A Life With Things

A Life With Things

by Vanessa L. Ochs

Soon after my engagement, my future mother-in-law kept me lingering at her breakfast table . Mrs. Ochs (which is what I called her) was dressed in a pale blue lingerie set with matching pale blue leather slippers. After cut-up grapefruit, she served homemade blueberry pancakes with softened butter in a ramekin and warmed syrup in a crystal pitcher. In a hand-painted Italian ceramic creamer she had found at a fancy estate sale, she served what she called, “hoff and hoff,” as native Bostonians do. Every food needed a proper container to be transported to the table. Even cereals were redistributed from their packages into Tupperware, and the milk for the cereal was properly jugged.

“I trust you have registered for China?” she asked rhetorically.

What did it mean, I wondered, to register for a country, a communist country at that? I had never mentioned a particular interest in China. I wanted to impress her favorably -- that mattered to me in the early years—so I fudged an appropriate response. Mrs. Ochs went on to explain. “You need to give thought to selecting your china pattern, because it’s forever.”

“You don’t say,” I said, copying the expression she most fancied. It dawned on me that I might spend years ahead feigning interest in elegantly intrusive orations on home furnishings, upholstery and dishes. I was nineteen and could give a fig about things that would fill a home. I was in love. The only thing I wanted was to have this boy forever.

“Failing to register, you’ll end up with gifts you don’t want,” Mrs. Ochs went on to say the next time I visited, sensing she might appeal to my pragmatism.

“You don’t say,” I said again, moving the conversation along.

I didn’t know we’d be getting wedding presents. I had not heard about brides signing up at Tiffany’s, Bloomingdale’s or Fortunoff’s so that they could outfit their real-life “Barbie’s’ Dream Houses” with the objects they desired, and in the patterns they preferred. Perhaps I just wasn’t listening.

I had no idea just how many objects were necessary for daily life! Didn’t we already have more than everything we needed? But Mrs. Ochs would not be giving up; her lectures grew impassioned. China, she explained, meant dishes, dishes you didn’t use for everyday, dishes that symbolized an enduring marriage. The steps you took to preserve your china in a hutch mirrored those you took to preserve your marriage. That your dishes came from many people reflected the community’s investment in your relationship. She used a phrase I couldn’t parse: “Your wedding china is for ‘best.’” She clarified, “China is for company.”

My owh family did not have company, unless you counted my Uncle Sheppie, who we served on paper plates. We drank our juice out of yartzeit glasses that my mother had washed out after the dead had been properly remembered. This was as close to a complete, matching set of anything we possessed. When my mother broke dishes, she sometimes said in Yiddish, “Zol es zain a kappara,” –“let it be an atonement.” She prayed that this broken dish would stand as the substitute for something far more cherished that might otherwise have been broken, like a person’s ankle. Sometimes she shouted, “Mazel Tov!” For emphasis, she’d add, “It’s just a thing.”

Although I did not register for china, over the years I did accumulate household objects. Multiple hamsas, protective amulets in the shape of hands, made of painted clay, stained glass, copper, silver and handmade paper hung throughout my house. Souvenirs from Israel, projects my daughters made, there wasn’t a room without one. There were magic wands, one grandmother’s rolling pins, and another’s soup ladles that I deployed in crises. From the rococo abundance of amulets and ancestral protective mementos, you might think I had always been beguiled by the power of things

You see, I had taken to studying Talmud, and had learned that the ancient rabbis knew that some situations in life called for turning to objects instead of just prayer. The insight probably came from their womenfolk who kept their eyes ever open for the practical prayer of holy things, even if the practices came from the neighboring peoples they were supposed to avoid. They tested out what worked and passed it on. There was the totefet, a charm packet worn as a necklace to ward off the evil eye. For wearing or holding in one’s hand, there were amulets of parchment written by proven experts and amulets of roots of herbs, knots of madder roots, spice bundles in packets and preserving stones to heal or even prevent illness or miscarriage. The women were adamant that these objects worked, and rabbis inevitably declared they could be worn or carried even on the Sabbath, when such activity would otherwise be proscribed.

Meanwhile, my mother-in-law, who by now had taken to me, despite my peasant ways, concluded I was never going to come round and understand the importance of china. For my fortieth birthday, she bought me a set of dishes, service for twelve that appeared in the mail one day without warning. Not china, but a festive and multi-hued Lindt-Stymeist pattern from the ‘80’s aptly called “Colorways,” with rims of one color and centers of another, with every piece a different combination of shades: pink, green, apricot, cerulean blue, warm yellow. They are no longer manufactured, and for replacements, you have to keep up on eBay auctions and get lucky. They were cunning, fit for a Mad Hatter’s tea party, and having grown up with odd dishes, I had no trouble insinuating them into my own, admittedly motley batterie de cuisine.

By then, I was grown up enough to be touched by Mrs. Ochs’ generosity; I did not feel intruded upon. Family life had grown more complex than I could handle; there were medical concerns and I was commuting to New York to work and going to graduate school, too. Our tensions made home a hard-edged place. Mrs. Ochs’ dishes made me feel understood, cared for, coddled, a little joyous at each dairy meal. They helped.

Half of these colorful dishes we used everyday and they sometimes got broken. Although I did not shout, “Mazal Tov,“ I nodded my head with respect toward my mother who continues to pray a great deal for us in this manner. The other half of the dishes, as well as pieces my mother-in-law later found – a butter dish, a salt and peppershaker– were designated for “Best. ” They went unused. I picked up a little hutch and installed them in it. I looked at the lot of them often, thinking about how things given by people who love us have a way of holding us together. You could almost say that in this way, my mother-in-law nearly did get me registered for China.

Which leads me to the night we were staying at the Hotel Providence for a weekend get-away. I asked our waiter if he could box up the artisanal cheeses we had ordered for dessert so that we might go upstairs to our room to watch the opening ceremonies of the Chinese Olympics on television. “It’s already started!” he said. “We’ll bring it to you as room service.” Soon enough, the cheese platter was delivered on a tray along with white plates and silverware tucked into thick green napkins. Upon returning home, I planned to call my mother-in-law and tell her all about how much pleasure I took in our little elegant feast.

As it happened, she passed away that very night. My husband asked if I would officiate at the funeral. I told him, “Of course,” as it seemed to be the right thing to say to a bereaved man. Before the service began, the funeral director led the immediate family into a small room. He handed me a little black object. Fiddling with it, I saw it was a fold-out razor blade. Muddling through, I acted as convincingly as I could, saying in “rabbinease,” “Just as you tear these ribbons, so your hearts are torn.” I pinned the ribbons on my husband, his brother and sister and made a cut with the knife. Now they looked like official mourners, ready to process out into the first row of the chapel.

Lately, I’ve been giving something in my house away every day, to pare my possessions down to the bare bones of necessity and beauty. When I make the day’s excision, I let my arms levitate up a few inches, to celebrate being unburdened by the weight of things. Even with this regime of daily departure of objects, some things cannot be thrown out. Not as useful as my mother’s yahrzeit glasses, yet once potent in my hand in opening up broken hearts just enough, I am still holding on to my knife.