This post continues a series on “objects” inspired by Martie McNabb’s Show & Tales events. In writing, the concrete will always have more power than the abstract, because with concrete words come images. Let my words bring images to your mind… and consider this an invitation to write your own “object lessons”–stories inspired by and focused on the things that have meaning for us, because we know their story.
By Sarah White
It is 28 inches long, 18 inches wide, and 26 inches high. It has big wheels at one end and little wheels on the end of legs at the other. Two rounded, drop-down panels can pop up to turn it into a table. A handle folds away at the end with the legs. It is of a style popular in the early 20thcentury—Japonerie. Vaguely Asian scenes are embossed on the drop-down panels. When it was produced in the 1920s, it was designed to live in a formal parlor and be wheeled into position for tea service.
When I first met the tea cart, it was in my Aunt Flosh’s home. She was an elderly bon vivant whose career in publishing in New York City had ended when she retired back to Muncie, Indiana, but she continued to entertain, and the tea cart surely saw use as a cocktail serving station when little girls were not around.
I coveted it and hoped someday it would be mine, like the delicate Czechoslovakian tea set that had probably been purchased at the same time.
Both items date from a time in my father’s life when dysfunction emerged from the primordial muck of family dynamics, took the form of what we came to call The Lovely Things, and stayed. The story, in a nutshell, goes like this: My father’s mother died when he was 6, after painful years suffering from an undiagnosed and worsening brain tumor. She left six motherless children ranging in age from toddler to teen.
My father’s father remarried. The new wife had two daughters of her own, older than the father’s children, about to be launched in society (and in Muncie in the 1920s, that was still something the better families did.) The stepmother was glamorous. Where the children’s mother had lived frugally as their father established his law practice, the stepmother entered the scene as their father became more prosperous. He indulged her with many purchased of Lovely Things—a Haviland china dinner service, Revere candlesticks, coffee service and silverware, the tea cart and other furniture.
Think of those children, growing up with pain and frugality, to be replaced by an acquisitive woman who focused her attention on her own daughters, who were lovely, and ignored the stepchildren, who were plain. The Lovely Things became invested with all that hurt, totems destined to carry it forward.
When the stepmother died many years later, she made a list of who was to have which. Over the ensuing decades the Lovely Things were distributed and redistributed. Each time the story was told again.
My Aunt Flosh came into possession of the tea cart. It drifted down from pride-of-place in her living room to serving as a plant stand in the breezeway, but she made room for it in her tiny apartment at the Westminster Home, and that says something about the persistent power of the Lovely Things. My mother received it after her death.
The tea cart came to me in 1992 when my mother closed out her Indiana home a few years after my father died. Preparing for her move to Florida, she sent a list of the Lovely Things to me, my siblings, and our cousins descended from the original Whites of Muncie. I, of course, claimed the tea cart. I got the Czechoslavakian tea set and Haviland china too, but they went into boxes and have only come out a few times for special events. The tea cart has lived in my dining room for 28 years.
I grew from covetous, to neutral, to resentment about it, over the years. Once gained, the things we want seldom hold the power they had when they were shimmering desires. But could I part with it? Wouldn’t I have to find a White descendant who wanted it, and pass it along with a retelling of the story of the Lovely Things?
My siblings and cousins said “no thanks.” Finally enough people have died that the legend has lost its power. I’m backing away from the computer right now and taking it to the thrift store for donation.
© 2020 Sarah White