When my Aunt DeDe’s number came up on my caller ID, I was happily surprised.
Not only is she one of my favorite people in the world, but I hadn’t spoken with her personally since my dad died a year ago. Phone calls to Africa, where she was serving as a Southern Baptist missionary, weren’t something I made or received. My only contact with her for two and a half long years had been a blog and Facebook updates.
Late in the summer, Aunt DeDe had returned to the states. It seemed that everyone in the family had gotten to see her except for me. And now she was calling me … and was about to make me an offer that would be just as pleasantly surprising as the phone call itself.
“Paige, I don’t know if you were aware that when I moved back, I got Mama’s dishes. I’ve been unpacking them in my new house … and well, there are just too many of them for me and Curt. I just don’t need 16 place settings of china!” Aunt DeDe laughed, and for a moment she sounded just exactly like my grandmother. “Anyway, when I was thinking about what to do, you came to my mind. I wonder if you might like to have a portion of the dishes. I know it would have pleased Mama so to know that you had gotten some of them.“
Tears sprang to my eyes. From the time I was a little girl, I had thought my grandmother’s Blue Danube china was the most beautiful set of dishes I had ever seen.
For as long as I could remember, my grandmother, whom I called Mammie, kept her china in a massive antique display cabinet that had once been part of an old drugstore. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the old cabinet with sliding glass doors had neatly displayed ladies’ gloves and men’s handkerchiefs; now it overflowed with my grandmother’s trinkets and treasures … and all of that beautiful blue and white china.
There were dinner plates, salad plates, coffee cups and saucers. Each year, my grandfather bought her some new piece of her beloved china, accessories like platters of various sizes, vegetable bowls and covered casserole dishes. Perhaps most intriguing to me was the large soup tureen, with a matching china ladle. Though I never remember her using it, I always hoped someday she would. I suppose there were just far too many of us in the family to make it practical to serve soup out of that soup tureen.
Mammie didn’t use her china on a daily basis. Rather, it was reserved for special occasions and holidays … Christmas mainly. Oh, how I loved her Christmas table! Each seat had a perfectly arranged place setting directly in front of it. One year, perhaps when I was 8 or 9, my grandmother invited me to come up and help her lay out the table a few days before Christmas. I remember the enormous weight of responsibility I felt as I gingerly carried the delicate dishes from the large cabinet to the long dining table. The last thing I wanted to do was break one of those beautiful plates!
One year, maybe when I was in high school or college, some of my aunts decided that it was too much work to pull out the china for our Christmas dinner. They claimed it was nothing more than a hassle to set the table only to have all those dishes to wash afterwards, and really no one wanted to be stuck in the kitchen, carefully hand washing all those china plates and cups, when they could be out enjoying the holiday with the rest of the family. I certainly understood the reasoning behind the decision to forego using the fancy china in favor of the large oval Chinet paper plates. Yet, after that, Christmas never felt quite as magical as it did when the table was so beautifully set with my grandmother’s best dishes.
Now, as I talked with my beloved aunt, flashes of all those moments popped into my head. “What I have boxed up does not contain a full place setting of everything, Paige. I think you’ll have nearly eight pieces of almost everything, but not coffee cups and saucers. I can give you a few of the extra pieces to make up for that … and maybe you could buy a few replacement pieces if you wanted.”
I assured her that whatever she gave me would be more than fine. After all, I never expected to have even the first piece of that china.
That was early August. It wasn’t until the Saturday before Labor Day that I managed to go visit Aunt DeDe and pick up the boxes. And another week passed before I had a chance to unpack and sort through the contents. Seven china plates, eight salad plates, three coffee cups with saucers, one medium-sized platter, a vegetable bowl and a small casserole dish with a lid. Most surprising of all, the large soup tureen with the matching china ladle.
“Where will you put it all?” Jon asked incredulously. This wasn’t the first time he had asked me where I intended to store all of my grandmother’s dishes.
