The Past with Richard Bleil
Growing up, we had two sets of plates. The standard plates we sued every day was nice, but in the china cabinet, we had a set of fine china reserved for our guests. The set included salad bowls, small bowls (for gelatin, I suppose), regular plates, salad plates, a gravy boat, a serving bowl with lid and on and on and on. Mom usually made her special “sesame fried chicken”, which, honestly, I never much liked. It was just too crumby for my palate, but when the dining room table had the tablecloth on it and the good china was out, I knew we were having a guest which, honestly, wasn’t always a good thing. But it was different. I don’t know when, exactly, they got this collection, but I was born in 1963, so let’s say the mid to late ‘60’s.
Fast forward twenty(ish) years. I had finished college in 1985 and had my first job as an analytical chemist lined up in Cincinnati. Mom wanted to help out but was dismayed at the cost of pots and pans and dishes. To me, the solution was obvious. Give me the old stuff she didn’t want anymore, and she can upgrade her own cookware.
Along with her old cookware, she gave me, believe it or not, the fine china. I was shocked that she even wanted me to have it. Don’t get me wrong; there was also a set of sterling silver utensils (a wedding gift, no doubt), and I certainly didn’t get that, but when mom suggested that I take the fine china, I was very surprised. I asked her why she would give me her fine china and not something less valuable.
As it turns out, she gave me the cheap stuff. I guess that she pulled those plates out for company because there were so many sets, more than the number of guests we had even in the largest gatherings, but rather than being “fine china”, it was actually giveaway plates.
Yes, that’s right. It was free. In the sixties, when you filled up with gas (at thirty cents a gallon), you got free dinnerware. Every time they went, there was something different in the collection; plates, bowls, small plates, serving bowls, gravy boats and so on. What you received was just the luck of what they had, and mom and dad put together quite an impressive set of “fine” china.
I kind of wonder what such a set would sell for today.
But I always assumed it was the “good stuff”. Here’s the funny thing, though; what makes something valuable is perception. Wealthy people will often purchase very large and very expensive “status” pieces of jewelry, but if it’s very valuable, they never wear it. Often, they will hire a jeweler to make a (high end) piece of costume jewelry that looks like their expensive originals which they will wear out as the real piece sits in a safe. But that costume jewelry, shining and glittering in the pictures and on the red carpet, is still coveted by many people who don’t know that this is what they will often do.
What we covet often has less to do with monetary value than it does personal history. As I type this, sitting on the shelf near me is one of those foam rubber stress relief toys. If somebody tried to take that, I would defend it to the death, not because it’s some kind of collector’s item or in any way monetarily valuable at all, but because it’s valuable to me. It’s valuable to me because it was given to me by a very good friend of mine. Every time I see it, or use it, I think of her. Not that I need this toy to think of her, but seeing it just makes me happy because I know from where it came.
I guess mom and dad, knowing their origin, didn’t really care much about collection dish set despite the ornate and rare pieces in it. In my eyes, they were the “guest plates” and therefore of great value. People don’t have to value the same things that we do for them to be important to us, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s disappointing when, for example, you try to sell something and find out it has no real value at all, much like my old guitar that I had to sell during bad times to a pawn show who offered me a fraction of what I had anticipated. But I liked it and learned a little about playing guitar with it. The value to me is far greater than what it meant to others, but their valuation of it didn’t diminish its value in my heart in the least.