Fine China for Special Occasions

  Growing up, my family had a set of dishes for daily use and a set for the holidays. It’s a fairly common phenomenon. Couples ask for  fine china pieces as wedding gifts, and registry requests for gravy boats in expensive patterns can be listed online with bedding and Home Depot gift certificates—as if porcelain were a key material in the foundation of a home. Or as if optimism were this: the belief that there will always be the possibility of a beautiful and fancy life.

  Growing up, I liked my family’s weighty everyday plates, which had black borders and pictures of vegetables with their names in French script below. There is something whimsical about eating food to reveal a painted image of more food, especially when you are a child. I liked our nice plates, too, which were light and delicate and stacked behind glass, with doilies between them to keep the pattern from chipping. Of course we almost never used them. Years might pass if we happened to neglect them at a Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I don’t think a single one ever broke.

  I grew up in Philadelphia, which sometimes bills itself as a City of Firsts: the first capital of the nation, the  first city with parks, the first big cracked bell. Not to mention the signings of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, downtown in Independence Hall, which went by the less assertive name of the Pennsylvania State House. If you go down to Society Hill, you can take a horse-drawn carriage ride around streets built for just that type of vehicle and see it all for yourself.

  The Philadelphia Dancing Assemblies were created around that time with a winter season of regulated weekly dances for the elite and their guests. The Philadelphia Assemblies were the oldest of their kind in America, and in the 1780s and 90s the weekly dances were at the center of cultivated society. They are the only assembly from that era to remain, although they are held only yearly now.

  I was invited last year by a friend and his family who are long-time attendees. In the evening we drove into the city with dresses and tuxedos packed in the trunk and, after several wrong turns down Philadelphia’s many one-way streets, arrived frazzled. But we quickly went about making ourselves glamorous with hair curlers and (in my case, loaned) jewels, and fur coats and makeup, and tails which had lain dormant since that time last year. Then hurried photographs in the rooms and down the long hallways of the Bellevue on the way to dinner.

  Although the meal was held in a neighboring hotel, the setting could be mistaken for an aristocratic home’s receiving room in this or any bygone era. It was decorated with portraits and mirrors with heavy gold frames, heavy rugs, heavy curtains, side tables with knickknacks, a Christmas tree–and on one wall, a glass-doored cabinet of dinnerware. Only the compulsory exit signs above the molded doorways interrupted the effect of inherited charm. After eating for what felt like just a few minutes, it was over to the dance itself.

  At the entrance to the ball, the organizers addressed me with “Hello, Katherine Damm,” and whispered “This is Katherine Damm,” down the receiving line while I stood there, awkward as a doll. The only thing of my own I wore were my shoes, and only because you couldn’t see them past the foot-long feathers on the train of the borrowed velvet dress that my friend’s mother stitched to fit me that morning—a morning which anachronistically combined waltz lessons with meatball hoagies and television and naps. The ball itself was a mixture of seasoned dancers, and their children and guests. Some older couples whirled in promenade position as though in a painting, while younger couples stepped on each others’ feet and grinned at each others’ outfits. By then it was as if the adrenaline had worn off; the most charming parts, really, were before the ball took place at all. As a non-member you can only attend one time, and there are no photographs allowed once inside; it is an experience which is difficult to keep hold of.

  At the turn of the twentieth century, Philadelphia dominated textiles; once that became outsourced the city began to lose its industrial luster. The line of cars on the outbound side of the Schuylkill Expressway at 7 a.m. describes the situation more eloquently than words or numbers, perhaps. My own family is split and gone, or leaving. A few years ago, everything in the old house was packed up or thrown away: the good plates packed up, the daily plates thrown away. It’s funny what we decide to hold onto.