In the summer of 2017, my mother sold her house in downstate Bloomington. My father had died two years earlier and she was moving to a smaller place nearby.
She invited her children and grandchildren to visit and take what we wanted since she was downsizing. I didn’t need any material things, but I wanted a final look at my childhood home. So I made the trek down I-55.
“Jane wants you to take Grandma’s Christmas dishes,” my mom said as we wandered through her basement, assessing all that had accumulated over the decades. “No one else wants them.”
“I don’t remember Grandma’s Christmas dishes,” I said, a bit annoyed at Jane, my then 25-year-old daughter, who had visited my mom a few days earlier.
“They’re a Christmas tree pattern, but they’re not Spode,” my mom said, pointing to a dusty Rubbermaid container in a dark corner. “I don’t think they’re anything special.”
I didn’t care if they were valuable or not. I just didn’t want another set of dishes. I was always trying to get rid of things. But because Jane, who loved the trappings of Christmas, wanted me to take them, I said yes.
When I returned home to Evanston, I asked my husband to put the dishes in our basement. I promptly forgot about them.
Six months later, as I was getting ready for Christmas Eve smorgasbord, a Swedish tradition passed down from both sides of my family, I remembered the dishes.
My husband brought the container upstairs to the kitchen and I began digging through the crumpled old newspapers that served as cushions.
Grandma Anderson – or Grandma A, as we called her – was my paternal grandmother. She died in 1995 and it was clear that the dishes hadn’t been used in a while.
I pulled out a cheery dinner plate. I vaguely remember these, I thought.
Then I unwrapped a teacup. When I flipped it over, I saw the initials A.A. written with a royal blue marker. They stood for Anna Anderson, my grandmother.
She must’ve marked her dishes so she wouldn’t lose them if she took them to a party or her Swedish singing group or an event at the Lutheran church.
My throat tightened and tears came to my eyes. I hadn’t thought about her in a while. Now, suddenly, she felt alive to me.
The baby of her family, Grandma A was born in 1898 after her family emigrated from Sweden.
When she met my grandfather, Cliff, in 1934, she was working as a legal secretary and living with her widowed father and her brother in Rockford. To be unmarried at her age was an anomaly then. But from family lore, it was her choice. She had been engaged for a while but had ultimately called it off because she wasn’t in love.
My grandfather was eight years younger than my grandmother, but when they met, something clicked.
She wrote about their courtship in her diaries from that time; I read them after she died. She chronicled the joy of being with Cliff, even if they were just reading or playing cards in her father’s living room. She longed to build a life with him. “It seems impossible,” she wrote in 1934. “But maybe someday we could have a home of our own.” (I don’t know why it seemed impossible. The Depression? Not wanting to abandon her father and brother?)
As I caressed the teacup, I smiled to think that her “someday” came to be. She married my grandfather in 1935 and gave birth to my father, her only child, in 1936. When I was in my twenties, she told me about the day he was born. “I looked out the window of the hospital and it was snowing outside,” she said. “I was just so happy.”
Grandma A always seemed happy. She was lighthearted and easygoing. I never heard her yell or get angry. She laughed easily and often, sometimes to the point of tears. If I were to affix an adjective to her, it would be “content.”
I never knew my grandmother without wrinkles and white hair. But as I stood in my kitchen, I conjured the younger woman. The one who waited for love and had a baby at 38. Maybe that’s part of why she was content. She got the life she wanted.
On that Christmas Eve in 2017, when dusk fell and our house swelled with family for smorgasbord, I pulled Jane aside and told her I was glad she had urged me to take the dishes.
“I guess some things are worth holding on to,” I said, as I looped my arm through hers. Then we walked into the dining room where Anna Anderson’s Christmas dinnerware gleamed in the candlelight.