I was on my way a few days ago to do a reading at a college bookstore, and I had the loveliest supper with some of my North Carolina cousins before we all headed over to the reading itself. Our hosts – my cousins Fran and Stuart – live in an impossibly charming and quirky house in the woods west of Durham – it is all wooden rafters and lofts, and curious tree-house-like decks and towers. The house has been the scene of many wonderful family gatherings over the years that they have lived there.
All of my female cousins share a weakness for pretty things, and conversation among us tends to involve a mildly covetous examination of the crockery and cutlery that adorn whoever’s kitchen we happen to be in. Naturally, this often leads to a kind of story-driven stock-taking about who has ended up with which of the clan’s domestic heirlooms. So it was no surprise when I came downstairs and discovered that there was an animated conversation going on about the table-ware off which we were about to eat.
I have often noticed that domestic objects tend to be the triggers for story-telling in our family. Without much thought I found myself handing on a story that was told to me when I was a child, on the day before Fran’s own wedding nearly fifty years ago. I remember that I was standing in my aunt’s kitchen with my mother, and we were looking in my aunt’s cutlery drawer for knives and forks to set the table. I was gazing in fascination at my aunt’s somewhat baroque silver patter (which was Chantilly, in case you are too shy to ask). I remember very clearly looking into the drawer, and the then very stylish and modern Formica counter-top (I want to say that it was avocado-coloured, but I may need to check my facts on that point!).
The story, as I heard myself telling it to my younger cousin Christina, involved the wrangling between two sisters over who would get what had been my grandmother’s Chantilly. The older sister married first, and she chose Chantilly as her own pattern, knowing full well that as a result it would be she who would inherit the Chantilly on her mother’s death, with the result that she would be able to host a dinner for at least sixteen guests without mixing patterns.
Fran and her younger sister Robb were standing together in the kitchen while I was telling the story, and the memory of the cutlery drawer on the day before Fran’s wedding was fulminating in my imagination. Perhaps as a result, I heard myself telling the story to Christina with Robb and Fran as its protagonists. In my own defense, I will say that I had been travelling for a number of days and I had had to get up at five in the morning in order to reach central North Carolina in time for supper. Otherwise, I would have noticed that the silverware Robb had put into my hands to carry into the dining area was manifestly not Chantilly! (It was in fact a very clean-lined stainless-steel pattern from Dansk.)
It was Fran’s husband Stuart who put a stop to my nonsense. The story could not possibly be true, he argued. He hadn’t known Fran at the time of her first wedding but he knew enough about her character to know that she would never have coveted silverware as decadent-looking as my grand-mother’s. She had not been the type to scheme over material things as a young person – it was the sixties, after all – and in any case I held in my own hands proof that in choosing her table settings she had opted for the practicality of stainless steel.
Before getting on with the story, I have to stop to say that Fran in 1969 was the most beautiful bride I have ever seen, and her artlessness and distaste for pomp were part of that. A simple afternoon wedding in her mother’s back yard was the perfect setting for the luminous beauty that was hers in youth and which has never left her.
Stuart is one of those perfect Southern men who manages to combine chivalrous defense of his wife’s honour with a sort of feminist ability to remain serene in a room full of women talking about table settings. So I had to accept that he was right. Fran, if you are reading this, I congratulate you on your excellent choice both of flatware and husband!
Luckily, the solution to the puzzle came to me immediately. The story had been told to me on the occasion of Fran’s wedding, but it was not about Fran. The unflattering story about an older sister’s greed had been told to me, after all, not by my cousin Robb, but by a different younger sister: my own mother. The bride in question had not been Fran in 1969, but my mother’s sister in 1942 – over seventy years ago.
As the mother of two girls myself now, I recognize all too well that mother worshipped her older sister, but at the same time she relished the opportunity to call attention to her faults – and coveting the family silver is a weakness that fits my adored aunt’s character track-record far better than that of her daughter. Oddly, I know for a fact that my mother did not herself covet the Chantilly – like Fran, she was very much a stainless-steel-and-clean-lines kind of bride. In fact, I believe she told the story as an opportunity to dwell as much on her sister’s baffling taste as on her bad character. I expect I disappointed her more than a little by failing to join in whole-heartedly in the Chantilly-bashing. For my own part, I am Switzerland when it comes to table-settings – happy to covet all kinds of things.
Speaking as a historian, all of this leaves me feeling far more sympathetic to the writers of the Gospels toward the end of the first century. What kind of witnesses were still alive, when the author of the Gospel of Luke tried to make sense of the story of Mary and Martha? Was there anyone still around who had been there? Or anyone who at least knew something about how the relationship between the story-teller and the people in the story might have coloured what was remembered?
So what I can take away from this episode are some useful points about how stories get handed down in communities. The people who remember stories often scramble the details, but they usually remember why the story was told. At the same time, the point itself may change over time. My mother’s complicated relationship with her sister meant one thing while both of them were alive; now, as we remember them, it is less about their disagreements than about how a little world revolved around the tables they set for so many years.