Friday, July 15, 2011

A Historian's Dilemma

In my apartment I have a small cabinet filled with china dinner service for eight, including two serving platters, tea cups and saucers, and random little crescent-shaped bread plates, not to mention the standard plates, bowls and what-have-you. The china is safely packed away in zipper cloth containers, each piece of china separated by a thin strip of foam and, in the case of the bowls and plates, a small piece of cardboard, as well. Sitting on the floor next to the cabinet are two boxes which contain crystal glasses, also for eight, including large wine goblets, smaller goblets and dainty sherry glasses. As with the china, each glass is carefully packed away, wrapped in foam covers and separated from one another by cardboard partitions. They would also be in a cabinet but I do not have a piece of furniture that can safely hide the china and the crystal, so the crystal remains in boxes on the floor. Next to the crystal boxes, going in a line along the wall, is a hutch which, in addition to my cookbooks, mixing bowls and Dutch ovens, displays a large, somewhat tarnished silver tea service: tall tea pot, sugar bowl with lid and milk pitcher, all perfectly positioned on a silver tray. On top of the hutch is a silver cake stand, also slightly tarnished but, perhaps due to less filigree in the pattern, shining more brightly than the tea service below. If you open the hutch doors you will find a large, heavy, crystal punch bowl with eight glasses and a ladle, casually sitting next to some muffin tins.

These are all items that once belonged to my parents, items specifically given to me for various reasons including simple circumstance (both my sisters already had china and crystal, with no need for second sets), physical association (I would polish the tea set and cake stand for my mother, so out of three children I was the only one with known attachment to the pieces), and personal claim (I wanted the punch bowl because I was determined to use it, rather than leave it stored in a box as it had existed for the past thirty years.) There are other items in my apartment, as well, odds and ends that my sisters could not stand to give away when they packed up the house. In the same cabinet which houses the china I also have two decorative plates commemorating Western Maryland College, where my (our) great-grandmother attended (and graduated.) Did I attend Western Maryland? No. But because I graduated from college, unlike my sisters, and the great-grandmother in question is my namesake, it was determined that the plates would be best served in my hands. I think it was staring at those plates, trying to decide what to do with them, that started my dilemma.

I was not around when my sisters packed up the house. When my (our) parents died I ran away, first all over the country, then overseas where I stayed for almost two years. I was grateful for the work my sisters did and gladly accepted the choices they made. In truth, I wanted the china and the crystal and the tea set - I wanted any and every physical connection to my parents that I could have, things I could touch and smell and hold in my hands while remembering holidays spent 'round the dining room table, crystal glasses in use only because my sisters and I begged our mom to use them, or a quiet, sunny Sunday afternoon, talking to my mom and dad as I polished the silver for them. Simple memories that do not require aides, yet at the time I needed those physical objects to stand as a shrine to my parents. That was then. Now, I am not so sure I want my dining room to be a memorial and my inheritance seems more of a hindrance. After all, when I become nostalgic about Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners it is not the plates I am remembering; in my memory, and in reality, the tea set was (is) just a useless dust-collector; despite an initial determination to put the punch bowl to good use, it still sits in the dark, untouched and unused. Sometimes I take one of the crystal glasses from its respective box and hold it, imagining how it would feel to fling it at the wall and watch it shatter into a thousand pieces. It is only a glass; my parents died years ago.

Preservation. Remembrance. I feel the weight of these words, of the historian's duty to maintain memory, each time I walk past my relics. How long must I carry these objects with me? Until I have a house of my own and will use the china and crystal at holidays dinners I host, serving coffee and cake form the silver sets? I am no longer sure that it the lot I want in life or that I care about serving Thanksgiving dinner on matching china - or on china, at all. It is a tradition that now means nothing to me, yet just the thought of allowing a tradition die fills me with more guilt than abandoning these things my sisters entrusted me with. Nevertheless, I must admit to myself that I am not a museum, I have no duty to be a museum, and holding on to their plates will not bring my parents back. Yet how can I claim to be a historian when I do not want to hold on to the past? And really, how would I explain myself to my sisters? Regret and guilt versus preservation and memory. I do not know which, in the end, will win out.

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