Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall 1990

Family Heirlooms

by Susan Schneider

Going to the Glass and Pottery Show is a ritual with Mother and me. Twice a year for the last six years we have waited in line to see the vast displays stretching like arms from the center aisle of the Convention Center in Springfield, Missouri. But our main purpose, we tell ourselves, is to find a missing piece of cut crystal stemware which belonged to my grandmother. We are one glass short of a perfect set of twelve.

Mother carries one goblet with her to compare to those in the various collections. She has wrapped the glass in a tea towel, and has placed the bundle in an antique basket just large enough to hold the glass and several prisms also needing mates. The stemware, like my grandmother's china, will belong to me one day, but each time we visit the glass show, Mother holds the basket tightly, cradling it to her side. She rarely sets the basket down, but if she does find an antique that she wants to examine more closely, she hands the basket to me. "Hold this," she says, "and don't drop it!" Mother has said this to me so often I sometimes wonder if the real heirloom is the glass in the basket or the warning that comes with it.

"I won't drop it," I say, but even as I am sure that I won't, I am equally sure that I could, and the space between the two possibilities grows narrower every year. Mother and I share this heritage of doubt, meddling fears that the objects we protect might fall from our hands, or chip on the side of the sink. We do not wash crystal; we bathe it. But then the goblet is not an object. Rather it forms part of a chain stretching from my grandmother's hands to Mother's to mine. We recall our heritage by holding the glass delicately by the stem; our respect for the crystal makes it oversized, awkward and more slippery with age.

The Glass and Pottery Show is not a good place to show such doubts. Here vendors from across the country have unpacked, polished, back-lit, and arranged every piece into families of saffron, azure, rose, tissue-white, and crystal. Wares jam the tables and dealers create space by tiering display cubes several feet high. Crystal candlesticks and cut glass bowls totter on the topmost shelves. Crowds press through booths no wider than pullman kitchens. Mother and I join the long, slow shuffling parade, craning our necks to see over others' shoulders. But I am I often claustrophobic and must sometimes step ! to the side and let others pass until I have a more 4 carefully defined sense of space around me.. Still, I am part of this swell of people. Surrounded as we are by the delicate, the priceless, and the irreplaceable, tension builds, and when a piece does get broken the sound numbs the crowd. A collective "OOOOOOOOHHHHHH?' follows, then laughter, each person thinking, "I'm glad I didn't break that?

Neither Mother nor I claim to be educated collectors, though we have gleaned bits of information from dealers over the years. Our visits to the glass shows have taught us the market value of many pieces we do own so that now we warn each other, "Don't sell that. It's valuable." Many other objects which we see I have learned about from Mother.

"Look at this," she says, holding a small glass circled in cobalt blue. "We used to buy cheese in these during The War." The twining metal flowers Mother remembers as place-card holders, and she grandly points to saltbowls, knife rests, frogs and refrigerator dishes. "If only I had known these would be so valuable," Mother says.

I understand her regret. We both compulsively save anything useful, as did my grandmother before us, and it irks us to think we might be saving the wrong things, and giving away things we shouldn't.

We are both convinced, however, that we see nothing as fine as the piece of stemware Mother carries in the basket. Our glass is certainly above this Depression-ware. Pieces as rare as my grandmother's probably rest in museums now, we tell each other.

The first years Mother carried the glass to the show, we didn't know the pattern name or the manufacturer. Only after we had roamed the show for a few hours could I goad Mother to unwrap it for a dealer. Maybe someone could tell us who made it, or where we might find another like it. But Mother always seemed afraid to ask, as if someone might tell her in a condescending or nonchalant way that our fine piece of crystal really wasn't fine at all, or challenge our right to call the piece an heirloom. No one did. One dealer suggested the glass might be Steuben; another said Tiffany. Finally, a visiting expert on Depression Glass told us the goblet was deftnitely Tiffany, and suggested we contact a noted dealer in Ohio for the pattern name.


That winter Mother wrote to the man. She traced the outline of the pattern in pencil onto a piece of tissue paper, and mailed the tracing, a picture, and a description to the man. Several weeks later he wrote back stating we might find the pattern in one of two volumes on Tiffany glass. Now we look for the books as well as the crystal.

The search for the glass might frustrate us if we actively look, but we don't. As we leave the Glass and Pottery Show, I realize that Mother has not unwrapped the glass, and I have forgotten all about looking for its match. Neither of us has mentioned the goblet at all. I suspect that my mother doesn't really want to find a match to the glass. I suspect that she doesn't want to give up searching for this stemware even though she knows that she will never use it. This doesn't bother me.

I am building my own collection. Though I love to see the crystal, I search for pottery in bold, bright colors. This is my idea of elegance. I seek heirlooms with a function, and pieces without warnings. I have inherited from my grandmother many fine pieces: gilt-edged plates of handpainted flowers, fluted bowls and candlewick cake platters. But though these are of my grandmother, they do not remind me of her. When my grandmother was alive she had a name for these kinds of objects. She called them "Pretties." I never saw her use her pretties, and I keep them just as she did--on the shelf, away from harm. The pieces I have collected from the glass shows are whimsical, bright and functional. I won't be too sad if they break or chip because any lapses I commit will not damage my heritage.

As Mother sets the basket on the back seat floor of the car, I see her smile to herself. It's as if she is saying to my grandmother, "Here is your piece of stemware, still unmatched, but still unbroken." While my grandmother lived, I never saw her use this crystal, but the glass has value to me because of the look in my mother's eye when she holds it, just as she witnessed her mother doing. By the time the stemware becomes mine, a rich heritage will have passed from my grandmother's hands to Mother's to mine. And though the stemware comes from my grandmother, the context comes from my mother. This goblet and ten others like it will remind me of our visits to the Glass and Pottery Show, a memory like an heirloom--delicate, priceless and irreplaceable.

Susan Schneider is a native Springfieldian who teaches composition at South west Missouri State University.
Susan Schneider


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