In my china cabinet, on the top shelf sits an antique Polish tea set. It consists of a small tea pot, a cream pitcher and a sugar bowl. It is very old, and somewhat battered, having been passed from oldest daughter to oldest daughter, down to me—the 7th in my female line.
It does not belong to me, although I am its current keeper. When I used to gaze at it, in the built-in china cabinet of my grandmother’s craftsman home in northern Illinois, it did belong to me, having passed into my ownership on the day of my birth. And it passed on to my firstborn daughter on the day of her birth, even though at that time it resided on my mother’s display case in her home in Central Illinois, far from the duplex where the Chemistry Geek Princess was born.
The CGP became the eighth in the line of oldest daughters to whom the tea set passed. It was brought from the old country, one of the few things of beauty and value to survive the misfortunes of the old country, and the slow building of new lives and fortunes here, in the Golden Land. I can imagine my great-grandmother lovingly and carefully placing it on the shelf behind the square-cut craftsman leaded glass doors of the dark china cabinet in the corner of her dining room. Anna was her name, but I don’t know the name of her mother, the woman who carefully packed it for the journey across the Atlantic in days long ago. Mara, perhaps? I never knew her and I may be getting her name mixed up with the name of my mother’s father’s mother. And before her, three other women, oldest daughter to oldest daughter to oldest daughter, back to the one who acquired it, the circumstances of which are shrouded in the silence of the long past. But from Anna it went to Esther, and from Esther to Madeline, and from Madeline to me. And then it belonged to my daughter for twenty-six years, most of which passed while it stood on my mother’s shelf.
It came to me about seven years ago, when I got a china cabinet and my mother decided to send it back with me, after a visit we made to Illinois.
And now it no longer belongs to my daughter, even though she will one day become its keeper and carefully unwrap it and put it in her own Italian cherry wood china cabinet.
Last week, the tea set got a new owner when the 9th in the line of oldest daughters arrived, although we knew on her mother’s birthday last fall that the tea set was going to have an heiress. She is indeed the Princess Heiress, a tiny little thing compared to her mother, with dark hair and a sweet disposition.
And I gaze at it now in wonder, amazed that somehow the golden-haired little girl in the pink sailor dress got big enough bring a new little girl into the world. There it sits, the Princess Heiress’ tea set, right next to my Bumpa’s Birthday Angel, who bears a bouquet of snowdrops and has a garnet set into her skirt, for she is the January angel. She shows that I share my birth month with the husband of Anna, even though he was gone when I was a little girl. Behind the tea set is a “Welcome, Baby!” card, in the distinctive style that marked the middle of last century, a card from my grandma Esther’s neighbor, one Gal Mignone, who brought it over along with baked goods upon the occasion of my birth.
Generations come and generations go. The tea set is a visible sign of the more mysterious unbroken chain of mitochondrial DNA passed on for at least nine generations, mother to daughter. Nine generations, about 200 years. As as I look at it’s beauty and marvel at its age, I wonder what the life of the new Princess Heiress of the Tea Set will bring. I can expect to see her daughter, the 10th heiress born to the Tea Set sometime around 2035, but it would to take great luck to see that woman’s daughter born to it somewhere around my 100th birthday. And beyond that, I will not have even a glimpse of those girls.
I wonder, though, what perils and wonders will the keepers of the tea set see beyond my lifetime, in the generations of the tea set, the 11th, the 12th and the luck 13th, who will be born somewhere around the turn of the 22nd century.
In the meantime, I am the keeper of the tea set, holding it in trust not only for my daughter, but for my granddaughter, who sleeps contentedly in her mother’s arms, protected under the roof of her doting father’s house. She is such a tiny little girl, but she bears a big name and an even bigger inheritance.
May this little one grow great! May she in her time bequeath life and beauty to the generations who will come after her. And may she in her turn relinquish the tea set to her daughter, and her daughter’s daughter, in the great chain of life.