Mom died seven weeks ago. My husband and I are working at her condo, as we do every Saturday. We are cleaning and sorting and donating. Friends have come to claim what they want, but there is still so much left. This is our final trip before the liquidator comes to remove all that remains.
Mom’s large china cabinet is still nearly full. On the top shelf, behind glass, there is a tall, slender tea pot with four matching cups and saucers. Each piece is painted with flowers in soft shades of beige, orange, and green, and lightly trimmed in gold. I think of my sturdy clay mugs with their thick handles, and know I would never use this set. Still, it is beautiful.
“I’m going to the storage area to sort the holiday decorations,” I tell my husband. “Don’t bother with anything in the china cabinet. The liquidator can pack it up.” He nods.
I come back from storage with both arms braceleted in holiday wreaths still in good shape, and a large trash bag containing the many torn or broken decorations Mom had stashed away.
As I add the intact items to the containers we’ve lined up in the dining area, I notice the tea set is gone.
“You look at it every time we come,” my husband says. “We’re taking it home.”
I’m too tired to argue.
We stop for a quick dinner and, for me, two glasses of red wine. While I eat and sip, I rant about all the things Mom kept when she supposedly downsized from her house to the condo. Her linen closet contains so many stacks of place mats it looks like a retail display. I vow I will not be like her.
I go to my living room to read, and I stop to study the tea set. For now, I’ve given it the top shelf of Grandma’s oak china cupboard. Maybe I will sell the set on e-Bay or at the antique store just south of town.
I have learned, through a bit of internet research, that the tea service was, in fact, used for hot chocolate. In the lid, there is a tiny hole for inserting a molinet, a long stick for stirring the chocolate, which tends to settle.
If I’m going to sell it, I need to know more about it.
There is a stamp on the bottom of each piece. Some are too faded to read, but I look at one with a magnifying glass, and I see a green wreath encircling an “RS” and the word “Germany.”
Six-year-old Elisabeth Weber watches her mother kneel in front of the trunk their family of four will take with them when they cross the ocean to America. It will be stored in the cargo hold of the ship, and they will carry a single, small bag to their bunks in steerage.
The bottom of the trunk is lined with quilts, and now Mrs. Weber picks up a slim porcelain cup covered in hand-painted flowers and trimmed in gold. She wraps it in one of her shawls, and places it in the trunk.
On the floor, there are three matching cups, four saucers, and a tall, narrow pot. Elisabeth hands one piece at a time to her mother. The set is Mrs. Weber’s most prized possession, and she is determined it will survive the journey from Laufenselden, Prusssia.
This is wishful thinking. I don’t know the details of my great-great grandmother, Elisabeth, and her family’s journey from what is now Germany to a small town in Ohio.
I do some more research and learn that this set was probably made between 1914 and 1945. Had it been from my great-great grandmother’s time, the stamp would have read “Hesse” or “Prussia” instead of “Germany.”
I also read about fakes, and the stamps seem easy to identify. So, while the set isn’t as old as I’d hoped, it is probably authentic, whatever that means.
I grew up amidst knick-knacks. Lots of them. Neatly arranged, and clean, but covering every surface, often with doilies separating the item from the surface on which it was placed. I knew nothing of their history, and I didn’t care. Mostly, I wanted my own home to be different: less cluttered.
I’m determined to go through each room of my home, cull the items I no longer need, and donate them. It is a sobering experience, and I sometimes feel a bit like a character in an Anne Tyler novel, spending my days moving possessions from one place to another. At some point, perhaps when I find a bottle of witch hazel that expired nine years ago, I realize this task will never end.
A woman on a television show about hoarding stands in front of a worn-out looking house, its front porch stacked with furniture, rain-wrinkled boxes, and scores of loose items.
As she wipes her eyes she says, “Those of us who are left just want to remember, so we save things.”
I am reminded, as I struggle to let go of my own belongings, of the things Mom gave up during her last two years of life. At the top of the list: her home of forty-plus years and her remarkably good health. After back surgery, she used a cane, mostly when I insisted. Every morning, she donned a rigid metal leg brace, which could be hidden under her slacks. Still, I often found myself walking behind her, both arms out in case she overestimated her own balance.
One day, without complaint, she gathered all her beloved high heels into a thirty-gallon trash bag, and asked me to drop them in a donation box.
In late March, the annual reminder from the cemetery arrives in the mail. As usual, I donate a plant in memory of Mom. It will be one of approximately 2,000 planted each year on “Daffodil Hill.” The sprawling space already boasts more than 100,000 blooms.
There is no grave to visit, simply a small plaque in the cemetery’s community mausoleum, in memory of those who participate in the“Body Donation Program,” for medical research.
I am reminded that, despite all the things Mom couldn’t bear to part with, she gave away her body.
I’m holding on to her chocolate set.
Melissa Ballard has written essays for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Entropy, Under the Sun, and other publications.