The China Closet
(Republished/edited from my old blog...because my grandmother's presence in my heart and mind has been such a comfort lately)
My grandmother's china has always held special meaning for me. It was her every day pattern that I grew to adore and associate with all of the warmth of her home. It was what we ate our pancakes on and stirred our piping hot buttery grits in....I can't remember how she felt about it before the dishwasher was installed, but once the delicate little scalloped edges chipped and handles on the tea cups fell off in the dishwasher, she'd had enough. And really, who can blame her for wanting to use china built to withstand the magical dishwasher that would certainly give women tied to the sink endless hours back to their busy lives (How many times have we bought this marketing, friends?!)?
So she gradually moved out the delicate cracked tattered plates, bowls, saucers and cups to replace all of them with Corelle dinnerware that was indestructible and nondescript. She put all of the delicate fine china in a cabinet that she had added to her kitchen during a remodeling job for the storage of the many china patterns she had accumulated over the years from various relatives.
When these surviving chipped pieces were lined up and stacked next to the rarely used fine china patterns that neighbored them in the pristine white shelves, their spidery cracks and chipped edges were eyesores compared to the shiny gold edges of the neighboring heirloom set that could still serve twelve without a scratch. I can best describe it as the feeling toward your current shoes when you try on a new pair at the store...all of a sudden you wonder how you made it so many steps in raggedy shoes that are certainly deforming your feet? Needless to say, we didn't eat off of those plates or out of those bowls any more. I was allowed to open the cabinets and look at the pieces, but not get them out unless we were setting the tables for Thanksgiving or Christmas (and even then, the gold trimmed pattern always won out). Hum drum white Corelle would have to do for the everyday meals.
Fast forward to many years ahead when my grandmother passed away, and we started deciding who would get what. I am forever grateful that my mom and my aunt were amazingly sensitive to each other and all of the grandchildren's feelings as we walked through that season. Bala was a grandmother who made each of us feel we were the most important grandchild in her life. She had that effect on nearly every child that encountered her. A simple trip to Kroger often ended in her walking a child back to her mother after having wandered behind Bala like the Pied Piper. She was the grandmother of all grandmothers...smart, wise, and beautiful with some kind of magnetic charm that still has me dazzled by her. So much was her merriment and wonder that truly the grits at her house tasted like a delicacy, even though she shared with me later that she always used instant grits. I guess her gift was less about the meal and more about the sparkle in her eye and the peaceful rhythm she instilled in the breakfast routine on those still mornings in her kitchen.
The dainty china bowl...While I won't turn it into my everyday set because I too still buy the promise and convenience of my dishwasher, I do plan to use it more. This one has a handle that had to be glued back in place after years of being held in all of our hands.
Now the pieces of the tattered pattern are in my kitchen in the cabinet with a glass door, so that I can see all of them and be comforted by the memories of even the simplest of instant grits breakfasts served in those bowls. Every so often, I will make my oatmeal or soup and serve it in those beat up bowls just to feel closer to her and my memories of her and DaddyWard.
Mr. and Mrs. William Ward Watkins III, affectionately known as DaddyWard and Bala, the world's most precious grandparents and devoted spouses...Two of the most influential people in my life.
Last year (from day one to the very last day) we had constant reminders of how short life can be, of how quickly things can change for both good and bad, and how the only way to live it well is by showing up for the moments. Johnny and I found ourselves looking back over the years since we met and pointing to so many friendships and people that we feel so fortunate to have known, relationships that helped us figure out how to be good to each other, how to navigate work, children and life in general...life lessons that made a tough year manageable for us. Even though some of those influential people have passed, their wisdom is still a gift to us.
Amidst the challenges of this past year were a couple of broken bones, surgeries, short hospital stays and maxed out physical therapy visits. We rode the waves of emotions that went along with those events. Sometimes our attitudes were coached with language that said, "Nose down. Eyes Up. Keep Pushing!" And at other times it sounded more like, "Ugh, does this ever end? Where are the normal days without doctor's appointments and stuffed calendars?" But the WORST were the days wrought with, "Well, you should just be grateful. Look at all you have to be thankful for. Don't be sad. Be glad. Life is good. Chin up." In other words, "Don't feel. Just move. And smile. And act like you have it under control."
Whew. That's when I had to regroup...when the shaming finger-pointing voice turned passive aggressive and did that tricky manipulative maneuver using comforting words to jab me in my sore ribs (Because I did manage to work out to keep my sanity, my ribs were often sore.). Here is how this pattern plays out for me...I get frustrated and tired and less likely to be still and open. Around that time, usually after quite a bit of moaning and a few kicks to the ribs, I hear Stillness calling me to her table, and asking me to take a seat. The dialogue quiets and is replaced by feelings of relief, a deep sense of compassion. The BIG reminder was that while, yes, our family's life is still so good and full even though we were navigating a few detours, we were reminded that we are allowed to be sad when it's hard and angry when it's challenging.
The reminders from this place called Stillness always comfort as they loop back around and remind me that Truth holds the answers, and sometimes truth makes it way to us through trial and tears not by the avoidance or denial of them. The key is to be available and willing to let The Truth show up, which means I have to allow Grace to soften my edges and prepare me to really receive what God has for me if I abide with Stillness, Truth, and Grace.
In my yearning to allow more Grace and Truth into my days, my thoughts keep drifting back to that china cabinet at Bala's house. It was beautiful and created a gorgeous space in her kitchen. It held those treasures safely for so many years, and yet when we finally opened the doors for the last time, they were all still stowed away without a blemish, for the most part rarely seen or used. It felt like such a shame that we didn't either use it more or give it to someone who would have. It creeps into my soul and makes me wonder about our human nature to handle gifts and blessings with such care. I think there is a fine line between handling something with care and holding it too tightly.
I wonder if in my own soul I am storing away the treasures that God has put in my heart because I am afraid they will get chipped and tarnished if I let them be seen and used? Am I afraid to test them at the table of LIFE, and see how they hold up? Am I missing out on what these gifts can offer to my own faith and possibly others by handling them with so much care that I have actually stuffed them away behind some cabinet door like fine delicate china that can't handle the dishwasher?
Beautiful Bala, even in her younger years she was testing the limits the world put on her and boldly living her truth. Bala may have put her china in a cabinet, but she used her talents and gifts. She was ahead of her time in boldness and confidence.
I feel God calling me to serve up my best, to allow the Truth of his Grace and Love to trump the lie that my gifts are too fragile to take off of the shelf. I know that He loves to call us out into the places that require our faith, no matter how shaky, because the Bible is filled with stories of real people God guided through faith. When looking back, I can't remember anything about the perfectly preserved china patterns or even the Corelle. The only pieces my soul pined for when Bala was gone were the ones that had served us and taken the wear and tear of every hand that held them, the ones that were actually part of our lives.
I am setting my highest aim to open up more to the opportunities that come my way, to say YES to life's moments that call for my best because a perfect gift on a shelf is simply a gift that has never been tested by faith, and hasn't life taught me that those are the ones that won't be remembered? That won't have left their mark if they've never been taken off of the shelf.
May we give our gifts a chance in the world, a chance to let them get weathered by faith and life. Something that feels as insignificant as instant grits to us can be a vessel God uses in ways we may not even see.
Come with me toward the place called Stillness. We can sister each other with Truth and Grace as we let our gifts get weathered with use.