My Mother’s China

My mama died just over a year ago. Born in 1950, she was a child of the Baby Boom. As children, she and her sister were given a sterling silver teaspoon, fork or knife for Christmas, birthdays, and other occasions from a couple of well-meaning aunts. When they were both young ladies of marriageable age they each had a full service of silver for their hope chests.

Hope chests were a thing back then. A young woman or girl would have a cedar chest or something similar where she would keep her silver service, embroidered linens, crocheted bedspreads, and handmade lace for her wedding gown. All the women in her family would help her to fill it so she could take it to her new life with her husband, a replacement for the even more archaic concept of a dowry.

As a Gen X-er I had no such thing. The women’s lib movement freed me from the burden of hope that I might be married and settled as soon as possible. There wasn’t an expectation on me to subjugate myself and make a home and family when I got out of school. I did not marry at eighteen like my mother. I was thirty-four and already had a household of my own when my husband and I joined forces.

I have inherited a lot of stuff from my mother: a Bavarian china service for twelve, etched water goblets, various pieces of Belleek, and other bits of china. I am in possession of her sterling flatware set and a Victorian-era Prussian chocolate set. They are all beautiful and represent my mother in ways that warm my heart. Every time I look at them I can feel how much she prided herself in them, how they meant something to her.

From her generation and generations before her, things like china and silver and crystal were a status symbol. They were objects that lifted them above the poverty of their ancestors, stating that they had arrived enough in the middle class to be able to afford and keep such costly and beautiful things meant only for special occasions. She treasured these, and the things she had inherited from women before her. 

Now the second hand of time is sweeping faster and attitudes are changing. I married, yes, but I chose not to have children (which is a whole other messy topic). It does make me sad at times to recognize I shall not have anyone to whom I can pass the good fortunes of my life, my mother’s life,  and her mother’s before her. The collection of status symbols from generations past that I now own are as antiquated as the millstone I have tied to my neck.

That’s right. I don’t want them. I might be saturated with guilt about it, but I cannot deny I will never use them. I don’t throw lavish dinner parties or hen parties that require these ornamental items now gathering dust in my house. Am I to be bound to these things until I die? Shall I shunt them from house to house, packing and unpacking them? It would be the only time I ever handle them or even think about them.

I thought of selling them online. I browsed through listings and found a glut of the very pieces I own. Two things became apparent: first, I do not have a china cabinet full of valuable rarities. Secondly, I am not the only woman my age who feels laden with the responsibility of her mother’s china. In most instances the pieces are being sold at rock-bottom prices which further adds to my suspicion that the kind of buyer for this type of item is vanishing. There is no one left who craves to possess the hand-painted luncheon set, the hob-nailed glass dessert plates, or the leaded crystal lemonade pitchers with matching glasses.

In the next few months I am going to be moving from a house of 1450 square feet to a condominium of 900 square feet. My husband and I are purging the excess possessions of our life together to make ourselves fit. There is a certain liberation in bringing bags of clothing and boxes of books to the Goodwill. It makes me lighter, exhilarated. Don’t mistake me–I love and cherish my books but there are many that I shall never read again and would love to pass on to someone who can enjoy them.

But the china and the crystal and the silver: they aren’t as easy to dump at the Goodwill. For one thing, someone in the past spent a great deal of hard-earned money on them. They were chosen with care and kept safe behind the glass of a china cabinet, some for a hundred years or more. I am having a hard time finding my way free of them without shattering my heart like fine porcelain. I know I don’t have the room to take it all with me. And yet I don’t want to send them off into the world without knowing that someone will take care of them, love them, wash them by hand and protect them from dust.

It is only pure guilt that keeps me from parting with them. But in another way I feel like I am giving away a piece of me, a little shard of my heart, my heritage, my identity. I wonder what Mama would say if she could read this. It gives me a thrill of dread to think about it. She was the sweetest, gentlest soul I had the privilege to know, but she was fierce about her stuff.

For instance, when Hurricane Irma was bearing down upon Naples (we scored a direct hit–the eye of the storm passed over our house) my parents came to stay with us. Mom wanted to bring a “few things” with her because they didn’t have hurricane shutters for the place where  they were living. “A few things” turned into four boxes of books and all her scrapbooking supplies. My poor father nearly stroked out moving it all. (If I had known what he was doing would I have helped him, or scolded my mother for being so materialistic? Probably the former. Mom had a lot of health problems and it was tough to say no to her on anything.)

I know this is a first world problem. It’s about stuff that I don’t need or want. But when an object is a piece of your past, all tangled in your heartstrings and guts, it’s still a painful conundrum. I am grateful for all I have. I want to live with less. It’s an awkward spot, to be moving towards the excitement of the future and progress for women and be clamped by the ankle to the weight of something as ridiculous as dinnerware. I recognize the dichotomy completely and see myself almost a fool for caring so much. And yet, my mother was one of my best friends and I want to honor her. I don’t want to dispose of everything she held dear with a flippant drop-off at the local thrift store. It would be tantamount to dumping her ashes on the curb. See ya, Mom. Hope someone will take care of you.

I don’t see men with this problem either. Why is it that women are so much more fixated on keeping mementos from the past? When my father and I went through my mother’s things she had dozens of envelopes of ephemera she meant to use in scrapbooking but never had the chance. My father requires very little by way of possessions. It was my mother who really hung onto everything like she would drown without it.

In the meantime, all that stuff is now drowning me.

There is no easy answer to this question. I need to find a way to release my guilt over my mother’s things. I must decide something quickly or start renting a storage space. They are popping up all over the place in my town: a testament that the middle class can’t let go of their shit. I am on the tipping point. 

Please let me fall soon.