In the year of my brother’s bar mitzvah, I turned twenty-three. After high school, I’d moved to New York to study art. By day, I was immersed in Illustration Concepts and Life Drawing. By night, I made art. I slept behind a staircase in a basement room in Greenwich Village. After rent, tuition, and art supplies, my budget for food and clothing came to twenty dollars a week. And I had never been happier.
My parents reacted with a frenzy of efforts to set me up with available Jewish bachelors. My mother didn’t see it the way I did, as a joyous liberation, a chance to reinvent myself. She wanted to see me wedded, preferably to a doctor, preferably living nearby.
I spent most of Winter Break in my room with the door shut, sulking. My mother was a mystery to me; she seemed genuinely happy cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry, and was perplexed that I, her flesh and blood daughter, did not share her interests. When I wasn’t busy painting, I had my nose buried in a book. We had nothing in common.
One night, I heard a knock on my door, and Mom poked her head in. “Do you have anything to wear to the bar mitzvah?” she asked.
I hadn’t even thought about it, and I told her so, with a certain proud defiance. She ignored my provocation. “Let’s go to Lord and Taylor,” she said.
Staid, traditional Lord and Taylor was the last place in the universe I wanted to visit, the antithesis of the groovy new me I was trying to create. Other than sulking, I had nothing planned, so off we trudged into the frigid Chicago air.
Since I had recently learned that artists wore black, the shopping trip was a bust. I rolled my eyes at the turquoise suits and sequined dresses she picked out. Piqued by the way I dismissed her choices, she snapped that she didn’t know whose daughter I was, because I surely wasn’t hers.
That hurt. Deep down, I longed for my mother’s approval, yearned for her to celebrate along with me my new friends, my new apartment, my new happiness. But I was a realist, in art and in life. It was never going to happen. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She’d been hidden with farmers, hidden in an attic, in a castle, in a root cellar, in a coffin-sized hole under a cow pen. She’d been marched into the forest to be shot, and rescued at the last minute by the Kommandant of her labor camp. After the war, she’d shuttled from one Displaced Persons camp to another for the better part of a decade. Mom had endured too many terrifying surprises over the course of her life, and she found comfort in the conformity and regularity that made me want to run far, far away.
After I’d rejected the last dress, she conceded defeat, her face a mask of irritated disappointment. Miserably, I followed her down the escalator, awash in an awful, incommunicable slush bucket of feelings; wanting to justify myself, wanting her to understand, wanting to please her, terribly sorry for hurting her feelings. She was wearing a plaid jacket with fleecy lapels that I’d insisted on buying when I was thirteen because one of the popular girls owned one. I knew she didn’t like it, it wasn’t her taste, but being a survivor had made her thrifty, and though I’d discarded the jacket years ago, it was too good to throw away. Just looking at her made me feel guilty.
As we stepped off the first floor escalator, she glanced at me. “Do you have a minute to stop by the china?” she asked. Her expression suggested that she was sure I’d say no.
“Um…sure,” I said.
Now she bustled forward with purpose, leaving me and my leisurely American strides far behind.
Studies show that my living room was pretty typical for an immigrant family. We had a painting of rabbis arguing at a table. Wall-to-wall carpeting. Plastic-covered furniture. And an imposing china cabinet.
Inside this cabinet balanced delicate porcelain plates featuring vignettes of eighteenth-century noblemen romancing eighteenth century debutantes. A beautiful porcelain lady leaned coyly out the window of a delicate porcelain coach pulled by six prancing porcelain horses. An ocean of faceted lead crystal lined the shelves, fruit bowls and platters and urns and pitchers and wine glasses and tumblers.
After World War 2, as my grandmother waited for the family’s immigration application to be approved, she did a brisk business in the black market, trading with Germans who lived near the Displaced Persons camp in Foehrenwald. Coffee and cigarettes were exchanged for crystal vases, sugar bowls, or the odd piece of Dresden china. Some of these found their way to Chicago when my parents married. If the sun reached just the right height at just the right time of day, it beamed through the dining room window, shooting rays of light through Mom’s collection. A million tiny rainbows would dance across the ceiling, turning the carpet, the shades and the walls into a kaleidoscope. Occasionally, Mom would remove a wineglass and flick the rim with her fingernail. When it rang like a bell, a smile of delight crossed her face, lighting it up like fireworks. I had long ago reached the conclusion that she loved her crystal more than she loved me.
She came to a stop in front of the shelves of china. Her expression softened. Pink came into her cheeks. “I like this one,” she said shyly, pointing at a creamy white dinner plate. English roses rambled around the rim. “What do you think?” She seemed to be bracing herself for me to mock her taste here, too.
It was pretty. “I like it,” I said, surprising myself.
She looked as astonished as I felt. “What about this one?” She pointed to another plate, with gold flowers imprinted on a translucent robin’s egg blue.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “You should get it.” Something in me stirred. I loved that plate. I wanted that plate. I desired that plate. Why had I never noticed how beautiful a household object could be? That a plate, too, could be considered art?
My mother looked at me as if she’d never seen me before, then smiled. I’d seen pictures of her younger self with that smile, taken when she was a teenager, wearing flouncy dresses and juggling a gazillion boyfriends, when she was the best dancer in the whole DP camp.
We stayed until they threw us out, drifting from plate to plate. We deliberated the virtues of Noritake, Wedgwood and Rosenthal. We leaned close to compare them, shoulders touching through our coats. We looked at teacups. We looked at silver. We went as far as speculating which pattern I might choose if I were getting married. When the loudspeaker announced that the store was closing, we shuffled reluctantly to the doors.
Outside, in the parking lot, Mom was all business again, hustling toward the car. The fragile magic of our connection seemed to evaporate into the frigid January air like a puff of breath. Lagging behind her, I hunched into my coat and leaned forward against the wind.
That’s when it struck me, how much the Home and Dining section reminded me of my mother’s china cabinet. Neat and pristine, each plate sparkled in its slot, lined up on clear shelves that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. Light bounced off the gold rims, turned glasses into prisms, made the silver glitter and gleam.
Mom’s china cabinet was her refuge, her impenetrable fortress of light and harmony. To escape from a strange and unfriendly world, from the bewildering demands of her four American children, from the clutter and chaos of keeping house, from the loneliness of being a stranger in a strange land, she lost herself in its soaring crystal canyons. Only there could she hide from the jumble of misspoken English words, the tide of misunderstanding and miscommunication spilling through the cracks of our lives.
We all have our ways of escape, our own private asylum. Where my mother found refuge in the intricacies of fine china, I found it in brushes and paint. Over the years, I had expended so much energy drawing hard lines around what was different between us that I had lost any way to connect.
I like to think that my mother came to appreciate my new life. On only her second visit to New York, she discovered that she loved the city. It must have reminded her of the Polish market town she grew up in, the streets crowded with people, all in a hurry to get somewhere. It took a while, but she learned my new friends’ names. She taught my shiksa roommate how to bake challah. She had a favorite Korean deli. She even let me drag her to the Met, where she listened with rapt attention as I yammered on about composition and brushwork.
On a cold winter’s night, a door appeared in the wall that separated us, and I walked through it, finding common ground where I thought there was none; common ground as fragile and delicate as the beauty of a china plate.