My mother died in November. She was 90. I and others expected she would keep on going. For the longest time she was extraordinary.
In her family, stuff was important. New England antiques, family portraits, sterling flatware. I grew up listening to the tutorials, learning the provenances, absorbing the differences between Sheraton and Hepplewhite, Chippendale and Queen Anne. I was a dutiful student, never straying into mid-Century or French Country as I ventured into living on my own.
I just staggered up from our basement, carrying a large packing box, one of dozens from the place where we rented the U-Haul we used to clear out first her condo, then the assisted living facility where she lasted only two weeks. My fifteen year-old daughter had packed the box, as she had so many others filled with ephemera and heirlooms, detritus and divines. She had stood tirelessly in the kitchen in my mother’s last real home, surrounded by her things before they were scattered to a different setting, intact but never again together in the same conformation. It took hours to wrap teacups, saucers, salad plates, butter plates, soup bowls, dinner plates and serving pieces. Impatient in daily matters, my daughter took time and worked silently.
Standing now in our kitchen, I pried open the stubborn crab-trapped cardboard flaps and began the unloading and storing.
Seventeen Sunday supplement-wrapped dinner plates. Where was the eighteenth? Crashed against the rocks of a cocktail-y dinner party, the hapless victim of slippery, soapy hands afterward? The familiar pink-and-white of my memory: English Chippendale Johnson Brothers transferware. Not my mother’s best china, but her favorite. “DESIGN PATENT 103232. ALL DECORATION UNDER THE GLAZE DETERGENT & ACID RESISTING COLORS. A GENUINE HAND ENGRAVING.”
These were the blank canvas of so many holidays, filled to the brim with my mother 1950’s housewife shortcut-driven recipes, never homemade. Brilliant gouaches: Stouffer’s green beans, Pepperidge Farm stuffing from a bag, sweet potatoes in a marshmallowy slop, frozen Butterball turkey at center. I had been at first a fan of my mother’s cooking. By my twenties it was an embarrassment. Having had maids and cooks growing up, she had never really taken to the culinary arts. For a long time we had Arthenia Porter in our kitchen, whose southern-tinged creations gave my mother another reprieve from recipes and execution. The small eating audience of my early life seemed to have discouraged her inner Martha.
What mother of her era wasn’t in the kitchen, baking and cooking away? It seemed to me that all the mothers I knew were superb graduates of the Cordon Bleu, rendering their own spectacular versions of duck a l’orange, beef wellington and risotto for their families. My mother remained immune to the allure of the stove and cookbook in the sixties and seventies. Cube steak, spaghetti by Ragu once a month, overcooked pot roast were her specialites de la maison. There was no rare meat, no tell-tale pink pork.
There was her pink china, each plate now wrapped as a babe in swaddling by my mother’s granddaughter: tightly wound round, first one way, then the other in a full-color display of supermarket specials and clippable coupons for snack bars, dishwasher detergent and baby diapers.
I worked quickly, unwrapping and balling up the sticky newsprint. I cleared out some summer plastic patio plates and made room on the pantry shelves. It all fit.