My Great-Grandmother’s China

Decades ago, my husband and I moved to Florida with all our worldly possessions surrounding us in our battered Volkswagen bug.  A year later, we moved again, this time commandeering a big U-Haul truck for all our garage-sale furniture and secondhand books. Our era of traveling lightly was already over, even though we were only in our early twenties.

Over the past few months, we’ve sold, given away and discarded small cities of dressers and beds and bookcases, kitchen appliances and clothes, mattresses, old alarm clocks, and other assorted debris. I’m not sure if we collected mountains of stuff or the mountains of stuff collected us — but much of it is gone and I don’t miss it.

“How could you give away so many books?” a man asked me at dinner a few weeks ago. He didn’t seem terribly interested in me, just mildly appalled anyone sitting at the same table with him could be superficial and unintellectual enough to let hundreds of tomes slip through her grubby little fingers. Philistine!

“It wasn’t that hard,” I said. “In fact, it made me more interested in what we kept. And why we kept it.”

He nodded absently and turned to the person on the other side of him. Fine. I don’t like to disappoint people, but the older I get, the more I realize I can live with it.

Besides, I am interested in what my husband and I kept, what we clung to, in the middle of our great purge of material objects and pure junk. It doesn’t always make sense. The assortment of objects that have become meaningful to us over the years borders on the eccentric and semi-insane and wildly sentimental and comic . I’m inclined to think that — aside from useful objects — what we kept are possessions that tell a story.

Like most people in this part of the country, I’m not too far removed from the frontier. I grew up with stories of my forbears’ poverty and migrations and deprivations and struggle. They settled in Nebraska and Oklahoma, where the wind howled and whipped the dust and the earth was hard. They were different people from my generation, my mother always said, sterner and tougher and better than us. (Since we came from a predominantly grim Scots-Irish background, our ancestors’ suffering and fortitude were always widely admired.)

My great-grandmother, Nellie Worrall Clift, was a farmer’s daughter who married an English worker at the family farm in Nebraska. If they were in love, nobody ever mentioned it. Marital love might be one of those luxuries of the modern world. She and my great-grandfather moved to Blackwell, Oklahoma, where they farmed and reared six children. She died in her late forties or early fifties of breast cancer.

In the few photos of my great-grandmother, she looks large and humorless — but, good lord, I’d hate for anybody to judge me and my life by some of the idiot photographic evidence I’ve left in my wake. So, who knows what she was really like? Everyone who knew her has been long dead.

One of the possessions we have kept is her set of fine china. It’s a delicate pink, green and gold against a white backdrop. Its edges are softly rippled and graceful. “It’s Haviland china,” my mother always told me. “It’s from France, where they make the very best china.”

We’ve hauled the china around for 15 years, since my mother’s death, and we don’t use it more than once or twice a year. We’re not formal people and, even at holidays, we never use the full panoply of dishes and saucers and plates. But I won’t sell them or give them up.

When I look at them, I think of this woman I never knew. She grew up, but never grew old, in a hard, sun-baked land with few luxuries. Like so many American pioneers, she looked East for culture and refinement. When her family finally had some money to spare, she sent off for this fragile china from a country she never visited. Knowing this tells me something about her — some kind of yearning she had — that has always touched me.

In the end, none of us leave very much behind. My great-grandmother left a husband, six children who were all educated, most as teachers, and this set of Haviland china. The prairie where she lived and worked has been paved and farmed and cultivated, and the frontier has disappeared. Only the china — and the stories we tell ourselves about it — remains.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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25 comments… add one
  • Oh, Ruth, never mind the books (which are replaceable), keep toting that china. One of the abiding memories I have of my own grandmother is was when she visited me when she was nearly 90, was remarkably troublesome, and in the back seat of the car, as we drove her back to the airport, wrote codicils to her will, leaving me all her table linens. Whatever else I shed — and I mostly shed, these days — I am stuck with those table cloths and napkins.

  • msue Link

    Whenever we use my grandmother’s china, I’m transported back to Sunday dinners around her wonderful table. Her love for us came through in the food she prepared and the table she set. To be the custodian of something so treasured by generations of women in our family is an honor. How I miss them all.

