winter stories


My husband’s parents were married in February, 1946. One story my mother-in-law told concerned a gift, a large Mason ironstone bowl. As they travelled by train on their honeymoon, they were met at one stop by a cousin who presented them with the bowl. There was ambivalence expressed about this gift, a whiff of resentment about the cousin, who had done something to acquire an inheritance. Had been in the right place at the right time, had perhaps been a bit sneaky. The bowl was contrition. And maybe not quite perfect. A flower in the design was not filled with with colour. Everything about this story was vague, like the flower. What colour was it meant to be? Would anyone ever know? Was the bowl a “second” and perhaps not worth much?

Everyone involved in that story is long dead. But before she died, John’s mother gave him the bowl. He’d always liked it. And maybe she was still ambivalent about it more than half a century later.

Every now and then John and I make notes about things we have in our house, notes towards a document that will detail the stories associated with objects our children may one day want for their own. The Sheffield plate coffee pot, also a wedding gift to John’s parents, and very old (18th century, I think). The sterling flatware, just 4 place settings, collected by my mother before her own marriage, and never used by her and my father. Paintings, prints, pottery vessels, table linens, a crib quilt made by my grandmother out of scraps of what look like old housedresses and pajamas. A camphor chest brought back from southeast Asia by my father in the early 1960s as a gift for my mother; when she opened on board his ship, there was a bottle of My Sin inside. John wrote about the train platform and the gift of the bowl by the perhaps disreputable cousin of his mother. But now there’s more to the story and he’ll have to add new details.

In working on some family history, our older son discovered a hoard of information about an aunt of John’s mother, a suffragette and (as described in a newspaper article) “an excellent vegetarian cook”. In looking at her story, Forrest was able to piece together a series of sad and revealing events. A publican whose wife drank laudanum in what was described as “temporary insanity” and who had expressed concern with her alcohol consumption as well as her obsessive anxiety about hydrophobia as a result of being bitten by a cat, Their own daughter doing much the same thing (after losing her husband), drinking chlorodyne (a mixture of laudanum, cannabis, and chloroform), leaving her child, an orphan, to be raised by his suffragette aunt. Who named him as beneficiary when she died. And this was the man on the train platform, offering the gift of the bowl. Maybe not so underhanded after all? What he had done was to live in his grandfather’s house, with his aunt, after the deaths of his parents, in the shadow of his own grandmother’s death, and (it seems) to inherit the house and perhaps its contents from his aunt, who’d clearly loved him. Maybe the bowl had been a family treasure that he wanted to pass on to a cousin who had just married, to share something of the household, something of value. Because the bowl is certainly that. Doing some research, John and Forrest have discovered it is probably more than 150 years old, in good condition. Though if you study the photograph, you’ll see the flower in the middle, left blank. An online search shows other objects in this pattern and that flower is pink and blue. I’ve only learned that this morning. So there’s always more to a story and what you don’t know, you can fill in for yourself.

5 thoughts on “winter stories”

  1. Whatever its story and flaws, the bowl is lovely. Ah, our things. As Fran Lebowitz said, “The under 35’s don’t have things.” But we do, many many things, and the problem is that as writers, we know or want to know the stories of them all. Quite a task, not just for us, but for our descendants. My daughter has almost no interest in the stories of the old things, but Sam does, at least, anything to do with the war or his grandfathers. It’s a start. But I don’t know anyone who delves into the past quite as intensely as you. How wonderful that your family is interested.

    1. I think of how many things we have from our families for which we don’t know the origins, the stories. Even photographs. (Maybe especially photographs.) So that’s why we thought we’d compile what we know at least. But of course what future generations will want to know is…well, unknown! When the story of the relatives emerged yesterday, I thought that it had the makings of a novel, but not one I could write. Maybe Emma Donaghue?

  2. I think the bowl is quite lovely and actually like the white flower. More importantly, I love that you and John have been making notes about some of these things. What a sensible and clever idea that is — I’m going to borrow that idea from you.

    1. I think of all the things we don’t know much about, Diane, and it just seems worthwhile to tell the stories (and all their versions) that we know — for our children, and theirs, and theirs.

  3. I like the white flower too Diane and think it may be an earlier version of the pattern and not just left unpainted. It has a reserved and elegant sort of grace the pinkish versions of the flower don’t hold.

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