I put my toast on a little plate – a saucer, actually – and a memory showed up. It is a sturdy immigrant from England, a flowery Victorian pattern of brown leaves and flowers. The memory is of a sunny day in a field with my grandmother. It was mid to late summer, the hay was mown short. Something caught Grammy’s eye and she bent down and retrieved a shard of china with a brown design. She said, “My mother had brown and white china,” in a wistful voice.
Now, I think of that. I wonder where the cup went. The saucer is not fragile, more of a family sort of dish. Where did the plates, the cups, the bowls all go? I don’t know where I got this – it is not my great grandmother’s china. Gram had not a single piece of that except the shard she held in the meadow that day.
In mulling this over I began to think about all of the dishes that have been used and have disappeared over the centuries. I begin to understand the archaeologist’s passion for shards and bits of broken porcelain. My great grandparents had 4 children and a few grandparents around, whom they presumably fed – where are all those cups, plates, spoons? Your great grandparents probably had dishes, too. Going back, I have one china cup that belonged to my 3rd great grandmother (whose name also was Lorinda.) It is of a delicate pink, and I am quite sure she always kept it on a shelf – as my grandmother did, as I do. But there must have been every day dishes, something to feed the large family from. Where are they?
My mother made bracelets out of two thin silver spoons in her youth. So there are 2 spoons and one cup accounted for. That’s about it. The rest – did they all get broken? Were they just thrown away when there were too few and new tableware was purchased? It’s not like tablecloths and skirts — china doesn’t wear away to compost. Forks and knives could disappear – they were often made of steel with bone handles, so I can get that. I have a couple of old tin spoons – very inexpensive in their day – almost disposable. But plates don’t biodegrade.
A few show up at your local museum or at antique shops. Those are often the “best” china that was always well taken care of. It is kind of an adage that museums have more wedding dresses and baby clothes than any other clothing because those are the pieces that people treasured and saved. Almost no one saved house dresses or work shirts, and I suppose it is the same with household goods. Sometimes very special pieces were mended – a big dish I have with a knobbed lid was repaired, when the knob broke off, with a little bolt and some glue, so it got saved for another couple generations, brought back from family in California sometime in the 40s.
But we must often be walking around on the shards and remains of someone’s family dishes. Maybe they are built into our roads, filling up what once were ditches. Lying around in hayfields. And every once in a while a piece makes it through generations. Like my saucer.
My kids laugh at me – “Why do you keep all these things?” “They tell me stories,” I say, and they do. Like this saucer. So go to the highest shelf you’ve got, or far back in the corners of the pantry or attic. Maybe you’ve got forgotten stories, too. You never know.