Poems & Essays

14 Dec

Bygone Elegance

General/Column One Response

I was always close with my grandmother—lots of sleepovers as a small child, dressed up lunches and shopping in the city as I got older. Her house had an elegance, especially her dining room and the china closet filled with beautiful, fragile treasures and mementos.

The journey was long. It started in Japan—my father, a young GI finishing a tour in Korea and Vietnam, looking for something special to send home to his mother. They were purchased, carefully packaged with tissue paper and padded dividers, and shipped on November 21, 1963—the last day of innocence for a generation.

Lots of different pieces and sizes—pieces for serving, pieces for drinking, pieces for main courses and pieces for desserts—all in fragile porcelain. And all in a warm cream color, delicately rimmed in two tones of gold. They traveled an ocean, then traversed a country and arrived at my grandmother’s house—still perfectly intact and straight like soldiers. Five boxes were unpacked and artfully arranged in a cabinet made of honey-colored wood, with glass and delicate metal that created a crisscross pattern on the doors. That cabinet was their home for more than 30 years.

At the beginning they were used frequently. Sunday dinners where four sisters and their families gathered. The adults at the expansive dining table. The children at card tables set up in the living room. Set out with care like snowflakes for the holidays—over turkey and stuffing at Thanksgiving; ham and pierogies at Christmas—where three generations gathered to talk and laugh. It was very traditional; the women conversed and worked together in the small kitchen, going back and forth through the white swinging door to the dining room with bowls and platters of food. The men were sprawled in the small game room, telling jokes and laughing over glasses of deep amber whiskey. The kids played in the basement where there was more room to be energetic—boys with Hot Wheels and girls with Barbies.

The dishes were there for coffee and dessert with neighbors. They were also there for monthly card club where close friends for decades lingered over finger sandwiches and pie, sharing stories of their children and grandchildren.

The years passed. Everyone got older. The Sunday dinners became less frequent—the parents were busy with work, and the kids were busy with activities—extra hours at the office and baseball practice and ballet. Some of the neighbors moved away. The card club eventually stopped meeting—a result of a combination of health problems and no longer being able to drive.

Eventually they weren’t brought out as often. Get-togethers became more casual—paper and plastic became the replacement. It was so much extra work to take care of them. So much extra work to set the table, so much extra work to put them away. Younger people needed to be there to help.

I missed the old times—the specialness of taking that extra effort. I was always ready to help because I always admired the dishes—thought they personified a bygone elegance. I loved the time that they represented. I loved the memories they held and the relationships they represented.

A promise was made—they’re yours when you get married. In fact, take the cabinet and table too—they all intertwined and should stay together.

I got married, but we didn’t have a home for them. The dishes remained safely in the cabinet at her house—still perfectly arranged, but just pretty much just decorative at this point. A faint layer of dust dimmed the gold.

A few more years went by. Things continued to change. While her spirit was still strong, my grandmother became frailer, more fragile. It was too much effort—and no longer safe—for her to continue to stay in the house. She needed people to help her. She needed to say goodbye to her home and move to assisted-living. It was time for me to take the dishes—to give them a new home, new uses, new memories.

I went to her house and stood in the rooms—I was transported back. I was six years old again. We went to the cabinet and slowly took them out like treasured artifacts, one at a time. We talked about how she met my grandfather—they grew up in the same neighborhood and he used to wait for her by her front gate to make sure she made it home safely when she was out with her friends. We talked about the Thanksgiving when my father was deployed and she stood by the cabinet and at the table, not sure if he had been injured or killed in action. We talked about how excited she was when I was born and she finally had a girl to spoil after three boys. As we talked, we emptied the cabinet and gently packed them up in the same boxes where their journey began.

The boxes were transferred to my car. And another journey began—this time to my home a thousand miles away. A few weeks later the cabinet and table arrived. I stood at the table and as carefully as I packed them, I unpacked them. I remembered the order from her house and recreated things as best I could. I stood by the table and though it was like to think and feel like her.

A few years later she passed away, and a few years after that I moved back home. Now I host the holidays and have dinner parties. Gently I pull them out, carefully I set the table. New, wonderful memoires and a new generation of happy times.


Susan McLaughlin is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh, PA with eight-year-old twin girls and a 14-year-old black lab. She enjoys the possibilities of creative non-fiction and is excited to be featured in Mothers Always Write for the first time.

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1 Comment

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  1. Jayne Martin

    December 15, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    Your writing is as exquisite and lovely as the dishes you describe. I, too, was taken back to that special time. And yes, November 21st, 1963 most definitely changed our generation. Congratulations on beautiful work. I really enjoyed reading your story.


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