My mother made sure I had an extensive education about china. Not China, the country, but china, the good kind that went on a properly dressed Sunday table.
Mama grew up dirt poor on the outskirts of Monroe. She once said they were so poor they didn’t know about the Great Depression until it was nearly over.
No good china was in that sharecropper’s house. The closest thing to a tabletop heirloom was a sugar dish that belonged to her granddaddy, Atticus Dillard. When he died, she got the sugar dish.
It was a silver-plated thing that had hooks that held spoons around the body of the container. There was a little silver bird on the lid. It was in pretty rough shape and she had it restored. It was a treasure from her childhood and she wanted my brother, her oldest, to have it when she was gone. I hope one day to tell his boys how much it meant to her.
I think doing without during her childhood made Mama appreciate fine china and silverware. We pulled it out on Sundays and holidays and dined at the big dining room table, which doubled as the place to hide underneath when there was a storm.
At our house, we now have Mama’s good china. A Japanese company made it. Some pieces are stamped as being made in occupied Japan of the post-war era. She worked hard to buy it and it was special to her.
I also have eight settings of the good silver. Mama had 16 and we split them up evenly when she died.
We don’t use the old good stuff that often, but when we do, I think of her.
When I was 12, I was invited to a very fancy dinner. The people who invited me offered only one ticket and my Daddy sat in the car for nearly three hours while his boy dined inside a fancy Atlanta hotel ballroom.
Mrs. Edwin Eckles was our next-door neighbor and she brought me over and showed me a place setting with all kinds of extra forks, knives, spoons and plates. After an hour of training, I knew the finer points of bread plates, butter knives and dessert spoons. I also learned how to turn over a coffee cup to say I’ll have none.
My education never seemed to stop. Just a few years ago, my friend Duncan Johnson Jr. showed me how to make the letters “B” and “D” by making a circle with my thumb and third finger. That will show you which one is your bread and drink. I thought it was pretty smart.
I write all this to say that in many homes there is china and silver that no one knows its backstory. No one knows it was grandmama’s and that she worked extra to pay for it. No one knows granddaddy bought it overseas and shipped it home after the war.
Today, young couples are content to have everyday dishes from a discount store. It doesn’t have the same meaning it did to our grandparents, who thought Sunday best included a well-dressed family table.
Whatever the story, we need to preserve them. Some of our best memories are those we create in fellowship around the table.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.