After 16 years of hauling around this enormous (122 pieces!) set of Franciscanware Desert Rose china, I'm selling it on eBay. A representation of just a few of the 30 serving pieces is to the left. It's my first step (and an unexpectedly laborious one) towards stripping away the STUFF. The stuff in the garage that remains in unopened boxes since my move here two years ago is a good start -- if I haven't needed it in two years, I don't need it. The cake stands. The old drapes. Useless Kitchen Stuff: the breadmaker, juicer and lots of deep fryers. I'm hanging on to: my beloved 1954 Wedgewood stove, big as a 1954 Buick and with more chrome -- I don't care where I move next as long as I can use that stove; my collection of 40 eggbeaters; the old blown-glass Christmas decorations; two beautiful huge rugs (I will rip out any wall to wall in my next residence so I can walk on these again). That's it. Everything else, damn the sentiment, is going.
These dishes were a blessing and a curse. They belonged to my father's mother. Grandma -- wow, where to start? -- was a character. She too was a blessing and a curse, depending on who you were. She was a feisty, independent woman with little education, who defied her deeply Catholic Italian immigrant family and divorced her sullen, alcoholic husband in her early '30's. Then she set out to make a living for herself and her adored only son, Tony, my father. She went through beauty training -- "I sweated bullets, honey," she said to me once about the difficulty of going back to school, barely knowing how to read -- and graduated to become a hairdresser, which she continued to do well into her 80's, with a 1930's style. "I was the best in my class in finger waves," she said modestly. She did my hair in a perfect marcel -- pure Jean Harlow -- in the '70's the afternoon before I went to a Bette Midler concert. She didn't know it was camp. Her other attempts on my hair (The Perm From Hell) were less pleasing to me, but perfect for her aging clientele.
She was the ultimate Italian Mother, devoted to Tony with a frightening intensity. When I went through Daddy's photographs after he died, there were at least 20 or more professional portraits of her with her son from the age of 4 to 40, posed more as lovers than as mother and son, cheek to cheek, romantic lighting. I looked at these and said to my mother, who was helping me clear out his place, "It's a good thing neither of them read much Greek tragedy." When my mother entered my dad's life (she was 18, he was 24), Grandma went with them on the first date and sat between them in the front seat of his car. Mom should have read the signs.
Here's a wedding photo. Note how Grandma is poised between them, tilting her head to edge in even further and force my mother into an unnatural position. That remained the pattern though their marriage. Grandma never liked my mother and made her life hell for nine years. Now when I came along, her only grandchild, I was treated like visiting royalty. She spoiled me rotten, and would have tried to poison me against my mother after my parents' divorce, but my mother finally put her foot down. It was the first time I saw Mom, a gracious and unassertive woman, enraged. She was quiet but firm, and was trembling while she held me and confronted Tony about his mother's meddling. I didn't understand the reason for her rage, and it made a huge impression -- it's one of my earliest memories.
After that, all was well with our relationship. I knew Grandma could be a dragon lady, but she always treated me with love, that bottomless Italian abbodanza of adoration for grandchildren.
Here I am at about 4 in her lap, wearing an atrocious black eyelet dress with a hot pink petticoat and yards of pink ribbon threaded through the holes. A gift from Grandma, who thought black was fine for toddlers. This was the single time my mother let me wear it on the street.
So of course, she wanted me to be the recipient of her most prized possession, her enormous collection of Desert Rose China. It was the one luxury this thrifty woman allowed herself. She well knew the value of a dollar, and had scrimped and saved to buy a sweet Craftsman bungalow in Pasadena. She was canny enough to buy a house with extra bedrooms, and rented them out to students attending Pasadena City College a short distance away. Even in her last years, she was proud of her ability to earn and save every penny, take every advantage. She never had a checking account or invested her money in anything other than a passbook savings account at Pasadena Mutual Bank, swiping all their ballpoint pens on every visit. Everyone in the family had hundreds of them. She also stole sugar packets and silverware from restaurants.
