The good china: serving the generations

Inherited dishes evoke memories of loved ones

December 24, 2003|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

Like so many women, I have a china cabinet stocked with pretty dishes that are rarely used.

Behind the glass doors are displayed the Tuscan pottery and the hand-painted wineglasses that were my purchases, as well as the crystal stemware that can be seen on the gift table in my parents' wedding photos.

Tucked safely on one of those shelves is a small, oval serving dish and six tiny, matching salt dishes, each trimmed with gold.

They were a gift not from my mother, but from my father, to mark the purchase of my first home. Family history is vague about the origin of the set, but I think my father's uncle brought them back from the Far East during his travels.

The Tuscan pottery has never yet graced a table, but I bring my father's serving bowl and salt dishes out for each holiday dinner I serve, just as my mother did.

Along with the Christmas ornaments unpacked with care each year, many of us also bring out holiday dishes. Both serve up memories of Christmases past.

Over the years, on the death of a loved one, Bonnie Giraldi of Perryville in Cecil County has asked for a serving piece as a memento and added it to her "family" of valued dishes.

"`Aunt Millie' holds the creamed lima beans," Giraldi says. "`Great-Grandmother Kruse' is the gravy boat. `Grandmother McGuirk' is the cranberry bowl.

"Now when my table is set, everyone can point out the dish that belonged to this one or that one. There are eight extra dishes now that I wouldn't trade for anything. These loved ones are kept alive and are with us at each holiday meal."

And other occasions, too.

Recently, Giraldi invited close friends to a dinner to celebrate the engagement of her daughter, Betsey. "Wow," Betsey said in amazement and appreciation. "You got out `Aunt Catherine.'"

She was talking not only about a dish, but also about a lace tablecloth, which came from the same aunt.

Shared patterns

To her delighted surprise, Kay Freas of Sykesville found that she and her close friend and neighbor of 27 years owned the same Noritake daisy-patterned dishes. When that friend, Amelia Wade, died in 1988, her husband, Hilton, gave Freas his wife's china.

"I was very honored," she said.

Eventually, Freas shared the dishes with the Hiltons' daughter, Sue, but still had enough to feed 18.

"Each Christmas and Thanksgiving are sentimental reminders that Hilton, who died in 1990, and Amelia are present with my family," Freas said.

Likewise, Louise Kunkel in Towson inherited the same pattern from her parents and her in-laws - the pheasant pattern by Haviland.

"I have enough vegetable dishes, meat platters, cups and plates to serve a meal to any number of people," she said, adding with a laugh, "Maybe that is why I have all the family dinners at our house!"

When Marge Hokemeyer downsized from her home in Morris Plains, N.J., to Oak Crest Village in Parkville, she had to give away a great many of her household items.

But she could not part with the Princess china she inherited from her mother or the century-old sterling silver service for 12 that came from her first husband's great-aunt Christine Lutes in 1975.

"I haven't figured out how many turkey, ham or prime-rib dinners we have eaten using these things, but it warms my heart to think of all the hustle and bustle and smells that made those holidays extra-special," she said.

It would be unfair to suggest that only women can be sentimental about holiday dishes. Bob Seney of Columbus, Miss., wrote to say that he, too, has a holiday dish story.

"The summer after my divorce, my son, who was 7 at the time, and I traveled throughout the hill country of Texas," wrote the professor from the Mississippi University for Women.

"In New Braunsfel, I found a set of antique china that had an unusual set of cream soup bowls."

Seney purchased the set for his new bachelor's quarters and used them on special occasions with his son.

"On his wedding day, some 18 years later, I gave the china to him and his new bride as a wedding gift."

The china, he said, "represents lots of happy thoughts," and it is always used at holidays, especially Thanksgiving.

"And Thanksgiving is even more important because it's the same time as my granddaughter's birthday."

That warm feeling

Dishes do not have to be antique or made of fine china to hold meaning. Stephanie Cooke of Severn treasures a large, blue pottery bowl in which her mother mixed her stuffing and mashed her potatoes before transferring them to china for the holiday table.

She described it as a kind of "work bowl," and explains that when her mother died, it was the only item she requested from her estate.

"So I now use the bowl at each holiday, and on other days if I am feeling sentimental and I want that warm feeling."

Nor are these dishes reserved only for particular occasions.

Laura Michael of Glen Burnie says that her mother, Elizabeth, kept her wedding china packed away in the basement for safety. It had been purchased by her husband, Clyde, when he was stationed in Japan in 1967. He packed the more than 100 pieces himself, so that they arrived in Baltimore unbroken.

One rainy Saturday when Michael was 11, her mother took her to the basement to show her the cherished dishes.

"We decided to clean all of the pieces and surprise my father with dinner on the `good stuff.' There was no holiday, but we decided that a sad and rainy Saturday night needed a little boost," she said.

When her father returned from his Saturday duty at the National Guard and saw the table, "the look on his face was priceless. The last thing he expected to come home to was the glittering beauty of the china set," she said.

"After dinner was over, we washed up the dishes and repacked them, knowing that you don't need a holiday as an excuse to brighten someone's day."

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