Located along the far wall of a seldom used dining room, my mother-in-law’s china cabinet proudly displayed a vast assortment of serving pieces, glassware and a host of trinkets collected over a lifetime. When you stood at the entrance of the room – not venturing any further for fear of setting off a museum-like alarm that would loudly protest the intrusion – you could peer through the glass doors to make out countless items formally arranged in tidy rows, the smaller items positioned before a backdrop of standing plates. This perpetual exhibit was apparently intended only for display, since throughout the twenty years I knew Florence I never once saw any item in that cabinet – nor the room in which the cabinet was housed – ever used.
At the end of each week, Florence would spend her Fridays carefully removing every piece from that china cabinet for a meticulous polish and dust, only to return it to a predesignated spot where it would remain untouched for yet another week. Along with other household chores (which at one point included washing and ironing every set of curtains in her house), she referred to this ritual as Friday’s Work.
A few years back when Flo was moved to assisted living, my husband asked me to clean out his mother’s beloved china cabinet. I didn’t want this job for a host of reasons, the primary one being that I was not on good terms with my mother-in-law. Florence was not an easy woman to love. Afflicted with a strong sense of entitlement and a belief that a more prosperous life should have merely been dropped in her lap, she never pursued anything that would have made her happy. Instead she chose to spend her years looking past those who willingly offered love and yearning for more, then bitterly complaining when it never arrived. Flo’s self worth – and the worth of her material possessions – far outweighed the value of anyone including her own children, who served as nothing more than emotionally battered victims of her quest to find someone (or some thing) who’d offer a better life.
I worked very hard to get past Flo’s ability to willingly discard love simply because it didn’t suit her expectations, but it deeply pained me to see her treat others (including my own husband) with such unkindness and blatant disregard. At first I tried to be her friend but, like everyone else, I couldn’t live up to her haughty expectations. Eventually, the toxicity became too much and I backed out of further phone calls and visits.
In the end, she drove everyone away but for a few, one of them being my Rick. So because he really needed the help, I packed the car with boxes and newspaper to begin the task of cleaning out Flo’s china cabinet.
Finding someone in your life such as Florence often often leads you to examine your own perceptions of happiness and love. And here I was, about to examine the very items in which she’d found more happiness and love than in her own friends and family. It was unsettling. Initially it felt awkward, forbidden even, reaching for the glass door to slide open the cabinet, exposing Flo’s beloved treasures to a flood of fresh air and light.
As I removed the contents, I wondered about the hold these items had on her. To Florence, their value was not sentimental but rather monetary and symbolic. They were rewards for having achieved a place in upper middle-class. Because they held such prominence, these treasures were used only for the most special of occasions, as a proud declaration of having acquired a highly sought after lifestyle. They were to be ogled over and admired by others. Any less an occasion would not have been worthy of their use. And because such events rarely occurred, most items never left the inner sanctuary of the china cabinet. Unless you count her Friday’s Work.
I believe this is the saddest part of Flo’s story: that she saved her things – and her love - for events and people that never arrived. Nothing was ever special enough. Or special at all, for that matter. And when no one worthy of her expectations showed up, she grew angry and bitter, assuming the part of Unloved Victim in a story she perpetuated that vastly distorted reality.
An examination of the contents of that china cabinet was an examination of Florence herself.
Ironically, it turned out that none of Flo’s treasures held any of the value she’d assigned them. Napkin rings that she believed were gold were not. Tea sets once coated with the barest layer of silver had long been polished off. European crystal turned out to be restaurant-grade goblets. Ceramic figurines were not the antique porcelain she’d been told about. Plastic cocktail skewers were not ivory. And china plates were chipped and worn from years of being stacked atop one another.
All that Friday’s Work, all those high expectations, all that saving for special occasions or people… it resulted in nothing.
In the end, it was all thrown away. No one wanted anything, since these very items that represented a good life for Florence also symbolized to others her inability to desire and love anything but them.
In situations like these, I tend to look for the lessons. The one I learned from Flo and her china cabinet is simply not to have one. Because anything designated only for special - be it a gadget, appliance, blouse or plate – eventually forces you to rate each individual or event, to determine whether they’re special enough for the special stuff. Surely, weighing the value of a person is a crime. Caring for and coveting material possessions more than the people in your life must be equally criminal.
In our house, we celebrate the everyday with all that we have and our table is dressed each time we sit around it – whether with friends or by ourselves. We don’t save the special stuff since, to us, everything is special. This may sound as though it would lessen an important event, but in reality it transforms every occasion when we’re together into something wonderful.
Everything is special enough to mark both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Therein lies the value… not monetary, but in sentiment. Not in our things, but in each other.
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