My Life as Told by a Set of Dishes

My Christmas presents the year I was in sixth grade were a used Featherlight sewing machine that my father bought from someone he’d recently met, a set of Melmac dishes that had been a giveaway at Safeway (one piece each week with a purchase), and a new school uniform.

I was pleased with these gifts, even the uniform. My uniforms were the only clothing that was ever bought specifically for me; generally, I wore hand-me-downs from a tiny cousin. (And boy, did having the seams let out to the maximum give me a bad body image at an age when most girls were barely aware of their bodies!)

Back at school, when kids asked me what I got for Christmas, I told them. All day, I could see kids huddled together, glancing at me, and I could hear their tittering. As often happened during those years, I had no idea what I did to make myself a figure of fun. One day, though, a friend came to the house, and with a snicker, she asked to see my gifts.

The snickering stopped when she saw the real sewing machine and the grown-up set of dishes. Apparently, she along with all my classmates thought I got a toy sewing machine and a child’s set of dishes, and they’d been making fun of my childishness.

After that, they still gave me the cold shoulder, which taught me that people blame the victim when they have erred. Apparently, too, being given toys at the advanced age of eleven was infantile, but being given grown-up stuff was plain weird.

I kept the sewing machine until after Jeff died, but I couldn’t keep all three of my sewing machines — my Featherweight, an additional Featherweight that had been handed down to me, and the Pfaff that I had bought in my early twenties when I managed a fabric store. Selling those two Featherweights cheap was a mistake — it turns out they were worth 50 times what I sold them for, and even worse, the Pfaff is so heavy, now that I am getting older, I can barely lift it. (It is solid metal, and I mean SOLID.)

As for the set of dishes, I still have them. They were a source of contention that last year of Jeff’s life. As he pulled away from me, I pulled away from the hurt of his pulling away, and I did not want him to use my plates. The Melmac plates are a nice size, so we used them even more than the Corelle dishes we purchased together since the Corelle plates were too big. But that year, I got concerned about knife gouges and food stains, so I asked him not to use them. But he still did. He liked using things in rotation, so I put Melmac plates at the bottom of the stack. He still used them.

It seems silly now all the emotion I invested in protecting those silly plates. I felt guilty, too, at my selfishness. It took me years to realize the symbolism. I couldn’t protect him, couldn’t protect myself from the pain I was going through at the time, couldn’t protect myself from the grief I would feel after he was gone, but I could protect those plates! But I couldn’t even do that. He simply did not understand what I’d asked of him, and if he did understand, he didn’t remember. Now I know that the cancer that had spread to his brain caused the problem, but at the time, I thought he was being . . . I don’t know . . . inconsiderate, maybe. I don’t use the dishes much any more. Perhaps I’m still protecting them. Or me.

I vaguely remember also having a problem with his using my silverware. (Stainless steel flatware, actually, that had been a giveaway at the bank when I was in my late teens and early twenties — one piece for each deposit). Jeff and I had always intermingled the household things we each brought to the relationship, but for some reason that last year, he began exclusively using my spoons. I preferred those spoons to his because they were a bit narrower and thinner, and seemed to fit me better. Maybe as he got sicker, they seemed more comfortable to him, too, but it left me having to use his thicker spoons, and I resented it. The irony is that after he died, I started using his flatware, and that’s what I mostly use now.

Do you see a pattern here? A set of dishes that’s lasted this long with only one cup missing and a couple of chips on the edge of one small plate. Flatware I’ve used practically my whole life and still use. A sewing machine I bought decades ago and still have. A car I bought new forty-odd years ago and still drive. Could be those kids back in grade school were right — maybe I am a bit weird.

It does seem odd though, that these things are still here, while both my parents, two brothers, and Jeff are gone.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.