My mother's dishes: NOT a love story

So this Thanksgiving, as we do every year, my sister and I each pulled out our vintage and oh-so-collectible "Jewel Tea" dishes. Her meal was served in Roanoke, while I filled the gravy boat up here in the southern part of northern Virginia -- but we both used these Depression era dishes, because, I mean really. Look at them. They're perfect for Thanksgiving. That and because our mother would haunt us if we didn't.

See, Carolyn and I have what you might call a love-hate relationship with these dishes (their official name is "Hall China Autumn Leaf," but they were always called "Jewel Tea" in our family, because in the 1930s they were given to housewives -- like my grandmother -- as premiums when the ladies bought tea and spices from the door-to-door reps from the Jewel Tea Company). We do love them, because they were our mother's. And while their beauty and aesthetic loveliness frankly kind of escape us, we both realize that Mom cherished them. How do we know this? We know this because by the time she died she had:
  • redecorated her kitchen to feature them, to include commissioning a friend to create a matching stencil pattern;
  • purchased a shockingly expensive, custom-made-to-match-her-dishes, Tiffany-style lamp to hang over the breakfast table;
  • hung the dessert plates interspersed with orange and yellow baskets around the kitchen on the wall space above the cabinets (cunningly connected by the stencil pattern);
  • joined the "Hall China 'Autumn Leaf' Collectors' Club" (that's where she found the guy who made the lamp);
  • owned a linen tablecloth and twelve napkins that had been stenciled by the same friend (see above), so that when she entertained her table was all Jewel Tea, all the time;
  • spent way more money than my dad ever knew, tracking down and purchasing the rarer pieces of the pattern: a "one-armed bean pot;" the coveted "2 lb. butter dish" (I mean, it's a butter dish that will hold eight sticks of butter, people); not only the formal and everyday salt and pepper shakers, but the "cook's salt and pepper shakers" as well;
  • amassed enough place settings of these fricking dishes that my sister and I each have a complete set. And by complete, I mean we each own twelve place settings. Twelve, y'all. Plus serving bowls, platters, pie plates, iced tea glasses, coffee mugs, tea pots . . . . Plus some other shit I can't even remember.
But see, we really don't think they're as lovely as she did. We both have white dishes for every day, and we both chose fancy china patterns when we got married because our mother made us. She made us choose a silver pattern, too -- and we both very cleverly chose her silver pattern. So one thing I love, love, love is that I have my silver and my mother's, mingling all together. The other pattern in this picture is my grandmother's, which I adore but which is no longer made. I always, always use the two patterns together.

Last year about this time, my sister and I were reminiscing about our mom and we got to laughing our asses off, yet again, about all that "damned Jewel Tea" (that's how we have always talked about it). I regret to inform you that we were not kind about these dishes. Well, fifteen minutes later, my sister texted me; here is our "conversation:

HER: Right after I hung up a damned Jewel Tea bowl fell and broke. I'm freaking out.
ME: Mom must be pissed.
HER: Now I'm crying.
ME: And I'm laughing. Don't cry! They're ugly. The world is a better place.
HER: OK, now I'm laughing.

We have considered selling the damned things on eBay, or Craigslist; I really do think that the entire collection could pay for at least a year of someone's college expenses. But we never get around to it. So most of it lives in multiple, multiple boxes in my attic. And a few pieces live in our kitchens, so we can use them at Thanksgiving.

Because they're perfect.


And hey! Today begins our second annual Book Lovers' Advent Calendar! This year I am sampling books that have been recommended to me by friends who said last year, "How could you possibly leave out our family's favorite??" I am discovering a whole new collection of storybooks to love!

As we open the first door of the Advent calendar, we find The Snowman, which is a lovely little book with no words (I love those!). My family is actually familiar with this story as an animated film, but -- as is always the case -- the book is better. Thanks, Kathy!