“I don’t know.” The kitchen looked like it had exploded plastic shopping bags, the packing material my aunt had liberally used to cushion the dishes. Countertops were covered with dishes. My kitchen cabinets were already full, and I didn’t own a china cabinet.
As I pulled the final pieces from the boxes, it occurred to me that I had space in the large floor-to-ceiling storage cabinets that were in our back entry way, next to our second refrigerator.
“I’ll put them in there,” I finally said, answering my husband’s question. Then I added, “I probably won’t use these often …”
Just for special occasions and Christmas.
This week marks a year since my father’s unexpected death.
The last few weeks, my emotions have been all over the map. I probably have cried more in the past month than I did in the first month following his passing. In many ways, the pain feels heavier now than it did initially.
Part of me is surprised by that.
But, perhaps what startles me most about these delayed emotions is how much I find myself missing my grandmother, as well as my father.
Up until a day or two ago, I didn’t even realize how much I had been missing my grandmother. She’s been gone eight years now, nearly nine now … though Alzheimer’s took her long before that. I know it’s been longer than a dozen years since I heard her laugh. Perhaps it’s even been 15 years. I can no longer remember when she slipped away. All I know is that Alzheimer’s is the great stealer, taking a person away long before their death. By the time my grandmother actually stepped through the gates of splendor, all my tears had long been cried.
At least I thought there were no more tears left.
But this past weekend, as I put the last of her blue and white dishes in my hallway cabinet, I found myself wiping away tears. Later, in the shower, I cried hot tears of grief … a grief so intense I wasn’t quite sure where it was coming from. Was I crying because I missed my dad? My grandmother? I couldn’t tell anymore. All I knew was the deep ache in my heart from a longing to see these people I had loved so dearly.
When someone you love dies, people will tell you to give yourself a year. “The first year is the hardest. Once you get through all the firsts without your loved one, things will begin to get easier,” they say in hushed tones, as if somehow this is a comforting thought.
Maybe that’s true. I can’t exactly argue the point. But personally, I am more inclined to think that grief is much more unpredictable.
In my experience, waves of grief come and go, like tides moving in and out along the ocean’s shore. It doesn’t ever stop, though at times the tides of sorrow are lower and calmer while other days it feels like a wild hurricane threatening to drown everything in its path.
Thursday marks one year since my father passed away.
I suppose, it makes sense that this week would be one of intense emotions. In fact, I’ve been anticipating the tide would shift and the waves of grief would begin to roll in higher as the year of firsts without my father drew to a close. And it’s proven to be true, as dreams of my father have been more frequent and tears have fallen from my eyes more freely during these last few weeks.
Thursday is also my 43rd birthday.
Last year, at my father’s funeral, someone commented to me, “My heart hurts for you especially, Paige. Not only did you lose your father, but now you will never again have another happy birthday!” Those words stung, like a slap in the face. It’s wasn’t just the thought have living with such lifelong sadness , but also knowing that my father would have never wanted me to grieve over him like that either. After all, he is now more alive with the Lord in heaven than he ever was when he walked upon the earth.
Still in those first days and weeks following my dad’s death, as I mulled over how I would handle my future birthdays without succumbing to overwhelming feelings of sadness, the Holy Spirit gave me an answer that I never expect. And idea to solve my predicament that I certainly could never have come up with on my own.
From now on, my father and I will share a birthday …
My birthday on earth and his birthday into heaven.
In the past year, time and again God has proven the words of the psalmist are true:
The Lord is near to the broken-hearted. ~Psalm 34:18
From tangible blessings, like my grandmother’s dishes and a birthday vacation to Virginia to visit old friends, to comforting thoughts like sharing birthdays on earth with a loved one’s birthday in heave, my precious Jesus meets me in my grief and is my strong anchor whether the tides of emotion are high or low.
The reminder of this truth has been my greatest blessing during this past year.