In My Own Write: The fragile and the precious

A thing of beauty is a joy forever - unless it's in prison.

judy montagu 88 (photo credit: )
judy montagu 88
(photo credit: )
'You can't take it with you' - Wealth and belongings will be useless to you when you die. - Pocket English Idioms I realize that what I am about to say may cause a level of distress, especially among those legions of extraordinary women who turn a house into a home and keep it humming not only with enviable efficiency, but also with elegance and refinement. In their sitting rooms you will frequently see display cabinets housing behind their glass fronts every kind of china and crystal: delicate dishes and goblets, bone-thin cups and saucers, cunningly-wrought plates and bowls. Some may be quite valuable. Others are heirlooms - and as dead as those who passed them down. When I visit a home and gaze at the contents of such a cabinet, I fancy I can hear those beautiful things calling out in the ghostly strains of the too-long incarcerated: "Grant us our freedom! Let us out to fulfill the purpose we were created for!" Alas, only the lady of the house has the power to do that. And, more often than not, she won't, because she too is captive - to a mind-set that says: The fragile and the precious are too fragile and precious to use. What if they should break? What, indeed? Certain pieces may be brought out on special occasions, but they're soon locked up again. And it can be a life sentence since they are often - and this is uttered with pride - "being kept for the children." But fashions change from decade to decade - let alone generation to generation - and adult children, lumbered with the legacies of a former era, might wish their parents hadn't bothered. "I have a tea-set for 12 that my mother put away for me," a friend confided when she moved into her new (small) apartment. "I wish I knew what to do with it." I DON'T own a glass-fronted cabinet, but I do have an heirloom or two. Like the kiddush cup, emerald-green glass decorated with gold, that my late mother bought in the Jewish quarter of Venice some 45 years ago. (My brother in London has a similar one in royal blue, acquired at the same time.) Every Friday and festival night spent at home, without fail, I bring that goblet out and fill it up with wine for the recitation of Kiddush. Afterwards I wash and dry it, and replace it in the kitchen cupboard with the rest of my glassware. I've been doing this for some years and I'm aware that one day, as the result of an unfortunate slip, that cup could fall and break. If it happens, I know I will be heartsick - I have suffered after breaking other items that belonged to my mom. But the knowledge doesn't hinder my regular use of her kiddush cup. Because a thing that's kept only "for show" remains inanimate and removed. One that is used as it was intended to be sparkles with life. Its fragility is integral to its beauty. 'IT was just sitting there," said my friend, a man in his fifties, of the bone-china demitasse set his late mother got for her wedding in 1952. Never used, it accompanied him to Israel in 1997 together with the cabinet in which it had lived for 45 years. "Finally I said to myself: Who am I saving it for, exactly? So a few months ago, I began drinking my espresso out of those tiny cups. Now they're functional, and I'm enjoying them. "I had thought I was being loyal by keeping them untouched; but then I realized that using them was the best way to remember my mother. "One day," my friend said, "they'll be gone. And you know something? So will I." I WONDER whether the fleeting nature of life and uncertainty over how long we will be around to live it is what leads many of us to "put things away" and keep them "for best" - which often means not using them ever. Is our subconscious whispering, perhaps, that strict preservation of these special things, unsullied by use, will - in some magical way - guarantee our own continuance? But we know it isn't so; and surely it's our very uncertainty about tomorrow that should convince us to extract maximum pleasure today from the things we own, whether purchased by us or handed down. "Here's a present - for the present," I once heard a guest say as he handed a handsome set of glasses to his hostess. THERE is another aspect to the practice of consigning lovely things permanently behind glass or packing them away out of sight: the sense that "they're too good to use." Or is it a nagging feeling that we're not good enough to use them? In such a case, we must become our own cheerleaders and tell ourselves, firmly: Nothing - nothing - in our possession is too good for us. We are human beings; they, however expensive or finely crafted, are only things. We own them. They don't own us. We deserve to use the best china, the best crystal, the best everything. We have the right and, by golly, we're going to make the most of it. Jewish tradition happily lends itself to this pulling out of all the stops in the shape of Shabbat, which comes around regularly every seven days and for which "the best" - in clothing, food and tableware - is the norm. And if you still have things you haven't brought into use - well, Pessah is on the doorstep. So when I say take out and enjoy your nicest stuff, I don't necessarily mean fluted champagne glasses while watching Eastenders. I mean, at the very least, bringing it out for Sabbaths and festivals and letting it enhance the spirituality of the day. THE urge to preserve, to keep pristine, to not use goes beyond dishes and glassware. It can express itself in utterly self-defeating practices - like with one lady I knew, who bought a lovely rose-colored plush sofa and armchairs, and then kept them permanently under thick plastic covers that were sweat-inducing in summer and bottom-chilling in winter. She kept her furniture fresh and clean - but to what end? When I acquired my first car, a Mitsubishi with stylish grey corduroy-covered seats, I asked my driving teacher: "Should I buy some cheap seat covers, so that when I sell it..." "Enjoy them the way they are," she interrupted me. "When you want to sell the car - that's when you buy the covers." I BEGAN by talking about elegant homeowners, but the "don't use, don't dirty" obsession can strike the very young as well. A recent guest, a young man in his 20s, recalled his days at a British elementary school. "We were about 10 years old, and on a birthday, one boy or another in my class would come to school carrying a real leather football that his father had bought him. "To us, this was an amazing thing to possess - and far too precious to actually kick around." He grinned. "We always ended up playing our matches using the same old plastic ball."