A recent family dinner party found me alone in the kitchen, cleaning up after guests had left and family were in bed.
I could have waited until morning when I would have had willing helpers, but I wasn’t tired and waking up to a messy kitchen has never been my favorite thing.
The cook – ahem, Chef – was my son, Brett. The family was visiting from Seattle, and he treated us to a five-star meal before time to go home. Brett is a trained and acclaimed chef, working now for Starbuck’s Princi, an Italian bakery/restaurant concept being rolled out in the larger Starbuck Reserve stores.
As a chef, Brett always considers how he will “plate” the food. It’s all part of the experience, he says.
So I wasn’t surprised to hear him rummaging through my china cabinet as he constructed his menu. “Can I use these?” he asked. From playroom, I answered, “You can use anything you want.”
When I walked back into the kitchen, what I saw was my mother’s 1957 Rosenthal plates, pulled from a drawer in the china cabinet.
My mom and I have a history with china. When I was growing up, she worked in a gift store that was the first stop of engaged girls in my hometown. Flynn’s carried china, crystal, silver and flatware as a main part of the shop. Once you picked your “good china and crystal,” “everyday china and glassware” and your silver pattern, Mr. Flynn and mother would put your picture in the front window with your china and crystal. Your engagement really wasn’t official until your picture went in the window.
She loved working at Flynn’s. I loved being there in the afternoons after school, gazing dreamily at the sparkling crystal goblets and silver-rimmed china.
My mother, however, loved dishes long before she moved back to Lexington, Tenn., and went to work at Flynn’s. The china that was sitting on my table had its own story.
The white Rosenthal china with silver rim was bought in Berlin, Germany, in the late 1950s, when we lived there. I was 3-years-old when the U.S. Air Force sent us to Berlin, almost 6 when we came back stateside. My father died just two months after my sixth birthday, and the china became part of our family history. Mother had stories about the day they bought it and the crystal glassware that followed. She made sure I cherished those memories, and, by association, the china and crystal.
Standing at the sink washing each plate – no dishwasher allowed – I was overcome with the circle of our lives. My mother would have been so pleased to see her grandson’s food on the “good German china” she loved so much. She would tell the story of my father’s shock that the plates were 88 cents each, “which is how I talked him into buying complete sets because it was cheaper than per plate,” she would laugh.
And the stories would travel on, through Mom packing the china for each move, to its role when I chose my own china pattern in 1977 to funerals and moves to Knoxville to a 2020 dinner with friends and family.
I asked my mother the name of her china once, and she explained that back then, it only had a number. “It’s 3302,” she would say, “but I call it Legacy.”
Good name, Mom. Good name.
Sherri Gardner Howell has been writing about family life for newspapers and magazines since 1987. She lives in West Knoxville, is married to Neville Howell and has two sons and three grandsons.