Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Occupied China

Cut to the scene where a 40-something woman is moving her 40-something years of accumulation into a 700 square-foot, third-floor apartment. She takes only what she needs: a bed, a desk, her computer (of course!), a dresser, rugs for the hardwood floors, a table and two chairs—just in case she has a guest for lunch,—clothes and 43 pairs of shoes, a two-quart pot, a skillet, the nice stainless flatware from her first marriage, two bowls and an assortment of coffee mugs and cups. For the first few weeks, on the rare occasions that she eats in the apartment, she eats her sandwich or salad off a disposable plastic plate. After a month or so, however, she decides it's time to accept the reality of her situation. She hangs up photos and artwork on the walls, and arranges her collection of antique typewriters—lugged from dwelling to dwelling since she was 30 years old. Then she goes back to the place she used to call home and carefully packs up all 90 pieces of her mother's good china, complete with soup tureen and gravy boat, and fills her small, tidy kitchen with its gold-rimmed floral delicacy. And in this way, she's finally home.
   The gold-rimmed china collected dust in my mother's hutch for more than fifty years only seeing the light of day on very special occasions. I would hazard a guess that it was used no more than 100 times under the tenure of my mother's careful watch. The set was a wedding gift, presented in 1951, most likely from my mother's mother, though I'm not quite sure, and came a set full-blown (no piece-meal registry for this stuff.) Each piece is embellished with small flowers about the rim—one, a violet, another, perhaps a primrose—and in the center of the plates, a rose surrounded by a spray of the same smaller flora. Dusty pink is the most dominant color, and each piece is trimmed in a rim of gold. Stamped on the back, the name of the manufacturer, Moriyama China, and the words Made in Occupied Japan.
   Even as children, we knew the meaning of the words: Made in Occupied Japan. Our father served in the Pacific during WWII, and from in the womb we heard tales of battles on the islands of Saipan and Makin. Often the punchline at the end of these stories was: "And if I hadn't survived that day, someone else would be your Daddy." It was an odd statement for a father to impart to his children and it played as a shred of rhetoric that echoed in my head, "Who would I be if my Dad had not returned from the War?" Yet, the presence of the china in our household confirmed that the struggle for global domination had played out as if predestined. My Dad returned to the States in 1945, whole and sound, and six years later married my Mom and together they received the china as a nuptial gift.
   I am hard pressed to recall the last time the Good China was used in our childhood home. As my parents inched into their late 80s, we did not have many grand meals around their maple dining table. Years before my Dad suffered his heart attack in 2006, Mom began trying to divvy up "the good stuff" and told me that she wanted me to have the china. She recalled (correctly) that I had always admired those fancy dishes. When she first pressed the set upon me, I resisted. "Thanks Mom," I said. "I'll get 'em the next time." She scrawled my name on on a scrap of paper and placed it on top of the dishes. On subsequent visits, I made excuses for not taking the dishes. There was never enough room in my car; nor boxes large enough to hold the set; or enough time to pack them properly. The idea that my mother was divesting herself of her most-cherished possessions was disturbing, and just a little too real. I didn't know that she was succombing to dementia, but perhaps she did. Yet, when I finally did carry those gold-rimmed fragile plates and saucers and cups from the home in which I grew up, I knew my universe had shifted permanently. 
   For four years the Good China took up residence in my own cupboards, unused, because, in part, I already had a set of "good china" (greatly unused), but also because I held fast the sentiment that these dishes were precious and should only be used on special occasions. The delicate cups and saucers and bright floral plates gathered more dust, until two months ago, when I packed up all 90 pieces and brought them to my apartment where they became my everyday china
   Now, I no longer save the good stuff only for special occasions. I drink my morning tea from the lovely, graceful cups—always using a saucer. I consume my oatmeal from the gold-rimmed bowls, and eat my sandwiches and salads off the rose-covered plates. So far I've not chipped nor broken a single piece, but I know that day will come, and when it does it will be okay because the china was made to be used and enjoyed—not locked away from sight. Everyday now is a special occasion. Everyday is a birthday or holiday. Everyday is precious—just like my Mom and her Good China. Why not enjoy it? Why not celebrate?


  1. How inspiring.....I'm going to pull out the silverware that my Grandmother gave me, all forgotten in a cabinet, wrapped up in velvet for seven years, and use it EVERY DAY after I give it a good polishing!

    your friend in Gibraltar :)

  2. Do you use the matching gold flatware?