Style / Dish memories
L to R: Lenox Kingsley (vintage), Royal Copenhagen Black Fluted Mega, Sthal's Arabesque stoneware is now available in 11 colors.
Photos courtesy of manufacturers
“OK, got food. Just pulled into the driveway, actually. Thought we’d grill. The table is set, but can you stop for wine? Don’t worry. By six-thirty, anything will go with ketchup. Oh, and beer. But watch the labels. Nothing too crafty. My brothers don’t need any encouragement. Remember the ‘Rhymes with Artisan’ game from last time? … Anyway, thanks.” I watch my husband’s screen ID fade to my phone’s stock photo of balanced pebbles. Poor guy. It takes decades for outsiders to adjust to the fallout from my family’s sensory mutations. We have the eyesight of eagles, but only six taste buds apiece. Food is never the focus, a fact that can turn any family dinner into an open mic night. Especially if there are props. I redirect my voice toward the car’s back seat. “Ready for a party?” I ask my daughter.
“I saw three women with cancer hair,” she replies.
Two thoughts surfaced in rapid succession: “I saw four,” and “Don’t say that.’’ This was one of those real parenting moments, and I needed other options, something that did not suggest a contest or an escalation. I needed words that were encouraging and respectful—and honest. All I had was “I know … Right? ...What the ...”
“Door, please,” she adds. We had been running errands for only an hour. The number of women in treatment seemed high. I tried to calculate what was going on. Was it better medicine or better attitudes? Could it be coincidence? Or maybe a brain filter—you know, that thing that happens after you buy a car, and you suddenly start seeing the same make and model in every sixth parking space at Wegmans?
“Oh, sorry.” My left fingers hit the unlock button. Then my ears listen to all the sounds that seven-year-olds make in the struggle to exit a car carrying fewer belongings than taken in. Yes, I finally decide, thinking again about the women. All of the above. Science is better. Patients are braver. Statistics related to small sample sizes are quirky. And Grandma is here. Grandma—my mother—is helping us see. She had just gone through her second mastectomy, second protocol of chemotherapy, and second run of radiation. Had this granddaughter been alive during the first diagnosis and treatment, she would have never learned about the side effects of chemo. Mom had taken an isolationist’s approach to recovery: no public appearances without a court order and a wig. This session started out the same. The second time Mom lost her red curls down the drain of a beauty salon sink, she said, “Oh, well,” and covered up. Then she went to church. There in the pews were two other women without hair—and without hats. “Oh, well,” she said again. But this time nodding to each, she untied her scarf and lowered it to her shoulders. When she got home, she called her children. “I’m coming to visit,” she said.
We, her family, all watched as her hair grew into a neat pixie trim the colors of espresso and white. “I think it’s OK,” she said one morning, combing her fingers through the short strands. “Do you like it?” Of course we did, and to prove the point we would touch the new growth. It was as soft as a puppy’s cuddle. It was so soft, in fact, I had to stop myself from petting her head, an impulse and correction that should have been a big clue that the family dynamic was in flux. Petting is just not something one does with the Pope, the Queen, or Mom.
Yes, we liked her new hair, but we also understood what it meant. It meant Mom was sick, and the suggestion of matriarchal vulnerability challenged our equilibrium. Like panicked passengers on a rolling boat, we began scrambling for balance. Mom’s voice was quieter, so we got louder. Her movements were slower, so we vacuumed faster. When her eyes betrayed worry, we were Lights on Broadway in our insistence that everything would be just swell. Yes, we met every calm moment—even her most basic declarative sentence—with an exclamation point. “I’m cold,” she’d whisper. “A blanket won’t do!” we’d insist, and then layer her in goose down and Finnish wicking. I wanted to keep her with me, mix her in with my own collection of kids—make sure she had new clothes every September, too many sweets, and an unmade bed to call her own.
“I’m tired,” she says.
“Then you should have a party!” we answer, oblivious to how far we were leaning overboard.
She offers no comment as we plan the family feast, and watches quietly as I set the tables in advance. There is something odd in that, though, the silence part. I’m a lousy cook, granted, but flatware designs intrigue me, and porcelain patterns are as comforting as a buttery cup of coffee. With all this, Mom would agree. We both know that French linens and cast iron sea salt mills make everything burnt taste better. So why her distance?
Left and center: Sthal’s Arabesque stoneware is available in eleven colors. Right: Royal Copenhagan Black Fluted Mega,
Every time I walk by the place settings, I know something is off. She offers no clue, so I start digging for what might be missing, even on up into the kitchen’s highest shelves, past a sentry of snowman-shaped cocoa cups and DUI-sized martini glasses. That’s when my fingers found them: stacks of my mother’s porcelain plates, in laurel green and cream and charcoal brown, with platinum gilt. I lifted the Lenox down, all one hundred percent protected, one hundred percent forgotten. “Kids!” I yell from a height above the ceiling fan. “Switch ’em up!” And they do. Four children of the third generation pull the family whites off the table and replace them with best-behavior dinnerware from the 1950s. I can hear them trying to do the geometry.
“What do we do with three plates?
“I think one is for rolls. We never have rolls.”
“I’m using mine for pie. No wait, this one’s bigger. Let’s use these for pie.”
“There’s no room. Where should we put …?”
“I don’t know but they can’t go there. We need to save a place for ketchup.”
Another, calmer voice speaks up: “Maybe we don’t need ketchup on the table just this once.” It’s my mother. I smile and jump down off the counter to meet her in the dining room. But when I get there, she’s gone. OK, dishes not it, I think, and then look at the new place settings. The plates transform the table, and I begin to study the pattern, even experimenting. It works on linen and silk. It works on woven placemats. It’s sophisticated enough on light colors. It dazzles on dark. You can accent with leaf green. You can work with purples. You can serve tea. You could throw down a leg of mutton. “I had no idea it was so…,” I start saying to my mother when she reappears.
“‘Kingsley,’ it was called. Your father picked it,” she says. “I was supposed to get Grandma’s dishes. ‘Pink Tower,’ by Spode. Oh, those were lovely. Mother cried when I gave them to my sister. Your father—well, not everybody likes a lot of pattern under their food.”
Grandma cried? Stupid men eagles with their stupid men eyes. I look at the table. Or maybe not so stupid. There was something almost magical about the Kingsley.
“I thought of you,” she says, handing me a newspaper clipping. I still haven’t checked the gas level on the grill, and the timer on the stove is beeping. But food can wait. Or be ordered in. This is a priority. This is my mother’s communication method of choice; she uses the words of those who were paid for their thoughts. This time it’s an Ellen Goodman article. Goodman is a journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and she has written a column describing the compulsive need that she and her sisters feel to use their grandmother’s porcelain at every family gathering. My mother read this, found the energy to find a pair of scissors, and then carefully folded the column into her suitcase. She carried it with her, thousands of miles, and then patiently waited for a chance to show it to me. She wants, I suppose, to suggest that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I were a little compulsive, too. Or maybe that I should be working harder for a Pulitzer. Maybe both, but I’ll take the whole experience as a close save, and a big one, too. Mom has demonstrated that she will always be, in her own way, present and in charge. She is working to restore balance.
“When will everybody else get here?” I overhear my niece ask, as she and my daughter run up the stairs.
“I don’t know, but do you think Uncle Eric will play the ‘Artisan Fartisan’ game again?”
I turn to my mother. “Tell me more about Pink Tower,” I say. “The food can wait.”
Catherine Berlin is a writer and Buffalo native currently living in Sweden. She can be reached at Catherine.Berlin@gmail.com.