Christmas China


There are 79 Tiffany windows in the dining hall at Flagler College.

I’ve never seen them from the inside, but every historical red trolley tour guide in St. Augustine mentions those windows. When I was eight, old enough to visit Gram and Pop in nearby Jacksonville on my own and choose whatever I wanted to do, we rode that trolley, day after day.

In the years since, I’ve seen Tiffany engagement rings in New York City and a Tiffany lamp in the art museum at my own college in Kentucky. The placard next to the Tiffany lamp identified the creator, Louis Comfort Tiffany, as “a son of the famous jeweler.”

Oh, I thought at the time, he took his father’s success and made it into art.

...

Gram pulls me into my parents’ room, away from the rest of the family eating Christmas dinner— soup, grilled cheese— on paper plates. She needs to talk to me about her surprise. She has told all the women and girls of the family to wear or bring white shirts, and now she wants me to set up a video chat so those who hadn’t come in person could also watch her “presentation.”

“You know what this is, right?” she asks. I shake my head.

...

There was only one pair of stud earrings, and my best friend Arden had seen them first, so I kept to myself that I wanted them, too. She was our guest— her first visit with me to Jacksonville, so Gram and I took her to our favorite spots. After a local cup of coffee, we went to an eclectic boutique called The Red Daisy, in the beachside community where my grandfather worked.

Just beside the register was a display of jewelry— necklaces, dangly earrings that looked heavy, the one pair of studs— made from broken china, the kind that belongs in grandmothers’ kitchens. Arden bought the studs, with gold flowers and a gold-and-maroon swirl.

“I’ll have to do this with my mother’s china,” Gram said, “for all the girls in the family.”

...

In an orbit around my grandmother, on the floor and in chairs, are my two sisters and me, our mother, aunt, great-aunt, and second cousin. Watching via FaceTime are another aunt and three more cousins.

Gram hands each of us a bag; red daisies dot the tissue paper poking out of the bags. Then she pulls a small notepad out of her pocket, and I read the handwritten name of her mother, Helen Pauline Blanford Lovelace.

“I have a special present for you all,” Gram begins.

She tells us about Christmas 1963 or 1964, when she was a young teenager. The congregation at the country church where Helen’s husband Kermit was the pastor gifted a blue-and-white set of china to the Lovelace family. Gram and her younger sister, my great-aunt Gail, remember pulling out the china for every special occasion.

I’m struck, as I listen to Gram, by how much I’m like her. Other family members say it all the time— I have her eyes, I have her tendency to hoard any item that has family significance. My dad sent her balloons in 2006 to tell her my youngest sibling would be a boy; Gram still has the clip that held the balloons together. I imagine one day I’ll be in her position, telling younger generations about her and passing out vintage photos that hung in her house or seashells she collected at the beach.

I’m anxious to open the bag and see what’s inside, though Gram warns me it’s not exactly what I think it is. I feel surprised and maybe even a little left out that she pulled this off without me— since Pop died, I’ve often been Gram’s co-conspirator. But most of my surprise is pleasant, happy to be a recipient rather than a planner.

Gram explains the breaking and silvering process that turned the china into jewelry, then she says the jewelry is “now being presented to you to wear as a reminder of your heritage and a legacy left by Helen.”

I reach into my bag, digging around in tissue paper until I feel something with weight. It isn’t stud earrings but a pendant— a unique pendant had been designed for each of us, in shapes from rectangular to teardrop to circular, largest for Gram and smallest for my youngest cousin.

Mine is a teardrop, smaller than my mother’s but bigger than my younger sisters’, with a dominant blue rose in the center, surrounded by leaves and smaller buds.

The china passed through decades, states, continents, and forms, all to become a gift on another Kentucky Christmas.

“Wear it proudly and with love,” Gram says to us all, with tears in her throat.

...

I think I misunderstood the father-son relationship, looking at that Tiffany lamp for the first time. Though Charles Lewis Tiffany founded the jewelry company in 1837, the brand was made famous by his son’s art.

The senior Tiffany gave his son his company and his name, though he spelled it differently: L-E-W-I-S became L-O-U-I-S. Then in the third generation came L-O-U-I-S-E, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s daughter.

Names change. Glass gets repurposed, china gets broken. The family continues.

...

In our white t-shirts— a neutral background to showcase the pendants— we gather in front of the hearth and Christmas tree. Gram hands a framed picture of Helen to one of the women to hold, and we smile for a photo.

Maybe Helen, Grandma, would have been offended that we ate our Christmas dinner on paper plates rather than china. My mom has some in a cabinet somewhere, I’m pretty sure. But mostly, I think, Helen would have been happy, her china hanging from the necks of each of the women who came from her.

About The Author

Bailey Vandiver is a writer, reader and Kentuckian. She writes most about her home state and fellow Kentuckian Alice Dunnigan. She is working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at the Bluegrass Writers Studio and is raising two cats, Leo McGarry and George O’Malley.