My Grandmother’s Dishes

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.

Blue Danube ... my grandmother's china pattern
Blue Danube … my grandmother’s china pattern

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Birthdays on earth

happybirthday

This past week we celebrated … cake, ice cream, presents hidden inside bags overflowing with bright tissue paper. It was our foster son’s 2nd birthday and we delighted in singing the birthday song with him all week long.

Lil’ Man was mostly confused by all the birthday commotion. The morning of his birthday, I tried to put pin a little birthday ribbon on his shirt so that the rest of the world would know it was his birthday, too. He promptly ripped it off. I attempted to reattach the ribbon several more times, only to get the same result. In the end, I was just glad he didn’t tear up his shirt.

Later in the day, I baked a simple cake and put a couple of matchbox cars on the top along with his #2 candle. As soon as he saw the cake on the counter, he demanded that I give him the cars. When I refused, he threw a royal tantrum.

And after dinner, when we lit the candle and sang the birthday song with lots of gusto, our favorite toddler looked around at us with this expression that seemed to say, “You people have lost your minds! Just cut the cake and let’s eat!”

Even the presents seemed to cause Lil’ Man some confusion. We gave him the first gift and he sat there looking at us, unsure of what he should do next. Even after we showed him how to tear the paper, he seemed a bit unsure about ripping something up. I suppose we have made it clear that most things are not meant to be torn apart! Thankfully, once the gifts were revealed, our sweet boy was elated with them … so much so that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play with the toys or eat his cake and ice cream.

 He ended up choosing cake over playing. What a smart boy!

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I’ve always enjoyed birthdays, whether it was my own or someone’s that I love. Even before I became a mother, I enjoyed birthday parties for little people. Once I had children of my own, nothing brought me more pleasure than to plan a party, mostly simple ones but some more elaborate.

In fact, I loved birthday celebrations so much that in years gone by I used to even allow celebrations of halfie-birthdays, complete with half a cake, Blue Bell ice cream in half chocolate and half vanilla, and a special rendition of the Halfie Birthday song (sung to the same tune as the regular birthday song, the only difference being that  each “happy”  is replaced with the word “halfie.”

However, now that I have seven children, it’s much too complicated to try to keep up with regular birthdays and halfie-birthdays. So, for simplification purposes, I had put that tradition to rest. It has been two years since I made that decision, and I’m not sure all of my children have forgiven me yet.

Of all the reasons I love having a big family, perhaps my favorite is getting to celebrate birthdays more often. Nine times each year we get to sing the birthday song and eat cake and ice cream after dinner. In fact, in the month of November alone, our family celebrates three birthdays! I already mentioned Lil’ Man’s birthday this past week. Our foster daughter will be turning one the day before Thanksgiving and our son Nathan will celebrate his 13th birthday on Thanksgiving Day.

 Can you imagine the sugar rush of eating birthday cake and pumpkin pie on the same day … oh my!

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Today is my dad’s birthday. Well, it would have been his birthday today. I think, if I have done the math correctly, he would have turned 67 years old.

Sometimes, after a loved one has passed on, people will (in an effort to comfort you) say something like, “Just think .. this year they are having the best birthday celebration up in heaven!”

While it’s a nice thought … honestly, I’m just not sure about the accuracy of that at all.

I don’t think my dad is in heaven celebrating in some private party with Jesus or even blowing out candles on some sort of heavenly cake as departed loved ones stand around and watch. And I certainly don’t think he has even once contemplated how those of us still on earth are remembering him today.

 In fact, I don’t suppose birthdays matter all that much up in heaven anyway.

Seeing as we will be completely focused on worshipping God, I don’t see how anyone’s birthday (our own included) will even enter into our thoughts. (Well, maybe we will think about Jesus’ birthday. That might be appropriate … besides, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we got to celebrate that in heaven? Talk about a party to remember!)

But right now, I’m not in heaven. I’m here on planet earth … where birthdays do matter, and for the most part people who live in my culture choose to celebrate birthdays with cake and ice cream, parties and presents.

All day I have thought about my dad, missing him so much that tears have fallen several times. It saddens me that I can’t be with him on his special day, buy him a silly card, or wrap up some tiny trinket of a gift. And it’s not just this year that my kids can’t call him and sing the birthday song, as they listen to his laughter in the background. Never again will I be able to enjoy a piece of cake with him, or tell him how much he blessed me.

It’s been a hard day. Truthfully, most days during the past two months have been hard. I suppose that was to be expected. Grief isn’t an easy or quick process, and as these holidays approach I know deep down there are going to be many more hard days yet to come before the tears don’t fall as easily and the sting of the pain begins to ebb away.

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My blog has been quiet these past two months. Part of that was just busyness. I’ve been adjusting to adding those two sweet foster babies to my home, adjusting to sleepless nights again. I had forgotten so much about little ones. Everything seems to take longer these days. I haven’t had nearly as much time to sit and write.

But more than that, I didn’t want my blog to become a grief blog. And yet, this is where I am in life at this time. It’s a season of grief. Just like the fall leaves are beginning to color the landscape of Cajun Country, the dull gray of grief seems to cloud over all my days, both the good and the bad. So like the black armbands worn a hundred years ago or more, I shut down my blog and entered into a time of mourning.

Over the past week, as I’ve celebrated the first birthday since my dad died on my 42nd birthday, I’ve thought over and over that the time to end my silence was over. My grief isn’t over. Far from it! But my heart is ready to process and share, and the only way I’ve ever known to do that is to write it all down.

Before my foster babies came to live in my home and before my dad died, I had a goal of publishing blog posts 3 times a week. I doubt I can make that happen with my current schedule. So I am setting a new goal of one new blog post a week, and more as God lays them on my heart and gives me time to write.

Meanwhile, please know I have missed my writing and blogging community so very much. I am eager to try to catch up, and I am thankful for the promises of God who has said He will be near to the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18) and will turn my mourning into dancing (Ps. 30:11)