  • Nancy Andreasen Link

    I have my mother’s Haviland, which tells a different story. Child of a cripped father and paralyzed mother, she was dirt-poor in childhood and had, to her everlasting shame, to wear clothes from the church charity barrel. She always felt not good enough. She wanted pretty china, but even when she could well afford it, felt it would be too extravagant. She finally bought herself a set of Haviland that she found on sale, but by that time she was too old to have pretty dinner parties. I keep it, and use it maybe once every two years or so!

  • Nancy C. Brainerd Link

    Ruth, I have just discovered your blog! Love it, subscribed to it and will look forward to each one. Makes for a happy day!


  • Christine Link

    I too have my mother’s Haviland (also stamped Limoges and Wanamakers on the bottom of most pieces), but she purchased it somewhere in the east, a huge set that fits into a small china cabinet my husband bought me when he was wooing me. We never use it. I tried tea in one of the cups and saucers, and you simply cannot drink hot tea without burning your fingers. I have covered tureens, platters, mini salt dishes, vegetable dishes, butter dish including rack (to be placed over ice I presume) – always moved, never used. For a different life, one which I may never assume.

  • Having no physical mementos of my grandmother could be sad, but it’s not. The memories she made with us and the old pictures are packed safely in my heart, and taken out frequently.

  • Isn’t it funny that all our grandmothers, raised in these hardscrabble places, had Haviland? Mine did too, though I don’t know when she acquired it. In my case, my grandmother was from a small town in Kansas, but ended up becoming a very cultured and traveled person, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 1920s and then returning to the states to teach French at Carleton College. When my mother died two years ago, my sisters and I sold off the Haviland, as it was so delicate and breakable and none of us entertains in a way that we would use something that elegant. Sometimes now, though, I feel sad about giving it up. But I also felt guilty seeing it stored in dusty boxes!

  • My mother kept in a glass-front cabinet an assortment of plates originally owned/procured by various ancestors. Occasionally, she would walk in to the dining room with a visitor and launch into the litany covering each piece. One example: my great-grandmother (1867-1962) received a beautiful oriental plate shipped to her by her two spinster sisters who had gone to China to become missionaries. She honored her sisters by always using the plate to pass biscuits during the Sunday meal since her sisters were absent from the table as they were in China “sharing the bread of Life.” My mother continued this tradition at our table as well. I occasionally use this plate for bread also, to salute these to great-great aunts whom I never knew and who were buried in China after dedicating their lives to good works. Some possessions have family so woven into them, it’s impossible to part with them.

  • Cindy A Link

    A beautiful story, Ruth.

    My grandmother was orphaned when she was 13. My grandfather saw her begging for food behind a restaurant in Montana and took her home to his mother. There she lived until my grandfather married her when she was 16. She proceeded to have seven children, one after the other, while my grandfather worked as a cowboy on ranches. She milked cows, grew a garden, tended children, cooked, and never once had a vacation in the short 56 years she was on earth. She never had china, but she left behind a lovely small cabin in the middle of nowhere, which to this day still does not have running water or electricity. I have never seen a smile on her face in photos, but God bless her, why would she?

  • Craig Link

    My hot tempered hillbillies put more stock in stoneware; better at close quarter in-fighting. I enjoyed this delicate piece of storytelling Ruth

  • Steve Link

    An excellent tale well told, Ruth.

    I have both of my grandmothers’ dining sets. Of my paternal grandmother’s dining set, the small round oak table which is the centerpiece of my living room, converted by my parents to a coffee table, and the oak straight-back chairs surround the table in our breakfast area. My maternal grandmother’s dining set, the only furniture my grandfather ever refinished, sits in our dining room; each chair has a unique needlework seat made by my mother.

    Thus, no matter where I eat in my house–on the sofa in front of a football game, at breakfast, or hosting guests for dinner, my grandmothers are present.

  • I can so relate. Yesterday, in an otherwise horrid day (health, deadlines, don’t get me started), a new friend and colleague invited me over for a spot of tea and talk. How lovely is that?

    I figured we’d boil some water, throw a bag in a cup, and get down to talking shop. When I arrived I discovered she’d set the table with a cloth, napkins, homemade preserves, cake, and scones and set out her grandmother’s ornate china. It instantly took me back to taking tea with my own grandmother in dainty cups and saucers with flower patterns. Such a comfort on a cold day. I can tell I’m going to get along with this gal just great.

