Do you buy nice things to have or to use?
Women of my mother’s generation had a cabinet full of good china that was saved for special occasions along with the good silver which usually only made an appearance at Christmas dinner. The notion that certain, usually expensive, things were to be reserved, to be kept pristine, and certainly not used everyday.
Pinwheel crystal was my Mum’s obsession. She had a glittering collection that surpassed most gift stores. She found highly unusual pieces like a crystal cookie jar. But growing up, there was never a cookie stored in it. Or anything else. But we admired it, especially when the sunlight caught the intricate, deeply etched facets.
A few years ago, when I lived in the city, I used to attend (quite religiously ha ha) a weekly church thrift sale. It was run primarily by elderly women (they managed the two men who looked after tools and electronics) and everyone volunteered their time. One Tuesday morning I came upon a display of beautiful Birks wine glasses. The lady behind the table agreed with me that they were exquisite, and then told me a story that has stayed with me ever since:
She too, had collected a set of Birks stemware many, many years ago. She had to buy them one at a time, whenever could afford another one. It was a luxury for her to shop at Birks instead of say, The Hudson’s Bay, but she saved her dollars and eventually acquired a full set.
And although at the time she loved them and wanted them, she confided in me – with the wisdom of age, experience, and hindsight behind her – that It just wasn’t worth it. When I asked the reason, she said that in reality they just sat in her cupboard and she hardly ever used them. She and her husband didn’t drink much wine and rarely entertained. And now, widowed, the glasses still sat, taking up valuable space in her apartment for one. And here before me, in all their splendour, donated by someone else, was a set available to me at a cost equivalent to what she had paid for one, hard-earned, glass. I didn’t have the heart to buy them. And I was riding a bike anyway.
Her story made me rather sad and reflective. Her struggle to buy something she couldn’t easily afford, but did – despite the sacrifice it entailed – was a fascinating testament to her determination. Yet ultimately, the tale didn’t have the happy ending it might have had: the Birks glasses had not brought the delight she surely expected. Kept for all those years, despite gathering dust, they ended up representing something more than a vessel for wine. Perhaps of a past life and time.
We’ve all done this; made shopping mistakes we’ve regretted later. Buying things for the life we wish we led, but don’t. Aspirational shopping. Sometimes we do grow into that person or lead that life eventually, but sometimes it is just misguided wishful thinking. And so we chalk it up to a lesson learnt.
I have a large collection of Limoges china. It is not a set, per se, more of a collection of several white and gold patterns that Limoges made. When I began to look for the simple but elegant china, there were some on Ebay, and even for sale locally, that were thousands of dollars because they were large complete sets in impeccable condition.
I couldn’t afford this, nor did I want it. My Limoges was acquired over time from several sources, but the bulk of it came from a woman moving house to a seniors home. She had been a violinist in the symphony orchestra and she had a large number of pieces that could not accompany her to the new smaller quarters. The china was not without flaw; some of the gold rims had faded, there was a chip here and there; these dishes had clearly been used. But they were still absolutely gorgeous.
The woman who I bought them from was a friend helping with the downsizing. She recounted that the owner used to hold large dinner parties and the Limoges always graced her table. These plates and platters had a past, a history of many meals and good times. I love buying things like this; and part of the reason I adore vintage so much. Rather than being perfect, they are perfect in their imperfection. I was thrilled to acquire the musician’s china, and knew they had found the right home. Because I too use them, and love them.
No, I don’t use my Limoges everyday (except for my teacup) – it requires hand-washing and I’m a Mum with boys and Corelle – but it usually comes out on the weekend.
And over the years, when something inevitably gets broken,
I am not heartbroken. Oh, too bad, I say, and feel a little pang. But that’s life.
It’s the risk you take for the pleasure.
A risk I am always willing to take.