Pass the Teacup – Happy Mothers’ Day
In her pantry, my mother kept three translucent teacups and saucers glazed with navy blue on white, accented with raised golden swags and dots. From these elegant vessels, she claimed to sip tea with her friend Jim while they worked jigsaw puzzles or did the New York Times crossword.
I had my doubts. We weren’t tea drinkers in my family. Mom and Dad started their day with coffee in ceramic mugs bought while touring England. Still, Mom kept her regal teacups, insisting they were objects of utility.
Hardly anyone in America uses the cups and saucers that come with their dishes, and Mom had a dozen in her English transferware pattern (Johnson Brothers, Old Britain). So she had no need of those delicate cups. I think she just admired their unmistakable whiff of extended-pinky snobbery.
Mom came from rural South Dakota, but her parents relocated to North Hollywood when she was a young teen. She made friends with girls from prosperous families and enjoyed beaches, cotillions, and trips to Catalina Island.
These halcyon days came to an end when she married a sailor and became a mother at age seventeen.
Soon after, my grandfather’s business failed. My grandparents retreated to South Dakota. When her marriage failed, so did my mother, but she’d been infected with class awareness.
She never recovered.
Social class had a code, and Mom wanted to crack it. She understood that the more comfortable echelons of society actually used their beautiful objects, so she strove to do this. She glowed with pride over her Johnson Brothers dishes. My parents ate from those pink castles every single day and ran them through the dishwasher.
On her entry table, she kept a huge antique Asian bowl she considered valuable. That was where she threw her mail and keys. Alongside it stood two large white ceramic rabbits with pink eyes; knickknack outliers.
My mother first saw these rabbits in an expensive gift shop in 1977. She spoke of them with longing and bitterness, because she never had enough money to buy anything as costly and wonderful as those big white rabbits.
My brother, sister and I pooled our meager funds and bought them for her birthday. We thought she would be thrilled, but she seemed disappointed that she could no longer complain about that particular deprivation.
Eventually, more white rabbits came her way as gifts. “I don’t want to collect anything,” Mom complained.
Collecting was middle class.
My mother would not suffer the social embarrassment of accumulating fussy objects that had no use. She preferred to pass them along to me with the admonishment, “You should keep this. It will be worth money someday.”
I accepted various knickknacks (including the largest white rabbit), ornate teapots, and flowery teacups, and kept them against that promise of future value right up until Mom died. Then, I quietly donated almost everything she gave me.
But not everything…
I claimed the various large white ceramic rabbits. Each spring, I display the entire fluffle on my dining table. I even added one this last year, so the current count stands at six. My mother would be horrified.
She may have thought it tacky to have knickknacks, but Mom had a stash of extraneous flowered porcelain somewhere. I’d seen it. After Mom died, my father offered up her small accumulation to me and my sister.
My sister reluctantly took “Grandma Lucille’s teapot,” ancient and oval, patterned with pansies. It had been promised to her years before with great solemnity. Somehow her desire to actually own it was never taken into account. She accepted it with duty, not desire.
I took two small bowl and pitcher sets, and a Wedgewood “Windrush” demitasse cup and saucer. Mom had the pitcher sets as for long as I could remember, but where had the demitasse come from? Had she bought it on a trip to Europe? Dad didn’t remember. It held no sentimental value, but was too pretty to let go.
Finally, Dad opened the cabinet and offered up the imperial three, those delicate navy blue and white teacups trimmed with gold, saying, “I’ll never use them.” To his surprise, Cat and I both declined. They meant something to Mom, but nothing to us.
Those swagged and stately teacups reemerged seventeen years later at Dad’s estate sale. They went quickly, I imagine to a person who never uses them. That’s what I like to think, anyway. I hope they sit proudly on a shelf, gathering dust, their potential utility ignored in favor of their regal beauty.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I miss you every single day.
I am always thrilled to see a new post from you. Your writing is so lovingly sly and reveals so much of your essence. Thank you for brightening my days.
Thank you, Pat. It’s always lovely to read a comment from you.