Why the women in my family cherish fine china

Willie Mae Lee holds up a cup from her fine china and glassware collection in her Laverock, Pa., home. This painted cup had been part of her mother-in-law’s collection.

My mother might say that her collection of china and crystal glassware is for special occasions. But that’s not true. The china is for display.

I don’t have a single memory of my mother allowing a drop of wine to fall into the pristine, white goblets that she keeps in a built-in cabinet. Her crystal is not for Easter or Christmas, nor for dear friends or traveling guests, and it would never conceivably be for children. As a kid, I learned, the way many black children learn, that the precincts near a china cabinet don’t simply prohibit play, they require the gentlest steps.

My mother’s collection is dwarfed by those of my grandmothers. Both made room for plates carried up from the South — my paternal grandmother, Dolores Owens, came from Virginia; my maternal grandmother, Willie Mae Lee, from South Carolina. As it was for many American families of their time, a china pattern was that metonymic symbol for married couples that announced not only stability, but the means to serve a fancy dinner. For my grandmothers, it was more.

“They didn’t expect the black people to have nice things,” my mother’s mother said of her hometown’s white residents. But with care and scrimping, a black woman in Anderson, S.C., could defy expectations.

Camera icon SYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer
Cheryl Lee-Owens lays her hand on the dining room table of her mother’s Laverock, Pa., home. The fine china, glassware, and silverware are family heirlooms.

Family and friends often assembled collections piecemeal. The china didn’t have to match to receive the best treatment. This is an aspect that’s also taught: The plates and glasses are sturdy enough for gripping, but precious enough to demand light, reverent hands. “They would take care of it like they would their children. I can say that,” Grandmom Willie Mae said. “You can use the words that you want. I just want you to know how important it was.”

It took years into her marriage until she could afford her carefully researched Gibson china set that’s white with gold trim, to go with her Wm. Rogers & Son gold silverware. Reflected in the desire for fine china, my grandmother says, were collective memories of slavery time.

Some of her glassware belonged to her mother-in-law, Zola Lee. Mama Zola worked in home kitchens before finding her dominion at the helm of a hotel restaurant in Anderson. Family legend goes that she was able to acquire some pieces through work. My grandmother Willie Mae remembers that much of that collection actually came from Zola’s mother, who was born the year the Civil War ended.

Like the foam wrap that envelops a precious collectible, but also like plastic that covers a living room couch, the women in my family have balanced the transitions and paradoxes in their lives with a sensibility that indulges, then treasures all the more.

My mother’s china set is classically blue and white, with a lacy pattern anchored by hearts. I can’t imagine it being worth much. And I can’t imagine another item that would combine a color palette of classic pottery, the wishes from the old farmhouse, and the mass-produced feel of American kitsch. I wouldn’t put a price on it.

Asked to explain why she cherishes her china, my mother, Cheryl Lee-Owens, recalled a quote from her favorite author, Zora Neale Hurston. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, the protagonist, Janie, is resistant to the idea of marrying an older man for stability. Her grandmother insists that she think otherwise, and then tells the heartbreak and trauma of two generations. In the end, she pleads:

“Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate.”

My mother lives through chronic pain. She doesn’t think her life has been that hard, but she’s always loved the quote. The words speak to a certain zone of achievement: the wherewithal to have purchased something delicate, though still lacking the means to buy another set should a piece fracture.

“You still needed to keep going, but you still needed to be handled gently,” my mother said. “You were cracked. But you still were valued. It just speaks to what our people have been through.”

Camera icon SYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer
Pieces from Willie Mae Lee’s collection of fine china and glassware sit on the shelf of her china cabinet in her Laverock, Pa., home. The salt and pepper shakers were originally owned by her husband’s grandmother.

My paternal grandmother, Dolores Owens, is one of the unusual women who regularly uses her china, some of it from a collection that was shared by her mother, grandmother, and two aunts.

“It keeps the relatives alive,” she explained. “It makes you remember them on a regular basis. If you have something that you adore, I think you should have it in front of you often.”

Deborah Willis, an artist and department chair of photography and imaging at NYU’s Tisch School, grew up in a Philadelphia home where she was not allowed to eat off the china. Her mother was from the North, but her father’s family had migrated. “Items that they carried north, they placed in their treasured china closet, and they felt that it was preserving their memory,” said Willis, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner who has an exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. “Preserving these little pieces of artwork and little stories that had historical roots in their personal experience.”

Some of the oldest pieces in my paternal grandmother’s collection are amber-toned Depression glass, with a pattern that resembles sand dollars and sloping leaves. Loved ones don’t take the fancy stuff with them if they carry their food far from my grandmother Dolores dining room. Grandmom Willie Mae thinks that’s the dynamic that changed things.

Camera icon SYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer
Willie Mae Lee (left) and Cheryl Lee-Owens (center) gaze at Cassie Owens (right) while reflected in the hallway mirror of Willie Mae Lee’s home.

The women elders could sit around a table together, eating off the china. The men were invited, but Willie Mae remembers, they’d often decline: “They say, ‘No, we gon come up and have blessing, but then we going back to watch the game.’ ” And then they’d retreat to watch football on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day.

“All that hollering with the games, I didn’t want that china broken,” she reflected. “They made a lot of fancy paper plates, and I didn’t feel like taking it out. But you don’t want to hear about paper plates …”

So my grandmother’s china sits in a cabinet, sheltered, unbothered. That’s a sign of success. “See, my stuff is going to my children,” she said. “That’s the way the black people had to do.”

We’d love to hear about your black family heirlooms. If you’d like to share about what you cherish, email cowens@phillynews.com and bharden@phillynews.com.