Once upon a time. The way all great stories start.
The year was 1952 and finally the bitter winter in Landsberg, Germany had surrendered to summer, although for the girl from Tennessee it was not like any summer she had ever experienced. If she were home, she’d be pulling frozen coca-colas out of the icebox or smothering herself in baby oil to sunbathe. The humidity would tease her hair into wilder waves, and she would spritz her sheets with cold water to survive the warm nights.
But her home in Tennessee was almost 5,000 miles away, and as she walked the streets of the Bavarian village, she reveled in the temperature. She spoke only a little German, as she had been in this foreign land for barely over a year. Carrying a small patent leather purse, she kept reaching to pat it, reassuring herself of the deutsche marks inside. She was only 19 years old and on that day she untucked auburn tresses from her collar, letting them flow freely down her back. Passers-by would comment on her hair; they always did. It was the color that turned heads: a cross between a maple leaf, a russet potato and a mahogany violin. Her husband, the young soldier, had paid a street artist to paint her, and it was the hair that took the most time.
“Surely the hair is not that color red,” said the artist in German, but the soldier only nodded and stood by, watching as the artist remixed the paint to get it right.
The girl rather liked her hair and didn’t mind the attention, but she was concerned that someone would notice the safety pin holding her skirt together. It was time to buy new clothes, and now that the nausea was over, perhaps she could think about that. For the last few months, she had been unable to eat and the aroma of her landlord’s bratwurst drifting up into the cramped attic apartment made the days almost unbearable.
Finally, though, the incapacitating nausea succumbed to gentle kicks of tiny feet. Once the baby moved, there was no more sickness. And so, on this day, while her husband was working, she wandered the streets of Landsberg alone, exhilarated by the sunshine and the fresh breeze and the life around and within her. In Tennessee people would say that the young couple had “neither a pot nor a window” and she knew that was true. But she felt wealthy with courage. Her elopement almost two years prior had not been the wedding she always dreamt of, but the Korean War had started, and her love had been drafted. World War II had occupied her childhood, filling it with air raids and fear. She recalled seeing the telegram that arrived at her friend’s house: killed in action. Although she knew she was too young to be married, she didn’t want to miss her chance at love, before the world ended.
The girl said goodbye to her young husband when he deployed; then she notified Vanderbilt University that she would not be attending after all. She took a job in a chemicals company, working her way up to assistant credit manager at only 18. She lived at home—in her childhood bedroom from which she eloped—and saved most of what she made. Lipstick, nylons, bus fare and the occasional movie: these were her only expenses. It was not what she had envisioned for herself and certainly not the life of most 18 year olds, but she knew what she wanted, and she knew she could do anything she set her mind to. Her boss had told her that, and her father. She had to save up $1,000 to fly to Germany to be with her love, an extravagant amount in today’s dollars. Her family and friends were terrified when she boarded that airplane, but the girl wasn’t scared. Even when the loud engine revved up and she felt herself being pulled up into the sky, she was only excited.
A shop window in the little Bavarian town caught the girl’s eye. Perched on a table was a silver plated tea set. This was familiar to her, as her mother, mother-in-law, and sister had similar sets displayed in their dining rooms. To the young girl, that tea set signaled married life and dinner parties. It represented everything lovely in the world she was planning to create with her husband and her unknown child.
She wandered into the shop and asked the price in German. There was enough in her purse, but yet the young woman stood there, one saddle oxford rubbing against the other, reminding herself how impractical the purchase was. When they returned to the States, the couple would be moving into her father’s smoke house that he was transforming into a home for them. There was no space for tea sets and the like. And how much would it cost to ship it back? Shouldn’t she be looking at clothes for herself or the baby?
As her mind raced, the girl ran her fingers over the intricate curves of the tea pot handle and lifted the hinge on the creamer, back and forth, back and forth. Finally, with a deep breath, she turned to the shop owner. “Ich werde es bitte kaufen.” I’ll buy it, please.
Seventy years later, that woman’s daughter—not the baby in her womb in Germany, or the next baby, but the third—would be trying to decide whether to sell that tea set: such an impractical item, requiring polish, necessitating the perfect place to display it.
That daughter is me, and I have decided I cannot sell it, for I realized that it is only valuable in the story it speaks to me. I look at it and think of the girl for whom that set represented maturity and beauty and empowerment. It was a frivolous yet wise decision, and as it moved from home to home, always occupying its spot on the buffet, it reminded the silver-haired woman of the girl with flaming red hair she once was. And now that she is gone, it reminds me of the girl who came before me.
The story I have told was told to me. It is 95% accurate, with minor embellishments. But this part is true: a year before my mom died, I found her standing in front of the china cupboard. Her cupboard. Mom turned the skeleton key and unlocked the cupboard door. Gazing curiously at the silver tea set, she saw me and said, “It’s pretty,” her fingers trilling along something she did not recognize as hers.
I cannot keep everything. There must be room for the frivolously wise purchases I made myself as a young woman. But the tea set I can keep, and I hope to tell its story to a granddaughter one day. How many precious items in our homes, gifts from another time and place, beckon us with similar tales—if only we listen.