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Pieces of Eight

by Roberta McReynolds

When I blended households with my second husband, we ended up with two complete place settings for eight just for the two of us. His dishes were manufactured from a break-resistant product and practical for everyday use. The stoneware that still brought me a pleasant sense of youthful accomplishment was meticulously stowed away on the top shelves of the kitchen cabinets, complete with crackled glaze from age.

There is a difference between unbreakable and break-resistant plates. I erroneously assumed the dishes I gained the moment I exchanged vows with Mike were strong enough to survive my clumsy hands. Naturally, I was mistaken. Plates and bowls shattered into hundreds of shards over the years. When Mike suggested it was time to replace them and I had no argument.

We weren’t specifically shopping for dishes the day we were rummaging around at a warehouse sale, but that’s where we located our replacements. The underside of the plates, outside the bowls and inside the cups was black; the reverse was eggshell. The dramatic design complimented simplistic style. They fit the same criteria I used nearly 40 years ago. The box label stated that a company whose name is synonymous with break-resistant dinnerware manufactured the dishes. They were perfect. There were only two cartons left, each containing place settings for four. We had a full set of dishes once again. Did I mention the price tag was marked 50% off? Double perfect!

I removed our old dishes from the cabinet and Mike boxed them up for donation. I have to believe there is a family out there who needs seven plates, five bowls and eight cups. If they are lucky and break the right pieces, they’ll end up with a balanced setting of four by the time their children are grown and out of the nest.

Ironically, the first set of dishes I ever bought came about by skipping meals. I owe this bit of history to my parents. They were uninformed about the actual cost of a meal at my high school cafeteria. Meanwhile I operated under the assumption that $1.00 was all the household could bear. Let me clarify that $1.00 wasn’t per diem, but intended to stretch through the full week of five lunches.

The roots of this situation originated while I was in elementary school. My mother packed a lunch pail for me every single day until I completed 8th grade. This practice left her and my father woefully out of touch with the going rate of a meal ticket. The plus side to this matter is my belief that eight years of dry, peanut butter sandwiches paved the way to an easier transition of foregoing lunch completely.

I could only manage swallowing part of the predictable sandwich du jour without something to wash it down, unless you count the sour milk curdling in my leaky thermos. I’ve seen petri dishes in Biology 101 with a lot less action. I secretly poured the contents out each afternoon before going home, so I wouldn’t get in trouble for not drinking it. My mother dutifully filled it up again each morning so I would grow up to have strong bones. When I entered high school, it spelled release from that cycle of duty and survival for both of us.

However, my budget for sustenance worked out to twenty cents per day; forty if I forfeited my weekly allowance. This gave me few options. I could eat a cafeteria meal on Monday, thus depleting my bankroll for the remainder of the week. Better yet, the hamburger stand across the street offered a petite little burger without any extras for 35¢. Adding cheese was a luxury I couldn’t afford, let alone fries or a drink.

Occasionally I found that slice of processed yellow American Cheese simply irresistible. This forced me to develop "Plan C" at the snack bar next to the cafeteria to make up for my indulgence. I could finance a large cookie or a container of milk, but not both. Given my unpleasant childhood related memories of dairy-trauma, the cookie always won out.

Sometime during my sophomore year, my taste buds reached their quota of oatmeal cookies. I tucked my lunch money and weekly allowance into the drawer of the nightstand next to my bed and skipped lunch for a week. I kept a quarter tucked in my pocket just in case I grew weak without a few crumbs to see me through the day. My stomach didn’t object much, so I doubled my money by adding another $2.00 to my stash the following week. I felt wealthy with the possibilities that $4.00 put within my grasp.

The stack of one-dollar bills grew steadily and was tallied frequently, sometimes twice a day. When I had saved $20.00, my imagination ran amok with dreams. Heady over the purchasing power I considered buying a new outfit, but discovered I didn’t find anything I liked more than having that $20.00 in my purse. Perhaps if I saved $40.00 I would buy something and still have enough money left over to keep my "inner miser" in her comfort zone.

Weeks passed, dollars were sorted neatly face up. I realized I wanted to buy something that would last a long time, giving me a sense of its value for my sacrifice. I was looking to the future when set of dishes caught my attention at a department store. I could visualize them in my own home someday. The dishes were English stoneware and while breakable, they were sturdy. They suited my style perfectly; bone white, edged with a subtle embossed design inside a gracefully scalloped rim. They were simple, but classy. Any color scheme or table decoration I selected would enhance their simplistic beauty.

A set of four dinner plates, cereal bowls, cups and saucers were priced at $19.95. I was certain I’d need two sets so I could properly entertain guests in my future home. Keep in mind that I was still a teenager with no concept of how appealing paper plates with matching disposable napkins would be to me in another decade.

Approximately 150 skipped lunches and five months of my weekly allowance got me place settings for eight plus a matching sugar bowl, creamer, two serving bowls and a meat platter. (Just to set your mind at ease, in case you are feeling pangs of sympathy regarding all those skipped meals, get over it. I have more than made up for those calories since then.) The hope chest at the foot of my bed was seeded with a young girl’s fantasy. I loved those dishes so much I never bothered to register for a china pattern when I became a bride.

Those dishes never were used as often as I originally envisioned. They were impractical in the hands of a toddler. I guarded that stoneware against chips and cracks like a hawk with serious attitude. Instead of enjoying them, I avoided using them to keep them safe and perfect as the day I purchased them.

The new dishes Mike and I found together were unpacked and my first impression was how heavy they felt in my hands. I continued to free items from cardboard dividers and pass them to my husband, whose job was to load them into the dishwasher. Hindsight makes me wish we had reversed this strategy.

I lifted a rectangle of cardboard and became so focused on the struggle to free the handle of a cup which was tightly wedged in the packing, that I lost sight of the fact that there was a twin cup on the other end of the folded cardboard. That cup slid freely out of the corrugated cardboard sleeve as though it had been lubricated with cooking spray.

The sound of ceramic shattering on the linoleum echoed throughout the kitchen. Empty cardboard in one hand and a cup (now one of seven) in the other, I stood in the center of a ring of fractured pottery that had been a useful item just a moment earlier. I wonder if astronomers will find the rings of Saturn are actually debris from aliens lacking dexterity?

"That didn’t take long," I said. Actually, I said something else first, but I’m not going there.

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