THE CIRCULARITY OF SPODE’S TOWER – Marilyn Armstrong

Blame it on my upbringing, the peculiar traditions of my mother’s family.

We say “I love you” by giving each other stuff. All kinds of stuff. Art, furniture, gadgets, clothing, books, whatnots. We were never a touchy, feely, huggy family nor verbally effusive. We rarely said, “I love you.”

I’ve had to learn to say the words. I’d still rather buy you a present.

spode's tower plateOver the course of life with my family, I got clothing (used and new), pottery (ugly and uglier), jewelry, paintings (“No, really, it’s okay … you keep it … please!”) and whatever else came to hand. If someone had a sudden unplanned attack of the warm fuzzies, they might give you the nearest small object — ashtray, silver cigarette holder (from my mother, who never smoked), old souvenirs from Coney Island, empty cigar boxes (Uncle Abe).

No wrappings or bows. Spontaneity precluded amenities. It was my family’s version of a hug.

One time, my dearest favorite-est aunt gave me the coat off her back while crossing 6th Avenue in Manhattan. It was mid-winter in New York and definitely not a good time to be coat-less, but I had said I liked it and she needed to express her love right then and there.

“Please, Aunt Kate,” I cried, hoping the people swirling around us didn’t call the cops, likely thinking I was mugging my elderly aunt. “I am wearing a coat. You gave me this coat years ago. I wear it all the time. I love it.”

Which only made it worse. “That old thing,” she cried. “You need a new coat.”

“When we get home,” I promised. “You can give me the coat at home.” And she did. I wore it for many years until it fell apart. I knew I was wearing her love and it kept me very warm.

When I lived in Jerusalem, I bought a box of odds and ends from a little shop on Bethlehem Road. They had been cleaning out their back room. They said, “We don’t know what’s in here, but you can have it for five dollars.”

I took the box home and began to sort through it. I found tiny carved ivory elephants, amber beads, buttons from dress shirts, old Agora and a green, crusted thing I was going to throw out until a friend said: “Hey, that’s an old coin.”

I stopped. Looked at it. “How can you tell?” I asked.

“That’s what old coins look like,” she said. “Soak it in lemon juice for a few days and see what happens.”

I soaked it for two weeks and it still looked like a piece of green crusty metal. Finally, using a toothbrush and copper cleaner, I extracted an ancient bronze coin, circa 77, the second year of the First Jewish War Against the Romans. The date was on the coin in old Hebrew script.

I had the coin appraised at the Rockefeller Museum. It was the real deal, but not worth much – maybe a couple of hundred dollars, if I could find a buyer. So I turned it into a pendant and wore it on a ribbon. When my mother came to visit, she admired it.

Of course, I gave it to her. When my mother died, my father gave it back to me, but it disappeared. I suppose it will turn up someday in another box of odds and ends and become someone else’s treasure.

You had to be careful in my family. If you admired something you were going to own it. There was a hideous pottery owl that looked like its eyes were bleeding. Chartreuse with scarlet eye sockets. I was caught staring –and had to say something. It was a masterpiece of sculpting, but the overall effect was gruesome. So I said: “It’s … really interesting.” It was, in a ghastly way.

“It’s yours!” cried my mother. I detected a note of triumph. I still harbor a suspicion she had gotten it from some other family member and was just waiting for the chance to move it along. Tag, I was it.

The ultimate example of family love (en passant) were the Spode’s Tower dishes.

It was entirely my fault. Mea culpa.

I bought the entire set from a barn on a back road in Connecticut in the early 1970s. I was poking around a room full of pottery and turned one over. It was Spode. The markings looked to be late 19th century. The set included 86 pieces, including a chipped sugar bowl and eight demitasse cups minus the saucers plus a set of saucers without cups.

In pretty good condition. For $30.

Spode's Tower

It turned out to be Spode’s Tower. The dishes were old and delicate, so I never used them fearing they’d get broken. They stayed in the closet and gathered dust. Years passed.

One day, my mother admired them. Faster than you can say “Here, they’re yours,” I had those dishes packed and in her car.

She loved them, but they were old. It turned out, valuable, too. So she put them away and never used them.

One day, my Aunt Kate admired them, so Mom gave them to her. Kate then gave my mother her set of bone china for 12 which she didn’t need anymore, the days of big dinner parties being long over.

