Holidays are my haven, and not for reasons you’d imagine. Sure, as a child it began with We Gather Together, and the Macy’s Day Parade, Santa Claus, and presents, and lunch under the Christmas tree at Marshall Fields, gingerbreadmen and sugar cookie iced snowflakes, listening to Bing Crosby by the fire and dreaming into the bright colored bulbs with blurred eyes—so that it all looked like a jewel-toned menagerie of the ultimate Christmas kiss. That was all yes, magic. But to me, the haven of it was in the people the holidays brought home. Holidays meant that my people came back. My sister and brother back from school. Relatives in rooms we never used. The living room and dining room came alive. The house was full. We were “the whole family.”
We prepared for those who would come, with those who came before them. My mother would let me set the table with her grandmother’s soup porringers and aspic plates with gold edges framing forget-me-nots and cabbage roses. She’d open cupboards that hung dormant all year until Thanksgiving, through to New Years, and pull shiny things from their shelves:
“These were your father’s mother’s Steuben crystal Teardrop Trumpet goblets. Your grandfather gave these to her as a special Christmas gift in the 1930s. They were farm people. I’m sure he didn’t give her much at their wedding. But by then he was the head engineer of a corn syrup factory. Each of these is worth at least $150 a piece. I’m not sure she ever used them.” She’d hold each one like a tiny bird and wipe their rims with a soft cloth before she set them on the dining room table.
I wanted to touch them, but I didn’t dare. She’d never let me get near them, but she would let me set out Aunt Eleanor’s silver. I memorized the words she assigned to it: Towle. Old Georgian pattern from the 1800s, with ionic columns and rosebud wreaths. My favorites were the teaspoons, with the roses running around the back of the spoon’s head. I’d run my fingers over them and feel transported into other days before television and cars and airplanes that took big sisters and brothers away to boarding school and college, and fathers away on business trips. The laying out of these shiny things meant that we’d be together around this table, our faces dancing in candlelight, the silver and china and crystal reflecting it all back. The chandelier sending spectrums of starlight back down over us. I watched a lot of faces in those spoons.
So for a long time, after I inherited these things, I kept them locked in a china cabinet, or hidden in boxes in eaves. Then with our children still small, we built a house. I fought for a dining room. “We’ll be the family that uses it. I promise! We’ll have countless dinner parties and holiday soirees.” And we did. And I’d bring the shiny things out beforehand, telling my children the same stories, naming the names and wiping down these delicate surfaces as my mothers and mothers before me had, as I placed them on the table.
And then everything changed.
The man sitting at the head of the table no longer sat there, and I was thinking more about what I’d have to sell in order to keep the house, never mind what to put on the table. There was a day when I stood in front of this china cabinet and thought, “They’d want me to sell that Steuben. Wouldn’t they? They’re resourceful farm people. They’d want me to make my mortgage with their crystal. Wouldn’t they? I’ll become an Ebay wizard. I’ll sell all of this stuff, even though every piece of it brings me back to my peopled world.” Where I felt safe, and protected, loved and special. That feeling was inside me, wasn’t it? The three of us would still gather together. It just wouldn’t be with two hundred year old plates that came to Illinois in a covered wagon during the Homestead Act, and then to Montana when my parents’ sold their home of forty-five years. It just wouldn’t mean that we ate our turkey with the Towle, or stirred honey into our tea with the silver that was dug underground before the Yankees raided our ancestral home in Camden, Arkansas during the Civil War. Aunt Eleanor’s rose-clad ionic columns would hold another hand steady in another room somewhere. The shiny things would become our eyes dancing off of each other, not off of silver spoons. And that would be okay. My ancestors were house people. They’d want me to do everything I could to keep it.
So one day when the kids were at school, I went into every eave, the attic, the dormant cabinets, took it all out, and splayed it on the dining room table. My family story in shiny things. I wanted to shake with silent wails. But I shook it off instead. I had to stop seeing these things for their stories and their people. These were just things, after all. Weren’t they?
I couldn’t think about it. I had work to do. I started to research the cost of it all. Nine crystal bowls for my wedding that I’d never used? Those would be the first things to go. Actually, all of my wedding china and crystal and silver—that hurt me the most. It had been chosen with such hope, such belief in the future. Part of that future came. Most of it didn’t. I’d been saving my wedding china for the part that didn’t. Most of the parties we’d had weren’t formal. They happened around bonfires and in the living room with mugs of hot cider and breakable risks in semi-shiny things.
“I should save it for the kids,” I thought. But how sick was that. They’d be better off with the china and silver and crystal from the parents whose marriages lasted, and whose tables were peopled in the way they’d set out to create. “I’ll sell the wedding china. And the crystal. That’ll take care of another mortgage payment until I can get on my feet.”
But when I got to Aunt Eleanor’s silver, the ionic columns and the rose wreaths, I ran my finger over the back of the spoon head, and sighed. Aunt Eleanor hadn’t had children. Aunt Eleanor had given me my first Emily Dickinson. Aunt Eleanor had travelled the world and taught me to love stories of the finer things. And she had passed these down to me, along with a farm—the original Homestead. I owned those two things. And I decided then that I would not sell them. They were the comfort, the security of my people, long gone, but still dancing in these spoons if I looked closely enough, if I looked in just the right way.
It turned out that didn’t sell any of it. I asked myself a different question, instead: “what do I know how to do that I can monetize without selling my legacy?” And I gave myself permission to create a business out of what I’d spent my adult life mastering—and started facilitating people’s creative self-expression by using what had sustained me all my life: the written word. Out of the ashes, as it were, rose Haven Writing Retreats. So it makes sense then, that I use my shiny, storied things on my retreats. New people around this table, lips to Steuben as they tell their stories, real and imagined. Lifting my homemade food to their mouths with my Aunt Eleanor’s Towle as they think-tank their books and characters. Share about their process and projects– new faces spinning in the silver, refracted by the chandelier that hangs above us. The dining room is alive again!
But on my last retreat, ‘tis true: a spoon was lost. A Towle teaspoon. I’m sure it was an honest mistake. My mother used to count her silver after a dinner party, and often ended up rifling through the garbage in search of lost silverware. I found myself doing the same that night, after all the candles were blown out and the good day spent from word play and the people too for the same reason. Alas, no spoon.
And there was a time when I think I would have cried about it. Bemoaned this loss. Felt less secure because of it. Or like an irresponsible person who shouldn’t be handling the shiny things, no matter what her age. My mind parading with, I should have left them in the shiny suburbs of Chicago where they would have survived. Not my Montana life, which came with a bit of country road dust on it. There was a time that I might have just given it a damn…spoon funeral. I’m not kidding. You’d give your goldfish a funeral, wouldn’t you?
But it wasn’t that way at all.
Instead, I took in a short breath and a shorter sigh. One less spoon. If I could fill my dining room with such brilliant minds and open hearts and a spate of candlelight flickering off smiles and so many glittering surfaces, it was worth losing a piece of shiny something every time until there was nothing left. Because what matters is what is gathered: the people. The people. The elegance: their minds. Their hearts.
So this holiday season, my children and I will gather with yes, our shiny things, less a spoon. But this year, it all won’t be so cold and dusty and faraway when we bring it to the table. It will be recently used. Maybe a little tarnished from being out in the air. And maybe even chipped or without their perfect placing. But they will hold new stories. New people. New hope. New future.
A spoon funeral? The funeral that the spoon inspired was instead for my old life. And it came with no great pageantry. Rather, a short sigh. Because three out of four of us are where we are used to being for the holidays. We are grateful. We are blessed. We are family. Shiny things or not.
Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018
You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind! Come find your voice this February… For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!
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