THE CHINA SYNDROME
When you're young and broke and they tell you it's time to pick out a china pattern because that's what you do when you're planning a wedding, it can be a strange, paradoxical experience.
English bone china or American china?
Gold rim or plain?
Floral or geometric?
My son, Jackson, is engaged to be married. The wedding is a ways off -- not till next summer -- so there's a good year in which to obsess about such things. Although, if the truth be told, my son, and Tricia, his fiance, are far more concerned with finishing college than with daydreaming about wedding gifts.
Give them time.
Twenty-two years ago, I was the fiance.
It was unreal, that whole scene: Independent me, maverick me, getting married. Furtively flipping through Brides Magazine, a magazine I had scorned only weeks before. Scouring bridal shops and department stores for the perfect everything.
The college girl who'd never had a savings account in her life -- and who'd spent the previous four years disdaining the bourgeoisie -- was tip-toeing through the china and crystal department at Filene's, weighing the relative merits of the china pattern "Autumn" versus "Castle Garden."
Feeling way out of place in my peasant blouse and bell bottoms, I made my way down the aisle, dangerously close to the sparkling breakables. My mother was teaching me how to hold a china plate up to the light and look for the shadow of my fingers right through the plate: A clever trick that tells you whether or not this china is the real thing.
Now I'm the mother, and soon I will pass along my own brand of clever tricks to Jackson and Tricia. I should probably tell them: You might want to avoid gold rims since you can't put them in the microwave. And come to think of it, the teacups are awfully small and doesn't everyone use mugs nowadays?
And then I worry -- where will they keep it? Jackson broke every toy he ever got. I can't imagine him carefully handwashing the china and storing it with protective circles of felt between each plate.
And this gets me to thinking: Why do we have this tradition of giving fragile gifts to young people who have no experience in caring for such things?
Why don't we give them plastic cups and paper plates? Things you can throw away or lose, and it won't matter all that much. Stick it in the microwave, toss it in the dishwasher. Drop it, throw it. Who cares?
But wait, maybe that's the point. Maybe that's exactly why we entrust newlyweds with china plates and crystal goblets. This is a tangible way to help them learn to care for things that are precious and fragile.
For twenty-two years my husband and I have lived with our castle-garden china. We use it often, and so far, we haven't broken a single plate. There have been some close calls, but it's all there, intact and housed together in its own cabinet.
As Jackson and Tricia go through life together, I hope that they handle their marriage with care, always mindful of how very precious and fragile a thing it is.