Sister love

Here are my beautiful girl urchins,beautifully lit by the television. I adore these two chicks so much, and I find it such a cool trick of genetics that I gave birth to two people who in many ways could not be more different. One is logical, literal, and organized -- while the other is creative and poetic, with a lovably goofy sense of humor.

The girl in charge is a terrific time manager, and guards her precious free moments zealously. Among the many things I admire about her is her embrace of the afternoon nap. I'm not kidding; this girl has always known when she's had enough.

True story: Last January, she starred in her high school's One-Act Play, which is a district-level competition, and she rocked it totally. After every school performed, all the performers were manic in their adrenaline-fueled excitement, so while they waited for the judges to return and give out awards, one hundred high school drama geeks stormed the stage and spontaneously started playing improv games. Well, the girl in charge was right in there with them, pretending to be an angst-filled cactus or whatever -- until she was done. Just . . . done. She politely excused herself and went to an empty classroom to take a nap. The best part is -- she planned for the nap! She brought a pillow and a blanket with her and staged them in the empty classroom. Do you see what I'm dealing with here, people?!

In contrast, the sunny girl wants to cram everything into every day. She is always trying to figure out how to add one more dance class or club or movie date into her schedule. And nap? Please -- she would skip sleep all together if it were biologically possible.

Actually, when the sunny girl is approaching the end of a hectic day, she gets a little frenzied -- hurrying, hurrying, hurrying to get everything in. I have seen her literally spinning around in circles as she tries to prioritize all the things she wants to accomplish, before her dad and I loom menacingly, glaring meaningfully at our watches and saying, "What time do you need to get up tomorrow, sunny girl?" We have plans to go see a swanky play at the Kennedy Center, and the sunny girl is so looking forward to it. But when I told her she would need to miss a dance class so that we can get to the theater on time, her face fell two stories: "Can't I at least go to half the class? Can I change clothes at the theater? Can we skip dinner?" It's classic sunny girl: "I don't want to miss a thing!"

But as these two totally fabulous and totally different girls have grown up, a totally cool thing has happened along the way: they totally dig each other. And in a weird way, they complement each other perfectly. While the sunny girl is quick to crack with the jokes, the girl in charge is her biggest fan -- laughing like a hyena at the sunny girl's antics. If you know the girl in charge you'll understand that this is a miracle; the girl in charge is more of a Mona Lisa smile kind of person -- it takes some work to crack her up. And as the sunny girl has started high school, she has really turned to her big sister for advice and guidance.

They bond over "Doctor Who" and "A Very Potter Musical;" the girl in charge defends her sister's right to the front seat, even when another senior is in the car; they roll their eyes at their mother's failings as a housekeeper. And I am not even kidding when I say that any mention of a tyrannosaurus rex makes them weep -- weep -- with laughter.

Sisters are so cool.

Beach memories . . . .

So while we were at the beach we absolutely did all our favorite things -- things we do every year. For my sister and me, this involved books. And maybe a magazine or two but mostly books. And we weren't the only ones -- we are clearly raising our urchins right, because this is a picture that could have been captured most beach days. Every urchin there was deep into something -- from Stardust, to Pillars of the Earth, to Game of Thrones, to a re-reading of the Harry Potter books in preparation for the big movie release, the books were piled up all over our beach house. I personally read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and loved it!

For the sunny girl and her cousins the beach tradition also involved boogie boards, except for the days when they reported that the water was . . . let's see, what was the phrase they used? "W-a-a-y too freakin' cold."

My tall boy wasn't able to make it to the beach this year (he was stuck in a cubicle), so the soldier brought along one of his soldier pals to fill the void. While he's no tall boy, he is cuter than [think of something really cute and he's cuter than that], and funny, and willing to roll with the punches -- even when one of the girl cousins (who might be the sunny girl, not that I'm blaming or anything) spilled lemonade all over him. And dig this: dude wore a different bow tie to dinner every night. Swear to God.

