In a dusty village outside Mexico City, the sun blistering hot, I fell doggedly in love with a pale blue ceramic dinner dish. I was 26 and a minimalist at the time, deploring everything decorative, especially bucolic scenes on dinner plates. Yet, I loved this dish, even though two blue birds painted on its surface were pecking at the sketchy outline of some twigs and flowers. The plate seemed a soft blue sensory sweep, but up close its glaze was uneven, with suggestions of gray and brown and puffs of white, and a few black splatter-dots. I picked it up and loved the earthy feel of its weight in my hands. I think the incongruity between the heft of the dish and the whimsical birds fascinated me, though I didn’t think fascinating incongruity; I just wanted the dish.
I was with my mother and her friend Miriam, visiting my ex-pat brother who lived in Mexico City. I didn’t know Miriam very well, but she was easy-going with a quick hearty laugh, which made me wonder why she and my mother were friends.
When I told my mother I wanted to buy six of the dishes, she accused me of being adolescent-ridiculous. “Who in their right mind drags dishes all over Mexico?” she said.
“Me,” I told her.
“You want dishes? There are plenty in New York. I’ll take you shopping.”
“I don’t want to go shopping,” I whined, becoming the morose adolescent she accused me of being.
My mother rolled her eyes, announced to the hot dusty air, the young salesgirl who barely spoke English, and Miriam, “She wants what she wants the moment she wants it.”
“Si, Senora,” the salesgirl said, responding to my mother’s authoritative tone; trying to stay on the customer’s good side.
“I’m 26,” I said. “I can buy what I want.”
“You don’t think I know when you were born?” my mother said.
“They’re heavy,” she continued, as insistent as the sun. “They’ll break.”
“They won’t break. I’ll carry them.”
Finally, Miriam intervened. “They’ll break or they won’t break,” she said.
Miriam’s undeniably accurate prediction ended the feud, at least temporarily. Whether Miriam shamed my mother or gave her permission to loosen her grip, my mother pulled her wallet from her overstuffed pocketbook and paid for the dishes.
Twenty-five years later, I’m visiting my mother in her apartment in Brooklyn, my brother still living in Mexico City. Older now and fighting immobility, she drags a large carton out of her hall closet, refusing my help, insisting she can do it herself. “I have something for you,” she tells me. The carton is filled with dozens of blue ceramic dishes: dinner plates, dessert plates, soup bowls, teacups, a pitcher, a soup tureen, a large serving platter. Same blue. Same birds. Same flitting.
“How long have you had these?”
“How should I know?” she says. “I picked up a few whenever I visited your brother.”
I wanted to think my mother was apologizing, and that she, not just I, remembered that fiercely hot day, the stacks of dishes, the salesgirl’s anxious eyes, her loudmouth friend Miriam’s impeccable logic. And I do think my mother took pleasure in giving me dishes she knew would delight me. Yet, her tsunami-like generosity after the fact also confused me. Had she not said, don’t buy those dishes?
The dishes sat on the shelves in my small galley kitchen for years, their unavoidable presence a constant reminder of the fight I’d had with my mother: decades distant but still not dead. When my young son pulled a blue plate off the shelf, I took it and handed him a white plastic one instead. “Use this,” I said. “We don’t want to break those pretty blue dishes.”
Then, one day, surrounded by dishes I love but refuse to use, I think: So what if they break? It’s what happens to dishes. I let mine break. I start to mend.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Dorky Mum