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.
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.
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.
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.
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.