Tag Archives: china

Holidays Re-invented: A Spoon Funeral

Processed with VSCO with b1 presetHolidays 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.IMG_9358

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.”

Processed with VSCO with b5 presetBut 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.Processed with VSCO with b5 preset

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!

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 3-7 & October 24-28

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Inheritance

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Inheritance by Laura A. Munson

When life is long, we take off our gold bracelets and put them into the back of a low drawer. When life is long, we move far away from that drawer. We curse the drawer. We curse the bondage of gold bracelets, the parents who bought them for us, the mines that produced them and the rivers they leached strychnine into to get the gold. We go to the river and look into the slither of the still-pink-bellied fish and say, “I’m sorry.”
When life is short though, we think, “Well, it might be nice to feel the fickle weight of a gold bangle on my wrist. Might be nice to look down and see my hand looking fancy and shiny. Might be nice to remember my parents in this piece of jewelry.” So we go back to the drawer and find the bracelets, and we put them on again, forgive our parents, and feel sixteen and long in life.
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This year I inherited a combined legacy of five hundred years of unbroken china, crystal and silver. And in some addendum to the throes of running from gold bracelets, I have found myself living, what looks like semi-permanently, in the northwest corner of the biggest “square state,” Montana. Montana, where the women were lucky to arrive with their lives, much less their china, crystal and silver. Montana, where pomp went out with the bath water. Montana, where a formal dining room is a new concept, or rather, one of the Bacchanalia left behind for a better life, a job on the railroad, a wanderlust-ful love for mountains, gold.
So I sit here on a snowy day and stare into my grandmother’s glass and oak dining room hutch and think, I am the one who is going to break this glass front, I just know it. It’ll be my child who slams her toy baby carriage into it and shatters it; my dog with such a brawny tail. After all, I am the first to allow a dog or toy baby carriage in the dining room. I am the first who uses her dining room to wrap presents for Christmas and to write novels, and not for nightly dinners and Sunday afternoon suppers. I am the first not to use the china. I am the first to merely behold it.
I found out last night that there is a woman in my town who has met me once and now feels the need to state in public places that she does not like me. She is quoted as saying something to the effect that I am a lady of leisure—that I sit around all day and have tea parties with all my fancy china. I guess she’s heard about my formal dining room with the five hundred years of china stacked into its hutch. It’s no secret. But in Montana, it is an anomaly. I like to think of this woman when I am on my third load of laundry, second batch of dishes, fourth leg of kid-school-transport, third reincarnation of this week’s beef—from roast to stew to cold sandwiches. I like to think about how my Montana includes her, but how hers does not include me. And make my peace.
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Other times, particularly when I’m on my fourth leg of kid taxi service, I day dream about teaching this woman a little lesson: I want to invite her to lunch and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Limoges Haviland that came with my great grandmother in a covered wagon from Manchester, Vermont to southern Illinois in the mid 1800’s when she and her husband realized that they couldn’t support their eight children on the income from their farm and that there was cheap farm land “out west.”
And then we’ll drink milk from Steuben goblets that I’ll blow the dust out of and I’ll read the accompanying note in the slanted elegance of looping letters: “Given to me by Chester Wright Munson on our wedding day. Good. Save for the girls.” And I’ll hold up a claret red shot glass and read that accompanying note in the same script: “Brought back from Chicago by my parents when they attended the World’s Fair– 1893.”
And we’ll stab at carrot sticks (it’s not a fancy meal, this one) with pre-Civil-War Towle forks not taken by the Yankees who camped in my great great grandmother’s yard, and I’ll tell her about my great great grandmother and how she hid her babies under her bed and her silver in the ground behind the smokehouse while her husband was losing an eye at the Battle of Shiloh, the same battle where William Elliott Aldrich also fought, only for his Northern cause. And I’ll tell her how he lived to have a son and that son was my great grandfather Hilen, who came to Fon du Lac, Wisconsin through the Erie Canal when he was nineteen and how he worked on the railway as a conductor and I’ll show her his lantern with his name engraved into its base—and a date: 1858.
