Monday, April 5, 2010

The Spoils of War Outlive Their Captor

A detail shot of the serving platter from Beulah Calloway's 64-piece China set. Photos by Yours Truly.

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

I’VE been living in my late aunt’s house two months now. I’ll call her Aunt N. She retired to Monroe from Saginaw in the late 1990s to be near my mother, her sister.

Over the last couple of months I’ve made some interesting discoveries/re-discoveries about house-living and Aunt N’s in particular.

One of the first things I noticed is the huge closets in every bedroom. There is, too, a smaller closet on the hall and, a linen closet. A closet just for the sheets and towels. Imagine that! The combined closet space is almost as large as some New York City apartments. In fact, a large closet in a New York apartment is a huge selling point. One must think in context, though. A large closet – mine, for instance – in a New York apartment is less than half the size of the ones in this house.

There is generally sufficient space for just about everything here, though I would venture to say that Aunt N needed a larger house or, fewer things. Another feature of the house is a deep freezer. Where else is one to store those foods that should be frozen? The refrigerator freezer is mainly for ice and Popsicles or maybe a chicken pot pie. But meat, game, ice cream, extra bread and butter go in the deep freezer.

The deep freezer is in the utility room where the washer and dryer hang out. How easily one forgets such conveniences. Aunt N extended the size of her utility room to accommodate another closet and for general storage space for various whatnots. Without a doubt, hers is definitely larger than a lot of NYC studio apartments. It is also in the utility room where I discovered the plunger, to my great relief. And it is home to a rake and hoe. I mean garden tools, not people.

The sugar dish and eight plates that are part of a collection that has been well-preserved.

The most interesting of my discovering by far, though, is the presence of my late grandmother’s good dishes staring back at me from my Aunt N’s China cabinet. Had they been crying out to me for weeks? Tear-stained or not, the years have treated them well. They are in mint condition. Even as a child I admired the ivory-colored China set with silver trim. My grandmother would cart it out for special occasions such as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, or if we were hosting a very special guest. Though one of my chores was washing dishes (but not pots and pans) I was exempted from washing these dishes. My grandmother always washed them, dried them and returned them to their proper place with tender-loving care.

The saddest day of my life was well over 20 years ago. It was the day that Beulah Calloway senior died. I was in class at my elementary school when someone from the principal’s office came in and whispered something to the teacher. I was called forward and led out to the principal’s office. Awaiting me was my aunt-in-law and the bearer of the bad news. Aunt S – who inexplicably called me Old Lady – helped me into the car, and we set out for my home in silence.

It was Aunt S’s custom to joke with me and tease me, but I believe she was intentionally quiet because she understood that I was processing the news in my child’s way. Heretofore, I'd not known anyone who'd died – at least not personally. I didn’t cry. I just sat ramrod straight in the passenger seat and looked straight ahead. I was stunned and in denial. It didn’t seem real, nor should it have. I’d just seen my grandmother before I left home for school that morning, before I bid her good day and walked the half block to the bus stop. When we got home I bolted from the car, ran into the house and made a beeline for the forest green leather sofa where my grandmother had died a few hours earlier in her sleep. I sat. And wept.

Over the next few days life was aswirl at the Calloway house, for BC was a beloved and revered figure. Visitors were in and out all day every day with food, offers of assistance and condolences. Even one of my teachers dropped by. The phone was ringing off the hook. Several of my great aunts served as hostesses. Relatives were arriving from all around the country, including Aunt N from Saginaw.

One night when Aunt N was at my grandparents’ house she passed through the kitchen where I was assisting one or other of the great aunts. There was nothing remarkable about her being there. She might have been going to one of the bedrooms or to the bathroom. We paid her no mind. She’d stopped in the short hall that separated my bedroom from the bedroom of another aunt, Aunt E, who occupied a large room in one corner of my grandparents’ house. Aunt N knocked; Aunt E opened the door and soon they were chatting amicably.

From left, my grandmother's salt and pepper shakers, sugar jar, milk/cream pitcher and butter dish.

In double-quick fashion, though, voices were rising. Now there was shouting, mainly from hot-tempered Aunt N. According to family lore, the two never got along – even as girls. “She didn’t treat my mother right,” Aunt N disclosed to me without elaboration a couple of years ago when I pressed her for details.

The fuss captured the attention of us in the kitchen. From what I could make out they were arguing about who should get their recently deceased mother's linen and some other things. Then the subject of her good China – Gold China Elegance made in Japan– came up, followed by a little piece of hell breaking out. The shouting escalated to curses, accusations and threats, immediately followed by blows. I recall my grandfather and uncle dragging away Aunt N, literally kicking and screaming. Aunt E slammed her door and retreated into her hovel.

In the days after the funeral a number of my grandmother’s things would go missing – linen, clothes, jewelry, hats. And the 64-piece China set.

All these years later it is safe and remarkably sound, and I hope to make it mine – without a fight.

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