Even so, she and her sister Mae spent nearly every Saturday through the '50's taking the long bus ride to Atwater and the Gladding-McBean factory, which made Franciscanware for half a century. It's still manufactured in England, but is far inferior than the original Californian product. She'd buy as much in the Desert Rose pattern as she could carry home in her lap, and had a silent competition with her sister in acquisition of the best deals, the greatest quantity, the most unique serving pieces. Often, she'd gaze proudly at the collection displayed behind the built-in glass cabinets in the dining room, and say to me, "Honey, someday all this will be yours." I was torn. I knew Grandma loved the pattern, but it was never me. I'm just not a pink person. Why not Apple, or Ivy? Desert Rose was the most popular pattern of its time, perhaps of all time. For once in her life, Grandma was in the mainstream. Everyone's mother or grandmother had a set. But Grandma won, she had the most. Dinner service for 12, even though I never remember more than 6 people in her home at a time. And only used on holidays -- the rest of the time, we ate spaghetti off Melmac she probably got free in boxes of detergent. Not only dinner plates, but salad plates, bread and butter plates, teacups, three kinds of bowls, and funny crescent shaped dishes to sit next to the dinner plates, harking back to the Victorian tradition of a separate plate to hold discarded bones. I doubt she knew their purpose, I certainly never saw them used. A baby plate for me. Then there are the serving pieces, enough to hold food for a crowd, say the Italian Army. Again, not just the usual set of salt and pepper shakers and single platter. Tureens, turkey platters, fancy tiny open roses for individual butter pats (she used them as ashtrays), every kind of divided dish and platter offered in the pattern, celery dishes, giant water pitcher... yep, she won.
Grandma died in 1990 at the age of 85. (In an eerie link to their weird karmic bondage, Daddy died ten years later to the day.) This is the last picture of her, taken weeks before her death, the two of us on the same porch thirty years after the above picture. (And I'm still badly dressed.) I loved her dearly and was sad to see her go, sadder for the emotional devastation her death wreaked on my father. Her bequest, the dreaded Desert Rose, was shifted to the attic of her house where Daddy lived for nearly all the rest of his life. When Daddy moved to assisted living, there was nothing for it, I had to take the dishes home. I still was torn: there was definitely a sentimental attachment. Just looking at them, I could smell the spaghetti sauce. I intended to sell them eventually. Eventually turned into six years of storage on top of the ten years my father held them for me.
You see, Grandma wasn't completely gone. She haunted the house when Tony was in the last stages of his decline, looking for him, turning on lights. Seriously. The ceiling fixture in the room where I stayed while caring for Tony and later during his move and the sale of the house, would click on in the middle of the night, over and over. Finally, I unscrewed the bulbs, but I could still hear the clicking. I called an electrician, who pronounced the wiring sound. This went on for months. I could hear clicking down the hall, too, where other switches remained to light fixtures removed when Daddy remodeled. During the time the house was on the market, the realtor called me to ask whether I'd been at the house in the last few days. I was in San Francisco, 400 miles away. "Then I can't figure it out," said the realtor. "I know I turned off the lights when I last showed the place, but today, every light in the house was on."
So I hung onto the Desert Rose, with as much superstition as sentiment. Finally, I realized that with Daddy now gone for six years, she had what she wanted. Whatever the afterlife holds for us, I'm sure they are together again. And she would be delighted if I made money on the sale -- satisfying her innate appreciation of a dollar earned -- especially if the set could go in a single lot to another family that actually liked them.
I hauled the six huge heavy boxes into the house and went through the laborious process of inventory, finding and listing every perceived flaw, and photographing them all. I have 12 photos of different sets on my eBay site, with a link to over 70 photos posted on flickr. Without visual evidence, no one would believe one person could own all this crockery. I'm selling it in a lot, hoping a family gets it. However, the real money is to be made by dealers who can then resell each piece individually at a markup, and I made that a strong selling point. I don't have the time or energy -- there's more crap in them thar garage needing to be strip mined. In less than 12 hours, I've had five bids, over 100 clicks, and the item is being watched by 15 people. It hasn't reached my reserve price, yet. The reserve is ridiculously low given the current market value for vintage, mint condition Desert Rose. It has as many fans as ever if not more. Entire websites and discussion groups with hundreds of members are devoted to these dishes. I had a sense of what Grandma would consider "real money," and that's what I'm happy to get.
It isn't about the money. I don't really need it. It's merely self-protective capitalism in action. As for the next owners, I don't think her presence will follow. But now and then, no matter what they're cooking, a faint aroma of garlic and oregano may linger in the room.
(P.S. Just noticed that this is entry #200. My god, I do go on...........)