by foot across a swinging footbridge. It was tethered by ropes, and a few of the planks were missing, so you had to walk carefully to keep from tripping, or worse, falling into the river. Daddy, too tipsy to walk straight even on solid ground, attempted to carry that china in his arms on a windy night across the rickety bridge. Long story short, the china ended up smashed on the rocky shoals below. He did manage to save the lid to the teapot, but that’s all.

Skip forward about fifteen years, when my sister was accepted into a prestigious private college in upstate New York. I can only imagine the sacrifices Mama and Daddy made to send her there. Of course, at the time, I had no inkling of any sacrifices. At 7, I didn’t notice that my mother hadn’t had a new dress in years, that my father’s shoes were shabby, or that sometimes, he came home from work nearly too tired to eat dinner. All I cared about was how much fun we were all having. My mama was pretty and full of laughter, and my daddy could play the fiddle and was brimming with wonderful stories that all the kids in the neighborhood came to hear.

Off at college, Becky became something of an overnight sensation. I have heard that Tennessee women are known for their beauty and charm, and it must be true, for up there in New York, the boys found her irresistible. Before long, she wrote to tell us that one of her boyfriends was dying to see the Smokies and had somehow finagled an invitation to come visit over Spring Break. This threw my mother into a panic. A rich boy from the Northeast was going to be coming to our humble home, and we didn’t have matching dishes! She did the only thing she could think to do: she rushed out and bought a set. She probably had to put them on the payment plan or get a loan from the bank, but by golly, she was not going to embarrass her daughter by serving said boy dinner on mismatched, chipped plates.

As oblivious as I was to our circumstances, I still remember those dishes, how they looked so pretty on the table, how I always set them out so carefully and lined up the silverware, which as far as I know, also may have been purchased at the same time for the same reason, but that I don’t remember. I don’t remember the glasses, either, but that Jewel T china was about the prettiest thing I had ever seen.

The visit went well, as far as I remember. The boy seemed smitten with my sister and didn’t seem to mind sleeping in the upper bunk bed with my brother in the same tiny room. I got to sleep in the double bed with my sister, who was glamourous, beautiful, ten years older than I was, and my absolute hero. Becky and friend spent every day of their Spring break hiking through the Smokies, returning home in time to Mama’s fabulous dinners of pot roast or fried chicken or pork chops cooked to death (pork is dangerous. You have to really cook it good and done). But as good as her cooking was, it was all the more fabulous served on those beautiful Jewel T plates.

The boyfriend didn’t last. Becky broke up with him shortly afterwards, probably because he didn’t love the outdoors as much as she did, and a few months afterward, he wrote her a pitiful letter that made me sob for him and his broken heart. Becky told me I could have him, but I didn’t want him, either. He was too citified for my taste, too. The next year another one came to go hiking in the mountains with her, and my mother, my sister, and I were so very glad to be able to set the table with all that matching Jewel T china.

Starting then, we all three developed an obsession with dishes. I remember the excitement when Becky registered for her wedding china over 45 years ago. Her fine set was Bracelet, by Old Ivory, I think, although it might have been something similar by Lennox—an ivory background with a simple gold band. Her everyday set was Dellia Robbia. After that she discovered Autumn by Lennox, and then she was off and running.

Once I took her to Replacements, LTD, a warehouse the size of a football stadium filled from floor to ceiling with every imaginable pattern of china, crystal, and silver. I thought Becky was going to have a stroke. Shortly into the tour through the warehouse, she disappeared from the group. Much later, I found her wandering through the tall cases of china. Her eyes were glazed over and darting around uncontrollably. Her hands fluttered above her head, she was hopping up and down, and occasionally she spun in little circles as she shrieked, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” I thought I was going to have to blindfold her and lead her out of there before she keeled over.

By the time Becky died in 2004, she had collected so much china that it filled every cupboard and dresser drawer in her house. She owned five or six china cabinets, all filled with fine crystal and china, and closets full of linens and silver. She scoured flea markets and antique malls in search of china patterns that were just too pretty to pass up. We spend the day before she died out in the junk stores looking for more. She was literally sick enough to die, and she outlasted me. I was ready to go home long before she was. What a happy memory!

When she ran out of room in her two houses, she started giving sets to Mama, her children, and to me and to my children. Mama and I were happy to get most of it—while our addictions were never as bad as Becky’s, we, too, were known to be right beside her scouring the junk stores for something too beautiful to pass up. Our children, however, have found the embarrassment of china riches a little much. When Becky’s daughter, Britt, moved to her own place, she set a rule: “You must call before you come over, and you can’t bring anything.” I never set such limits, not because I wanted more, but because it was always such fun to see how happy it made her to see someone else appreciate the beauty of fine china.

I have the same tendency to want others to be smitten by the beauty of translucent, delicately painted plates and teacups. While I can’t possibly buy more for myself, I do tend to encourage others to expand their collections. If I am out junking with a friend and we come across an exquisite set that I think matches the personality of the person I am with, I bully them into buying it. Not surprisingly, though, not one has complained about having an extra set of china or two. On the contrary, they thank me for opening their eyes to the possibilities. Once you realize it’s okay to have more than one set of fine china, worlds of delights blossom before you.

Most of my china is put away, up in the attic, waiting for a child or a grandchild who wants it. In my china cabinet(s) sits Becky’s set of Bracelet, along with my own wedding china, Blue Regency, and a couple other sets I found at the junk stores. I drag them out for holiday dinners and tea parties, and every time I do, I think of Mama’s Jewel T and our 1200 square foot concrete block house on Redwood Avenue and how much laughter rang out there. As I pour tea and admire the way the light plays on the gold rims or turns the blue band on the cup iridescent, I sometimes find myself wishing to my soul I was seven years old and excitedly waiting for Becky to come home with her new boyfriend so we could show off our spiffy table, laden with Mama’s fried chicken, biscuits, gravy, and green beans that have been cooked all day with a slab of pork.

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2 Comments
  1. I found the blog in my junk file and I’m so happy I found it! I remember the story of the dishes and George trying to walk the swinging bridge. Mother has Della Robbia??dishes courtesy of Rebekah. Michelle has them now! I love collecting but hey have to be blue. Gwen gave me four blue calico cups and now I’m off on a search of antique stores for the plates, etc. Again, I truly enjoyed your blog on dishes!

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