“There is some tribal insanity that comes over women, as they approach marriage: society offers Pyrex dishes and silver teaspoons as bribes, as bargains, as anesthesia against self-sacrifice. Stuck about with silver forks and new carving knives, as in a form of acupuncture, the woman lays herself upon the altar, upon the couch, half numb. Even sensible women, like Frances Wingate: sensible women, who later struggle, as their senses return, and throw their Gallé vases and fish knives violently around their dwellings, as a protest. . . . Why did one let it all happen?”
Margaret Drabble, The Realms of Gold (New York: Knopf, 1975), 107-8.
Most of my forks and vases (etc.) are the result not of my marriage, but of other people’s; I seem to be the family repository of Stuff. I wonder if it is easier to get rid of one’s own Stuff than of Family Stuff. It’s one thing to give away the gifts one never really liked, and it seems to be another to get rid of Great-Grandma’s pickle dish, even if it is an undistinguished bit of china and only my aged father really remembers it being filled with watermelon pickles at his mother’s dinner table. I remember my father’s remembering, and so the pickle dish remains in my cupboard, though I rarely have dinner parties and when I do, I don’t set out little trays of pickles and olives.
Perhaps I should. Perhaps it would be some form of exorcism or comfort to re-enact the sort of family dinner that my grandmother (the other one: my father’s mother went into a nursing home when I was four, so I don’t remember her dinners) regularly hosted. The menu immediately suggests itself: the pickles and olives, obviously, fried fish, a jello salad, green salad, potato salad, crescent rolls or tiny blueberry muffins, green beans (with slivered almonds if we’re really fancy), and iced tea, probably, but just possibly wine, probably a rosé because it looks so pretty in the etched glasses (which, strangely, did not come to me: where are they now?). Dessert would be a pie, or a layer cake, or both. I know how to do this. But this is not my life.
The dinners I make are usually stir-fries or simple pastas, basically one-dish meals, easy to prep and clean up after Sir John and I have both been working all day. What did my grandmother’s days look like, in the days I remember? I expect she cooked at least two hot meals a day for my grandfather, even if lunch was leftovers or sandwiches, and she always set the table nicely, with placemats if not a tablecloth, and did dishes immediately afterward. She worked in the garden, and sewed for me or for church bazaars; she may have baked for church bake sales or for the Sunday social hour; she put in some time on housework, because she dusted every day, and vacuumed at least every second day. She wrote letters to a large network of extended family. She wasn’t much of a reader, except for those letters; if she had magazines in the house, it was for the recipes or instructions for knitting, crochet, or sewing projects. There were times in her life when she worked: in a nursery (that is, garden center, not babies), in a shoe store. But her life was home-centered, and when I think of it, I experience a fierce and bewildering sense of dislocation: where did I come from, how did I get to be the person I am—career woman, city person—, one state over from my grandmother’s early home, and yet a world away from the life she led?
I’m trying to lighten the load of Stuff that I’m storing. But the pickle dish stands for a whole way of life. I don’t want that life, I’m deeply unsuited to it, but it haunts me still. It’s easier to keep housing the pickle dish than to re-create the lifestyle or experience the guilt I’d feel if I gave away the dish.