Blue Canton

My father-in-law Chase had a set of Blue Canton that was the envy of everyone who cast their eyes upon it. I had wanted it for years. I thought, when it comes to it, I’ll have to fight my mother-in-law for it. We might pull out each other’s hair.

Chase’s parents bought the Blue Canton when they were medical missionaries in Shanghai. Each plate is heavy and thick, hand-painted the most beautiful blue.

Chase served us dinner on it, once, when Francis and I were dating and had driven down to Warsaw for dinner. I felt lucky, prized, just to eat off it. We drank red wine out of pewter cups and talked, long into the night. Chase could talk about anything, everything: art, history, the war, his past. And I would listen.

It came into my possession suddenly, somewhat surprisingly, because Chase hasn’t died, which is how one normally inherits these things. He almost died, but he didn’t, and now he lives at the VA where he clings to life. And we spend our time dealing with his remaining possessions.

The Blue Canton lived in our basement for a few weeks, in boxes, but I spent a recent Friday off work, unwrapping it, blissful. I felt sneaky, with my husband at work, like I needed to unwrap it, fast, and put it in the cupboard before he got home and told me to put it back again.

Because he didn’t want me to put it out. Because the unwritten rule was: Don’t touch it. Don’t look at it. Don’t eat on it or breathe on it or break it.

Just leave it, my husband said. Leave it alone.

But I was worried it would break or get lost if I left it in boxes. So I spent the whole day unpacking the Blue Canton and putting it away carefully, plate by plate, by dish, cup and saucer. I was so worried I was going to drop something, that my son Gus would tip over a plate and it would fall, smashing into smithereens. But it didn’t. I worked quickly. Gus played in the boxes, squealing with delight, throwing Styrofoam peanuts and plastic wrap around his head.

At the end of the day, I was finished. I stood back to admire my work, what I had longed to see for so many years: the Blue Canton on my shelves.

I thought it would make me happy, but it didn’t.

Because now I know what it means to my husband.

It means that his dad is gone. Even if he is still living, clinging to life, but stripped of all personality, of which he had so much. It means that his dad is gone and we won’t use it anymore. We won’t use it for anything.

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