The Japanese Tea Set
Cathy loved to decorate, and while she wasn’t into high-end design projects, she dearly loved to spruce up a room. In the kitchen, she would regularly hang new curtains over the kitchen sink. In the living room, she liked to switch out the pillows seasonally to bring new color into her decor. That big skirted table in her bedroom? It was forever being redecorated, sometimes with vintage books or, in summer, seashells collected on family beach trips.
But much as Cathy loved to decorate, in her dining room was one small vignette she’d been enjoying for months and never intended to change—ever.
To the casual visitor, it was simply a handsome oak cabinet displaying some vintage Japanese teawares in front of sepia-toned photos. Cathy usually favored a more streamlined look over a cluttered one, but every time she walked by the busy little tea scene, it gave her no small amount of pleasure to know these teawares were out where everyone could see and enjoy them.
The handpainted tea set featured a scene from a Japanese garden. The set had belonged to Cathy’s great-grandmother and, through various handings-down in the family, eventually became hers. While her closest friends were quite familiar with the tea set, new friends would see the prettily faded photos behind the tea set and ask if that sweet little golden-haired child with the big bow in her hair was an ancestor. “Yes, that was my great-grandmother, and this tea set once belonged to her,” Cathy would reply. And that was the truth. But it wasn’t the whole truth.
The fact of the matter was, her great-grandmother—“Great-grandmother Lucille” as she insisted the great-grandchildren call her—was a stuffy old biddy. She wasn’t a loving mother to Cathy’s grandmother, she had never been very fond of Cathy’s mother, and Cathy remembered her simply as the unpleasant old woman who spent the last years of her life terrorizing the rest of her family. She never played with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren—“too rambunctious,” she always said—and family lore had it that she probably nagged her poor husband to an early death.
Cathy’s mother once told her the real story behind Great-grandmother Lucille’s tea set. When Lucille married Cathy’s great-grandfather, a wealthy young banker named Harold, they’d gone on a tour of the Orient for their honeymoon. One of the many objets d’art Harold purchased for Lucille on that trip was a Japanese tea set that caught her fancy.
Was the tea set used with her husband or perhaps her children and grandchildren? No. Had it provided hospitality at women’s club meetings and library fundraisers? No. Instead, Great-grandmother Lucille would pull out the tea set once a year to admire it, show off her priceless pieces of “art,” and reminisce about her and Harold’s honeymoon to any unfortunate relatives who happened to be within earshot. Then, she would wrap each of the pieces back in a soft cotton cloth and have the tea set returned to the attic for another year.
While Cathy never had great reason to dislike her great-grandmother, she didn’t have warm feelings for her either, primarily because of the way the woman had treated her own daughter and granddaughter. Cathy often marveled that some of her friends went around pretending they had always had such perfect families when, in reality, everyone’s family was usually dysfunctional in one way or another.
Years after Great-grandmother Lucille passed away, her tea set eventually got handed down to Cathy. She was determined those lovely old pieces were going to have a new life. She set them out in plain view on the oak cabinet in her dining room so that she and her family would see them every single day. She and her 12-year-old daughter, Mallory, had already enjoyed a few impromptu teas using the tea set. If one of her teenage sons or their friends happened by one day and knocked a piece off, so be it, she said. What was that great old saying? “Love people, not things; use things, not people.”
When Cathy inherited the tea set, she knew immediately that the revered pieces of “art” were going to have a new set of house rules. Cathy invited her mother over one Wednesday morning for brunch. They had a delicious quiche and some fresh fruit, and in the center of the table—right there in front of God and everybody—sat the infamous honeymoon souvenir that had spent a lifetime largely in hiding, Great-grandmother Lucille’s Japanese Tea Set.
Her mom had stared at the set wide-eyed when she first realized Cathy was actually using the sacred teawares. She never said a word about it, but Cathy suspected her mother was quietly pleased.
The photo of the smiling little blonde—the photo tucked behind a teapot on the old oak cabinet—had more than one story to tell. There was the story of a happy young child who grew up to be a very different sort of older woman. And then there was the story of the woman who overvalued her things. Cathy could honor her great-grandmother for being part of her heritage, but she could also learn from the mistakes her great-grandmother had made. Lucille had valued things more than people, and Cathy wasn’t about to follow in those footsteps.
Every time she walked by the oak cabinet, she was assured that the Japanese Tea Set would have a new story, a better story, to tell the generations to come.