And we had lots to celebrate! A room full of fathers received their Father's Day loot . . .

-- don't judge me because I
used duct tape to wrap my gifts --

. . . and this up-and-coming Wahoo was the man of the hour, since he just graduated from high school.

A new thing we did this year was that we all sat down together one night and read the script of the play, "Dinner at Eight." More about that is coming because it was awesome!

Mostly we stuck to our main family tradition, which is to spend as much time together as possible with the people we love most in the world.

The Great Pillow Caper

So I know that none of you have this problem, but here's the thing. While I was thrilled to host the husband's sister for part of the Thanksgiving holiday, it did mean that I finally had to face my dark nemesis, the back bedroom (cue scary music). Do you do this? I had fallen into the trap of feeling like, hey! It's a room that rarely gets used for actual sleeping -- so I'll just shove these few things in there until I can get to a more thorough housecleaning later. And do you think I have ever embraced the notion of a thorough housecleaning? Please.

People, I cannot tell you how awful it was without humiliating myself. And have mercy, but I took no pictures for the same reason. Let's just say I found crap I had been missing for months. Oh, who am I kidding? Years.

Well! The girl urchins and I went on the attack! I was so happy to have them on my team -- when you're facing such a fierce foe it's a powerful thing to have daughters who have your back. And at the end of our labors, the room was so sparkling clean that I rewarded myself (and my future guests) with a pretty new comforter and pillow shams. Aren't they cute?

My west coast guest left Friday morning, but I looked forward to seeing my sister and her urchins on Saturday night -- they were getting the soldier back to West Point (he loves it and rocks at being a cadet -- thanks for asking!). And I had a pretty room to offer her, too! Win!

But here's the thing: the tall boy casually mentioned on Friday that he had invited his bestie (also in town from the west coast) to "come over and hang," and that he would probably spend the night. Fabulous! we love the bestie -- he's charming and funny (obsessed with that rocket, as you'll recall), and he promised to play the piano for us, because -- talented? You don't even know.

Well. I have no idea what kind of capers and shenanigans they got up to (actually I do have a pretty good idea . . . ), but the next morning they inhaled platters -- platters -- of ham and biscuits. The bestie (a fraternity man, don't you know?) charmed us all, drinking coffee and talking cars with the husband while wearing khakis and a blue blazer. At breakfast, y'all. As I hugged him good-bye I couldn't help thinking, literally: What a nice boy.

But then I went downstairs to get the pretty little bedroom ready for my sister. I was so excited because I knew my sister would be so proud of me -- she had actually seen it at its worst, so I was happy that she would get to see it at its best. And to my horror, I discovered that one of my new pillow shams was . . . gulp . . . missing! (Do you hear the Psycho violins?? I did!)

I sweetly asked the tall boy if he had mistakenly put my brand new pillow somewhere else. "What pillow?" he said to me.

"What pillow??"

People, this is a verbatim record of my response (and my urchins' reaction):

"You get that dumbass Peter on the phone this instant and you tell him he needs to fork over my pillow right now!"

Gales of hysterical laughter from all three of the urchins.

"I'm not kidding, tall boy. You and that dumbass Peter have two options. Come up with my pillow, or buy me a new one! And it came as part of a set, knucklehead, so get your money! "

Shrieks of laughter. Urchins weeping and clutching their sides as they laugh and laugh and laugh.

"And I swear, if that dumbass Peter is already on an airplane back to school I'll follow him myself to get my pillow back. I'm not kidding, tall boy!"

At this point the sunny girl had an asthma attack, she was laughing so hard. My sympathy was not aroused.

Then I stomped off to my car, to go Christmas shopping. I was in quite the festive mood, as you can see.

And then the tall boy came running out, wetting himself with giddy laughter, carrying . . . my pillow! "Where did that dumbass Peter hide it?" I asked wearily. "In the file cabinet!" The tall boy could barely get it out.

In the file cabinet. Of course.