Friday, March 2, 2012

what makes a life?

This morning I watched some footage of the devastation following the tornadoes in the mid-west. I felt so sad thinking of what those people went through (the fear) and what they are now facing (the losses).

One scene showed a woman picking through the rubble of her home for remnants of her life. Amid the broken drywall and snapped wood, she had started to build a stack of dishes: china, white with blue and purple flowers in a sprinkled pattern around the scalloped edges. Three plates. Two teacups. And she was looking for more.

It made me think about what makes a life. Sure, we need a roof and food and warmth. But we also need these pieces of material that represent so much more. I don't have time to make a complete list today (I hope this entry  reminds me to come back and add later), but I started thinking about what I'd hope to find in the rubble if such a calamity happened to me--and what those bits mean in my life.

Two teacups. My great-grandmother collected teacups. Her sons (including my grandfather) were in the navy and merchant marine, and they traveled all over the world. Wherever they traveled, they brought back teacups for their mother. As a small girl, I remember spending hours looking through the glass doors of the cupboard built especially for those cups and saucers in her home. She had the whole world in a cupboard in her small home in a small town in Idaho! Sometimes she would take some cups out and tell me where they were from. She handled them gently--they were, after all, fragile. But I could tell they meant more than just bits of porcelain to her.

When she passed away, I was given two of her cups and one saucer, ones my own grandfather had given her. One was from China and one was from England. The saucer was broken in a move, but the cups are still in my care. When my children were little, I kept them up on shelves, high enough to protect them (I thought) but still where I could see them and think of Gram. Even that, however, didn't prevent the breakage of one of the cups. One of my daughters--about 1 and 1/2 at the time--had stood up in her high chair (this was before the days of belts) and taken her bib off and was waving it around. Her antics knocked the cup off the high shelf, causing it to break. My heart was broken, but I couldn't really be mad at a baby for doing what babies do. I picked up the pieces and glued the cup together again, crying as I did so. My older children were small, too, but they still remember that. From that day on, they took it upon themselves to warn the younger children not to damage the cups. To do so made mom sad. They have told their own children, my grand-children, about the value of the cups--and how much they mean to grandma.

Now, when I look inside the cup and see the delicate lines that show where the cup was pieced together nearly thirty years ago, I remember all the way back to the wall of cups and my great-grandmother pulling them out to show me her treasures that meant her sons thought of her wherever they were in the world. I remember my choice of balancing loss with patience. And I see my own grandchildren looking at the cups with wonder, as if they can't imagine someone who is older than their grandma's grandma having such a thing. So, if I lost my home, I would hope to find the teacups. They don't hold tea anymore. They hold generations of memories.


  1. People may say that material things don't matter but sometimes a cup is more than a cup.As you said: they hold the generations of memories. Your writing is thoughtful and beautiful.

  2. It's just a beautiful capturing of your story, for all those generations here now, & to come. Now you've filled the teacups with special words.