  • Oh Ruth I have so much to say to you after reading this. First off, I decided years ago I had to stop keeping books. I didn’t have room. So I enacted a policy of loving them and setting them free. Anything I want to read again I can easily get from the library or Amazon. I have one bookcase and that is what I am limited to.

    I inherited my grandmother’s wedding china and it means the world to me. My grandparents married during the Depression and despite this, my grandmother, her mother, and her aunt went to Toronto to buy this china. I only use it once or twice a year like you, but it is so precious to me. My daughter will inherit it someday from me.

  • This post inspired so many thoughts! First though, I think I should say that I went through a purging of furniture recently, and I think it has something to do with age. I think we are about the same age, aren’t we Ruth?? Second I wanted to say that I agree. When one uses things, like your china, that held meaning for relatives, or even non-relatives, it gives the objects special meaning. I prefer “vintage.” My kids like modern. Does that have to do with age, too, I wonder?

  • Merr Link

    Sometimes it is a quandary as to what is more important to keep. It seems to evolve as we grow. I don’t know – certain books are so meaningful, certain items symbolic of a time in life, or our ancestor’s life. Decide from the heart, I guess.

  • Sheryl Link

    I have no inherited-china stories, but I so enjoyed reading yours. But it got me thinking about possessions, so many of which sit, unused in my closet. One of the things I both dread and look forward to is when we move (and downsize) and have to make decisions to keep – or toss.

  • Ruth — One of your very best pieces. Fine china as talisman: perfect.
    See you next week! Katey

  • I’m a “saver” – have saved all sorts of oddball stuff over the years. Somewhere along the way I heard that phrase “never love anything that can’t love you back.” And also read the book, “Your Money or Your Life,” in which the authors advise us not to hang onto all that stuff.

    It’s tough, though, because you’re right, the stuff tells a story of our ancestors. During a recent illness, my mom handed her diamond engagement ring to me and said, “Here, see what you can get for this.” Ok, first, I’ve never seen that ring off her hand, so to me, it meant she didn’t plan on living much longer. I’m happy to say she’s sitting beside me acting like her old self at this moment. She decided not to leave us after all.

    But she won’t take the ring back. She knows she’s getting near the end of her life – well, our women are long-lived, so maybe sometime in the next 2, 5, 10, I dunno, 15 years she might go. But of COURSE, I’m not going to sell your ring, mom, no matter how hard up we are.

    And that’s just one small ring. That’s not even considering all the dishes, quilts, books, photos, and on and on. Maybe every family should have their own museum of stuff that everyone could visit and learn about their heritage.

  • My grandmother paints china. So while I don’t do much formal dining I’m so grateful to have the pieces that she’s painted. She’s now 94 and can’t do much painting anymore–but you’re right, I’ve gotten rid of books and other things, but I’m hanging on to my grandmother’s china too.

  • Meanwhile, over on the spiteful Italian side of things, my family hands down wooden spoons and random Christmas decorations. Such heirlooms.

  • Christine Link

    Oh, how beautiful. I love the idea of this china being passed down, and carrying such stories with it, Ruth.

  • What do you think of the idea of using the china as everyday ware? It strikes me that that would be, perhaps, an even nicer way of honoring her memory…

  • My family doesn’t really have much in the way of keepsakes from times gone by, though I do have an old milk can that my grandfather used to use on the dairy. I love that you’re toting that china around!

  • Oh dear, as the eldest daughter, I got all of my mother’s stash of china and linens from her mother and her mother and her mother before her. But I think my favorite possession is a Godey’s Ladies’ magazine. My great-great-grandfather went wandering to trade horses, and wandered from Ohio right on out to California. He wrote letters home–we have a handful-and in one of them tells her that she’d better save money by not renewing her subscription to Godey’s. Her tie to civilization and Eastern fashion unknown in the small midwestern town is cut. But she kept the very last magazine, dated the same month as that letter he wrote, and I still have it.

  • happy birthday from gremany, dear ruth! you look so beautiful and elegant, really amazing. I m always looking forward to seeing new pics of you (and all the other great ladys in this really wonderful blog – thanks to you for that, ari). best wishesandrea

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