A few years ago, I gave a young relative a china tea set for Christmas. It was a darling thing, with holly-bespattered cups and plates, and even tiny cloth napkins. And when I saw her later on New Year’s Eve, I told her this story.
As I grew up, I gave away all my childhood toys. They were nice toys and dolls, well-maintained; in our family, we were expected to take good care of our playthings. I was never allowed to drag dolls about, unclothed, with rooted hair pulled out, or to leave my toys out in our backyard, exposed to weather and wind. Toys were picked up every evening and put in their proper places in my room.
I had some lovely dolls—Amosandra, of whom I’ve spoken in a previous blog post, and Lisa, my realistic baby doll. I had an heirloom doll crib that had been my own mother’s toy, and a gorgeous ballerina doll. Being raised Roman Catholic, I even had a nun doll in full habit, with a rosary dangling from her fingertips.
But of all my toys, one of my favorites was my Blue Willow tea set. A dark wooden hutch held tiny china cups, plates and saucers, tea pot and sugar bowl and creamer, all in the well-known Blue Willow pattern. The little plates and saucers stood balanced in rims along the shelves, while the cups depended from tiny hooks; there was a little drawer at the bottom of the hutch, and there I stored the tea bags my mother allowed me to have.
I played with that tea set constantly. I brewed tea using hot water from the kitchen faucet and drank it laden with sugar stirred into the cups. I snuck a can of chicken rice soup from the pantry and took it down to our basement play area and served it to myself, cold, in the little cups, using a baby spoon that I liberated from the silverware drawer. I placed unwrapped Hershey’s kisses on the plates as canapes. My playmates being older, they were uninterested in tea parties, but I gathered my dolls about me and played hostess to them. Only once did I ever break a plate in the set, and my father carefully glued the two split halves together again, warning me to always be careful with it. That plate sat always to one side on the hutch, unused.
And then I grew up.
My tea set sat, untouched, in the corner of my room as I moved from ballerina and baby dolls to Barbies, and then away from dolls entirely, to teen magazines and Monkee records and teen-heartthrob posters and lip gloss and all the paraphernalia of adolescence. Finally, embarrassed to have such childish things in my room, where they might be seen by my friends and mocked, I gathered together all my remaining dolls and toys and distributed them to the little girls in my neighborhood, or handed them over to be taken by my father and stored in the attic.
And one day after school, I gave my Blue Willow tea set to the little girl who lived in the house behind ours.
This, then, is the story I told my little relative on that New Year’s Eve a few years ago. Mimicking the look and voice of a young teen, I told her how I became “too big for a silly tea set!” I described how I gave away my beautiful Blue Willow china, to be played with by another little girl. And then, feeling the tears gathering behind my eyes, I offered her the advice–words to which she probably did not listen at all, but which I felt it necessary to say: “So, when the day comes that you are ‘too big’ for your holly tea set, don’t give it away! Keep it. Put it away someplace safe. Because now I am an old woman, and I would give anything, anything at all, to have my Blue Willow tea set once more.”
I have seen Blue Willow tea sets many times since on sales sites like e-Bay and Etsy, but never the full set in the dark wooden hutch, and always at prices far beyond my reach. Sometimes I wish that I could find one just like my own lost set. It would never be quite the same, of course; it would not be the set I played with; it would not have one carefully-glued, broken plate. But perhaps, just perhaps, I could touch those tiny cups and plates and saucers, gracefully lift and pretend to pour from the tiny teapot, and thereby recapture just a little bit of the woman-child who I once was, playing hostess with watery, sugary tea and soup; serving up dreams of a future filled with grace and elegance and charm.