My mother died in November, 2010. Following her passing, it took months — quite literally months — for my Dad and I to go through all her hoarded possessions and decide what to do with them.
One of the last things we sorted through was her china cabinet. The shelves were packed with her best china — lovely, thin, translucent white dishes with gold rims. There was expensive glassware, too, and silver and crystal salt shakers, many of them. Sadly, although unbroken, everything was in dreadful condition. Each piece was covered with a pasty, thick film comprised of yellowed nicotine residue and grey dust. The two prettiest salt shakers, exquisite cut crystal from the former country of Czechoslovakia, were capped by ruined lids, the silver badly corroded because the seasonings put into them years before had never been removed. Nothing, not one of these lovely pieces of china or crystal, had been used in over twenty years. They hadn’t even been visible, hidden behind the closed doors of cabinets, slowly gathering dust and grime.
For hours I carefully washed each piece, using a heavy mixture of nose-and-eye searing ammonia blended into scalding water; it was the only way to remove the thick film. Then I rinsed them multiple times and dried them gently until they shone once more, and took the dishes home with me.
A few mornings later, as I prepared my breakfast, serving myself on the pretty white-and-gold china, salting my eggs from the glistening Czechoslovakian crystal shakers, (newly capped with replacement lids that I’d hunted down at a flea market), it struck me forcibly that my mother had lived with these beautiful things all her life, and never enjoyed them. It wasn’t just that they weren’t used — they weren’t enjoyed. She took no pleasure in them; she merely owned them. They weren’t cherished, but accumulated. They weren’t treasures, maintained and conserved; they were merely possessions.
A dear friend told me of a proverb she’d one heard, from another country, another age: that when something precious breaks, like a piece of valued china or a crystal cup, it is taking upon itself the harm that would otherwise have come to a loved one. Therefore, when some precious possession shatters, one should rejoice, for now a loved one is safe. In consequence, there is no point in packing precious things away or refusing to use them, for if they are destroyed, they have served even a greater purpose than the sheer pleasure of appreciating them.
So I use my mother’s fine china every day, and salt my food using her crystal shakers from a vanished country. Most of her plates are chipped now, touched with the “chigger bites” that indicate long use, their gold rims fading. Many have been broken. And often, too, I now use my own personal fine china and lovely pink Depression glass teacups — admiring them, holding them before my eyes and drinking in their beauty with my tea — taking pleasure in them, because no matter how precious they may be, they are valuable only if they are appreciated. And if, as sometimes happens, one shatters and breaks, then I rejoice, knowing that my loved ones, my true treasures, have been kept safe from harm.
Hoard nothing. Treasure everything. And save nothing “for good”, for our good is right now.