My mother didn’t need such a large set either, so she gave Aunt Kate’s set of 12 to my brother, who gave my mother his china for six. My mother gave my brother’s dishes to me while Aunt Kate traded my Spode for Aunt Pearl’s set of China.

Aunt Pearl packed the Spode away in a safe place because they were old,  valuable, and she didn’t want to break them.

Twenty years later, Garry and I went to visit Aunt Pearl. She had the Spode, carefully wrapped and boxed. She gave it back to me and we took it home. She had saved them all those years.

Of course, I never used them. I eventually gave them to Owen and Sandy who had the sense to sell them. They knew they would never use them and neither would anyone else.

Love can be wrapped in paper and carefully protected. There is love. There are dishes. And there are memories of my family, carefully stored, ready to be given.

To you, if you like.

22 thoughts on “THE CIRCULARITY OF SPODE’S TOWER – Marilyn Armstrong

  1. I love this, Marilyn. Things carrying the message of love. I love the way the Spode tower did the rounds with your family and now we get a chance to share in it as well. You write it beautifully. I used to have a few Spode plates when I collected antiques, but nothing on this scale. I’ve still got a collection of old cameras – including a rickety original old plate camera with 2metal plates and only two shutter speeds – 30th Sec and B. And my work table is a Victorian wind-out one with oak regency chairs. My taste, of course, nowadays, has gone all medieval, and things from back then are more artefacts than antiques. But one of my most prized possessions no is a hammered coin from the reign of Edward 1st. Thanks for sharing this with us – a lovely story. 🙂

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      • Oh my goodness, Marilyn, how kind of you to think of me! I’m sorry I’ve not been able to get back to you earlier, but I’ve been laid up all day with a migraine, probably because I was up until 11.30pm last night working on my final assignment before my exam next month. Added to that, guess what? My site has a glitch and is making it hard for me to access my notifications! I’ll have to talk to them… Anyway, your porcelain sounds amazing – and Neolithic? I don’t think I’ve ever owned anything that old before – that is truly awesome! I’d love it, but I’ve no idea how I could get it over here. Do you ever visit England any more? Thank you again for thinking of me – I’m really touched. 🙂 🙂

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  2. Pingback: Happy Birthday Ma! | sparksfromacombustiblemind

  3. Sounds like a regular musical chairs with the china.
    My mother had this beautiful china vase from Vienna, she kept near the fireplace. One day while she was cleaning she put the vase out on the front porch. Of course I was a rambunctious 6 years old and knocked the vase over. It broke. I was terrified. I told my mother what had happened and she never said anything, but the vase disappeared. Years later I noticed that my aunt had that very vase. It had been repaired. I told my aunt that I was the one who broke it many years ago. She left the vase to me after she passed on. Since I had removed the inherent value of it by breaking it she thought I might as well have it. I cherish that vase.
    Leslie

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    • I cherish most of the things I have and would miss them were they gone. But enough of them have real value — especially the paintings and antiques — that I need to find homes for them where the owners would value them. That is a lot harder than I imagined possible. But our kids and grandkids don’t have room for collections and I think, not much interest in them either.

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  4. I think I might have actually liked the owl with bleeding eyes. As a hoarder, I have to really, REALLY not want something to give it away. The most useless and stupid things have value to me… like skunk rain gauges and bleeding eyed owls…

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    • I think I gave the owl away to the first person who expressed interest in it. I don’t think she ever forgave me. I have TONS of useless stuff. If I could figure out how to ship it without it self-destructing, I’d send it to you. I’m sure you could find some use for a 1000-year-old Han vase.

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  5. That was beautiful! The kind of blog post I love best (well second only to birdie photos perhaps or cute dogs doing things with their people) . It’s appropriate too, given the date of 5-8-19. May eighth has special meaning to me. I’ll be blogging about that later. I want to thank you for the ‘gift’. This story is the kind that keeps giving too…it gives hope that there are still good people in the world, if one takes the time to stop a moment and listen or read.

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    • Except these were really nice dishes. Too nice, which was the problem. And I have to admit, we really love fruitcake. I make my own and it is luscious. Expensive, though. All that dried fruit costs serious money.

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