They're spread all over the counter and the boxes they came in. 20 dinner plates. 7 tea cups. 15 bowls. A mismatched set yet all the same pattern.
No one else in the family claimed Grandma's theater dishes; they are now in my possession. Grandpa handed the boxes over to Dad while I was in town and they drove back with me to Nashville.
I took out each dish from the box and prepare another home for it. They're telling me a story, these dishes. I suppose I find lessons in everything these days. But this story is particularly incomplete.
How has it been over six months since she died? Insulated in my Southern world, I still don't completely believe it. And yet, the dishes wouldn't be here if she still lived. I wouldn't have certain pieces of jewelry or that piece of needlework. These are my reminders.
What can I learn from these dishes? These dishes that I don't remember seeing at their house, much less my grandmother mentioning over the years. I researched the maker and unsuccessfully tried to learn the name of the pattern.
I did the math. How old she'd have been in 1937. How often she must have gone to the movies to acquire such a set. Theater dishes, you see, were a promotion during the Depression. Watch a movie, get a dish. But there are too many dishes in this collection for a young girl to have amassed on her own.
I emailed Grandpa with questions. Did she really get all of these from a theater? How old was she and over how many years? What else did he know about these dishes? I hungrily read his response. Because I didn't search for answers about the dishes so much as answers about Grandma.
I want to tread carefully here. But this is the truth as best as I know it and I can't explain my reaction to these dishes otherwise. I didn't know my grandmother as well as I would have liked. Were you to ask, I could tell you about her hobbies and interests but details about her childhood are murky. I'm not sure she ever told me about the day she met Grandpa or her innermost beliefs.
Who knows why, really. She tended to be reserved but I don't recall her ever rebuffing my questions. Maybe she didn't want to share certain stories or feelings with a grandchild or maybe I didn't take enough time to draw them out. I regret it just the same.
While I was in grad school, we had to create genograms of our families. I interviewed both sets of grandparents, along with my parents, and plotted it all out. I have a hazy memory of talking to Grandpa and Grandma in their old house as they combed their memories and shared stories I'd never heard before.
Now, years later, I'm grateful I asked to hear them while I still had the chance.
With the dishes all around me, I wish I could have that chance once more. Grandpa said in his email she used to go to the movies all the time growing up but didn't like to go in later years. And I wonder what changed.
I wonder why she held on to a set of dishes all these decades when she rarely used them. It's not just that she kept them. According to Grandpa, they bought additional pieces from antique stores over the years. There was something about these dishes that spoke to her. It could be memories of time spent with her mother at the theater, when they still lived in Chicago, or the movies themselves. Nostalgia for another time.
I look at the dishes and I see a piece of Grandma. The flowers almost look like needlework, one of her favorite pastimes. I think Grandma would be happy I have them. I look around my kitchen and wonder if my dishes tell any stories about me. If I'll ever have grandchildren that would want them.
What do these dishes tell me?
Each loss reminds me not to take this time for granted. To take more pictures and ask questions about childhoods and how marriages began. To focus on quality over quantity. To hug freely and often. To say "I love you" and why.
I don't have room in my present kitchen for all of these dishes. They're mostly packed away for now, waiting for an occasion to be paraded around the dinner table.
When I see them, I'll remember Grandma. And then I'll wonder what was playing at the theater in 1937.
What lessons have you been learning lately?