Then I’d like to tell her that it’s his wife’s china that we are eating off of (Yankee china to Confederate silver), and that she had a son who had a wife named Genevieve who died young of typhoid and left two baby boys behind and it’s her Adderly’s white china dessert plates with the blue relief fleur de lis that we’re going to eat our chocolate chip cookies off of in a minute, right after she says that she was all wrong about me—that I’m not an over-privileged ninny, just a woman well-endowed with the fragile touchstones of family stories, just another sentimental woman in a long line of sentimental women who clung to their possessions in a world that had no promises and still doesn’t. Right after she says she’s sorry.
Then I’ll say, “That’s okay. Next time I’ll cook you a real meal,” and give her a linen napkin with hundred-year-old creases in it and a hand-sewn M in grey, and I’ll remove the straight pin from it and the browned note written in yet another slanted elegance, stating with some sort of pathos toward the daughters to come, “Hand embroidered for my trousseau—1912.” And I’ll tell her about the farm girl who wrote that note, that she had a beautiful contralto voice and went to Northwestern University to pursue a graduate degree in voice until she was sexually harassed by her professor who threatened her with failure, so she up and left and went back to her hometown sweetheart who moved her to a small industrial community on the Mississippi River where he ran a corn syrup factory and she sang in the Presbyterian church choir and at her piano and had a son who was brain damaged at birth by the doctor’s forceps and lay otherwise perfect, in a small crib in the dining room, right next to the hutch I have now, until he was thirteen and died of pneumonia.
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Then I’ll show her the piano and tell her that farm girl was my grandmother and maybe I’ll play her the song she used to play for me: believe me if all those endearing young charms, which I gaze on so fondly today, were to change by tomorrow and fleet in my arms like fairy gifts fading away… That’s all, of course, pending on whether she has a change of heart and hands over the olive branch. If she doesn’t, she won’t get a cookie.
But I don’t do any of that.
Instead I stand at the glass hutch doors and turn the old key and sniff the bloody waft of brass and stare at the notes I’ve been left by my mothers on all sides. Some have to do with china. Others, with furniture. Photographs. Silver. Quilts. I take out a sterling pitcher—the one my father says was always on his dinner table as a boy, and with flannel cloth and polish, I run my fingers over the same beveled handle that my grandmother did, thinking about her solo for Sunday church, or her vegetable baby not crying in the next room.
The fact remains that my mothers wanted to be known. And this is what they had to care for and show for themselves, with sick children and husbands dying in war and life on this mystical and heartbreaking planet. They were the ladies of the house, and that meant something to them; the fact that there are notes shows me that it did not, however, mean everything.
I’ve read those notes over and over. Some are on torn pieces of paper—the backs of checks, lined note-paper with the lines rubbed off by years of sitting in a teacup with the train going by. Others are on engraved stationary—“Mrs. Hilen Aldrich.” And on the inside, “Given to our first grandchild by her loving grandparents, Lucy and Hilen. Hoop skirt chair needle-pointed by Lucy. Chair belonged to Hilen’s father and mother. With sincere adoration—1932.” This note is covered in a child’s pencil scribbles; perhaps those of the first grandchild, my mother, or perhaps mine, playing next to my mother on a china-dusting day. Whichever. It doesn’t matter.
We are all the same in the china cabinet. We are rebellious youths running far from family. We are new mothers who for the first time fear death and seek understanding in the chain of legacy. We are trying to make “home” in new places, remembering Thanksgiving dinners and entire people—their voices, their smells, their eyes sparkling over a story and the gravy only their wife can make—all from the glimmer of a forget-me-not on a Staffordshire chafing dish. We are far from our mother’s gravy. We are the mothers.
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I’ll dust the contents of this cabinet. I’ll keep it well. We will not be the ones to break it. And there will be Christmases around these plates and cups and homemade buns, all because there is a tiny plate just for buns. There will be mint juleps because there are spoons for mint juleps. Shrimp because there are shrimp forks. Espresso because there are demi-tasse. And the mothers will bring these things to the table over and over; the bounty of table-side ritual, the battens of family. And the gold will wear thin on the cup handles and little chips will dig in around the crystal rims…and it means that we were all here. On this beautiful and heartbreaking planet, breaking our bread, but not our fragile things. That’s life, long and short, in a china plate. That’s inheritance.

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