Saturday, September 6, 2014

Wild Strawberry

About three years ago I started collecting Wedgwood's Wild Strawberry pattern.

One day Mom was at my house, looking in my china cabinet, and she said, "You know, that was Aunt Nancy's pattern."

"Oh, my gosh," I said. "That's so interesting! I have such strong memories of her china. I've even written about it before in stories, but somehow I didn't remember it was Wild Strawberry. And yet at some deeper level I must have remembered . . . and that's why I was drawn to it and why I started obsessively collecting it!"

Visits to Aunt Nancy's house were rare and special. She was actually my father's aunt, my great-aunt. She and Uncle Bill (Granny's brother) were rich and had a big house in Winston-Salem, the city where my father's family had lived for generations. Dad always talked about Winston in the most glowing terms. Cakes tasted sweeter there. The daffodils and dogwoods grew more beautifully and flowered more profusely. I could never understand why we lived in Tallahassee instead, and why, when Winston was so wonderful, we so seldom visited.

It was all very perplexing to me.

I was shy and always felt like a stranger in Winston since we hardly ever went there. I don't think I ever really said anything to my relatives (I mostly nodded and smiled), but I wanted so badly to be accepted by them, to be a real part of the family.

Whenever we went to Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy's, I was fascinated and would roam the house agog. Aunt Nancy kept her china displayed in the dining room, on a long table with a white table cloth, and I thought the delicate dishes looked like seashells on a white, white beach.

Aunt Nancy used to let my sister Kris and me play with a special doll she had, her own doll from when she was a little girl. The doll was not a child, like most dolls, but an elegant lady with an extensive wardrobe, including dainty kid gloves, high-heeled sandals, and a pearl necklace. Kris and I would sit in front of the fireplace in the living room and dress her up, but even as I was playing, I was listening to the adults, eavesdropping, trying to decipher their secret codes, trying to understand why things were the way they were.

Something had happened before I was born. Something momentous. My grandfather, Dad's dad, the leader of the family, the star of the family, the one who made everything happen, had died. Dad always talked about him in tones of awe. In fact, all Dad's relatives talked about him in this way. He was so funny, so smart. Daring. Stylish. Creative. Innovative. Ahead of his time.

But he had a darker side, too, though nobody said this outright. Somehow I knew, I always knew, that he was an alcoholic.

Dad's father had owned a successful sign company, the J.D. Kimel Sign Company, and Dad used to work for him after school and during the summer when he was young. (Uncle Bill worked for him too.) When my family was visiting in Winston, years later, Dad would drive us around town at night so we could see the neon signs, glowing like stars, that he (Dad) and his father had built so long ago.

"Yeah, that was one of ours, kids," he'd say, pointing out the window, and his voice was wistful though he smiled.

Two years before he died, Dad's father had gotten very sick with congestive heart failure and had been forced to sell the sign company. He wanted to give it to Dad, but Dad wanted to stay in college; he was the first in his family to go to college and had decided to pursue a Ph.D. in physics. So Uncle Bill bought the sign company.

As a child, I could never understand why my father had given up the sign company, why he had given up everything, all connection to the past, why we lived so far away, in such isolation. I could never understand why we lived the way we did. It always seemed, to me, we were in exile. Dad spoke so highly of his family, but we rarely saw them. Winston was the greatest place on earth, yet we hardly ever went there. Why? As a child, this was my constant, secret question.

Did Dad secretly hate his family? Had he been somehow hurt, driven away? Or did he simply lack the capacity to be close to people? I could never figure out the answers, but my greatest wish was that our separation would end.

And so on those precious trips to Winston-Salem, to Aunt Nancy and Uncle Bill's, I would gaze at Aunt Nancy's china with delight and secret envy. I'm sure it's no coincidence that Aunt Nancy collected Wild Strawberry and now I do too. Even the smallest, most frivolous decisions (like what kind of tea cup to buy) are often influenced by ancient memories and desires.