It tumbled out of the cabinet quick as a wink and fell apart with the same dainty and delicate noise you’d expect from a sound effect in an animated film. Pretty glass in pieces, and then silence. We all sat still with wide eyes and breath held in our breadbaskets for a moment, and then, ever so slowly all eyes were on me. They were looking for a reaction, but I surprised myself by not having a reaction lined up for something like that. Instead I just sat and stared and listened to their voices. “I’m sorry, mama.” she said. And it wasn’t the off handed sorry you dole out when you’re in someone’s way, or the sorry she’s sometimes forced to offer up when she’s unleashed her own personal teenage brand of fire on her brothers. She meant that sorry, I could hear it. She knew that broken thing mattered.
The other voices at the table started to find their words too. “That was her grandma’s.” “Oh no.” “Look, I think it can be glued.” But I was already transfixed on that crackling filmstrip in my mind, playing back memories, where that butter dish served as a lovely ornamental prop in so many scenes from my life.
Her hands on that butter dish as she lay it on the Christmas table and the Thanksgiving table and the ordinary table on that one random Sunday when she said “Well, everybody’s here. So it’s as special as Thanksgiving today.”
When she was washing up. “You have to wash and rinse in hot water, Missy. As hot as you can stand it. Your dishes will dry faster and they won’t have spots.” And I’d marvel. How does she know things like that, I’d wonder, but I never asked. Just nodded my little head and I’ve washed dishes in as-hot-as-I-can-stand-hot water ever since, simply because she said so. I’ve never fact checked her reasons.
The older I got, the deeper the conversations got. “I guess we’re all just trying to be happy,” I’d said. “Oh I know.” she said. Her hands plunging into that water and out again. Two fish becoming redder and more puckered by the minute.” I’m beginning to wonder what people mean by that word. It’s everywhere, isn’t it? And yet it seems to be nowhere because everybody’s always looking for it. When I was a young girl we were real poor. Living on rations and what little bit my mom and dad could scrape together. It was during the Depression and nobody had anything to speak of. Not in our little country community, anyway. But on some Saturday nights the Brindles, who lived in town would have a dinner party. They’d entertain all the town dignitaries and occasionally an out of towner or two and they’d let my sister and me come and wash the dishes for a whole 25 cents each. I’d slide my hands into that hot water and it felt so good, I’d have to will myself not climb into that sink and sit down. We didn’t have running water of any kind at home, much less hot water. I’d wash dishes that had strangers’ scraps of potato or half eaten vegetables stuck to them, just loving how shiny those plates could get with the right amount of elbow grease and a good polishing with a clean cotton towel. When we’d finish, Mrs. Brindle would walk in, and I’d listen to the sound her shoes made – a sort of clickety-clack sound all along the wood floors and I’d try to imagine my own mother wearing shoes like that, even though I figured she could never afford to. Mrs. Brindle would bend down, get right on our level and look right into our eyes. Just like we was good enough for her, ya know? And she’d hand us each a shiny quarter. Our mom told us we could use it at the store for a piece of penny candy and a coke, but the rest had to go toward the next month’s groceries, and I never once complained. I never once looked at that like it was my money to begin with–or even anything I’d worked too hard to earn, on account of loving that little job so much.
And so at the end of a day like that . . . my hands soft and pink from doing those dishes, or the next day with a piece of stick candy in my mouth, I was happy. The real kind of happy. The kind that lasts and spills over into the night when you’re layin’ in bed remembering the feeling. The kind that makes you look forward to the next day. I didn’t need and airplane or a credit card or a new dress. I got everything I needed from a classy lady who looked me in the eye and smiled over a job well done. If everyone in the world would just slow down a little bit, maybe just stare at one square inch and try to find something about it that might make them feel something good … they’d realize that the extras they chase here and there and everywhere aren’t making them happy at all. They’re just teasing them. Frustrating them. Keeping them on the chase. Chasing things is important, I guess, but so is being content. Put me in the window seat of an old car on a Sunday and take me for a drive, or let me stand here and wash up the kitchen and I’m happy. And you’re here with me and makes me all the happier! Glory!” And then she’d go to humming her hymns in her church choir alto and smile and wash and be happy.
And I was happy too. Next to her. Washing her pretty dishes—that butter dish—in hot water.
“It was an accident.” I said “Don’t worry about it, babe.”
“We can try to glue it.” she said “It looks like it just broke into a couple of pieces.”
“Just set in on the shelf and I’ll look at later. Let’s eat and talk about your day.”
The fact is, I’m not sure I’d have ever thought about that day at the sink with my grandmother, if that butter dish hadn’t broken the way it did. We only get so many memory recalls in life, and we never know what will summon them from their sleep in our hearts.
For a brief moment, I was with my grandmother again. We were shoulder to shoulder and I could smell her Avon perfume and the aerosol spray in her hair. I could see the carefully filed ovals of her pail frosted pink fingernails contrasted against the deep pink of her warm hands plunging in and out of that soapy dishwater, teaching me the deeply meaningful lessons of life people so easily forget when they’re out on the hunt for happiness. That broken Franciscan Apple butter dish was just the cost of admission.
I can put butter on a plain plate every day for the rest on my life and it will have been worth it.