“Any thoughts on China?” asked the woman soon to become my mother-in-law.
I was puzzled. The country wasn’t on the radar as a honeymoon destination. Was I about to be grilled on human-rights issues?
Neither; she was simply asking about dishware. But the plates and cups she had in mind were the formal ones I’d never imagined either owning or wanting. In fact, “china” wasn’t a word I’d ever used without an uppercase “C” in front.
I was a modern woman, raised by a modern mom. Scandinavian design ruled in our anything-but-traditional Brooklyn home, so we had one set of white plates for everyday use and another set for company. The latter were, decidedly, a notch above the others, but china they were not.
A brief engagement found me busy with wedding planning, even if just for the small celebration my guy and I both wanted. “Registering” wasn’t even a concept, and, anyway, hadn’t I already done that in college?
But then the queries began. First, from a smattering of professional colleagues; soon after, from friends and family. All were eager to express their sighs of relief with a gift — particularly, it seemed, a breakable one. So we registered.
At this point in the relationship with the man I was about to glue my life to, our joint shopping excursions had been limited to bookstore outings, stops at a neighborhood market, and a sneaker-buying adventure that somehow cemented my love for him.
So stepping off the elevator onto the fine-wares floor of Bloomingdale’s wasn’t just different; it was surreal. Light danced off crystal. Dishes and platters and gravy boats were positioned for adoration. There was a hushed reverence in the air. It was not unlike church, though far less beautiful.
I’ve not yet mentioned that my groom is a graphic designer, with rather strong ideas about what the world serves up visually. But we did, ultimately, see a thing or two we could almost, just possibly, envision living with.
My imagination began to quicken: A dinner party for eight, in honor of a prominent colleague. Wild-mushroom soup with lemongrass and ginger to start. Miso-marinated black cod, haricots verts, and timbales of jasmine rice. Panna cotta with blackberry sauce for dessert. Splendid wines throughout. I’d wear something quietly elegant. Brazilian music would stream gently through the speakers.
“What do you think of this?” His words yanked me back from the pages of my upscale glossy. Back to reality, which was this: I was marrying a self-employed book-cover designer — a talented and successful one, but not a junior law partner or budding global economist.
This china with a lowercase “c” that I didn’t want in the first place would never be used for hosting the boss, or a foreign dignitary, or one of the world’s great musicians (though with my own work at the time, the latter was not impossible). In fact, our dinner parties were more likely to involve our closest friends in their best blue jeans than the stuff of my Bloomingdale’s-fueled fantasy.
We ultimately found “our pattern.” Simple white dishes, with a thin, matte, dotted platinum band around the edge. It’s modern. It’s clean. And but for the annoying and almost deal-breaking fact that it can’t go in the dishwasher, it’s the perfect choice for the Crate & Barrel daughter of a Dansk-driven mom.
We firmed it all in ink, and the china began arriving, one place setting at a time. The doorman would hand over huge boxes, and we’d rush upstairs and plunk them down in our foyer — surprisingly eager, for all our resistance. We de-cartoned, de-ribboned, and de-wrapped. We sprawled on the floor, more than a little dazed, admiring our lovely china and imagining our lovely life.
There was a wedding, and there is the china. It rests, tenderly stacked between discs of soft gray felt, high on shelves I can hardly afford to dedicate to it, in my Manhattan apartment kitchen. It is used only rarely, but used it is, for occasions so special the prospect of hand-washing only barely gives me pause.
Rising to the dishes, we host our first married New Year’s Eve with a Scandinavian dinner for six: gin-and-juniper gravlax with mustard-dill sauce, Swedish meatballs with lingonberries, marinated cucumbers, a cardamom-spiced apple tart.
We celebrate our first wedding anniversary with a dinner for our four extraordinary parents: fillet of beef with Madeira sauce, a potato gratin with Gruyère and leeks, roasted asparagus, a chocolate soufflé cake with fresh raspberries.
The dishes are brought down for family Thanksgivings with their glorious bounty and bountiful thanks, and for momentous professional and life events, including a celebration on the birth of our against-all-odds baby and the sweet, treasured birthdays that have followed.
And once in a while, the china comes down simply to make an everyday fancy — presented with fanfare as a platform for a cupcake or a scrambled egg, if only for the delight it brings.
After the big occasions, I stand at the sink, bleary from the prepping and the cooking and the company and the wine, and I begin to wash our china. If it has, in fact, been Thanksgiving, or dinner for eight, there could be 48 pieces — soup bowls, dinner plates, salad plates, dessert plates, cups, and saucers — to wash and dry.
Standing at the sink, hot water flowing, I think in ways I never fully do, except when we’ve used our wedding china.
I think about my mother, a woman with the most modestly rich life imaginable, from a childhood spent sleeping in her winter coat in a house with no heat, to a romance that found her dressed in a perfect black sheath, sipping martinis in the jazz clubs of Manhattan, looking like the starlet she is, her arm wrapped around that of the equally modest yet glamorous man she would marry.
I think of the glorious meals she boldly attempted and thrillingly delivered, served on both the white plates and The White Plates. There were Julia Child classics, such as boeuf bourguignon and pot-au-feu, and there were dishes that would bring tears to the eyes of my Austria-born father, such as schnitzel, goulash, and sauerbraten with gingersnap gravy.
I think about my mother’s life, its remarkable joys and its unexpected sorrows. And I think of the bottomless depth of my love for her.
I think about her mother, my grandmother, who cooked and served up piping-hot Sunday dinners for 20 from a broken stove with only three working burners, and for whom the sheer basics of my life would have been untold luxuries in hers. A woman scarred by scandal and tragedy, but one whose eyes watered most from her laughter.
I think about my mother-in-law, forced from her homeland by war. An elegant, serious woman with hardships and scars of her own, and for whom meals play a different, less romantic role.
I think of the women in my life, and of their quiet, even silent, struggles. And of how their days — full of children and husbands and housework and workwork and meals — afforded little time to reflect on anything at all, and of how they must have stood at the sink, in rare solitude, washing dishes, and thinking.
The rush of water. The glint of suds. The meditative swish of cloth on dish. Hardships. Blessings. Secrets. Resolve. I stand at the sink, thinking about the women I love standing at the sink. I wash the wedding china I hadn’t known I’d wanted, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.
Laraine Perri’s essays have been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, and the New York Times, as well as on Culinate. She lives in New York City.