The “good china” – that’s what my family called the set of plates and bowls even though, if the truth be told, they were not very valuable. It was a complete service for 12 that included dishes, salad plates, bread plates, soup bowls, dessert bowls, coffee cups and saucers, coffee and tea pots, serving platters, a covered soup tureen, and serving bowls.

The dishes were decorated with blue roses and rimmed with a silver band. I think my parents got them early in their marriage as a thank-you present for hosting one of those in-home parties where guests are enticed to purchase pots and pans. While they may not have had a great monetary value, they were very precious to my mother, and therefore precious to our family.  

And, we only used the “good china” once a year – on Thanksgiving.

It was always a big deal in our family for Mom to hustle out the “good china” and rewash all the pieces before she set the Thanksgiving table. Every piece was used for Thanksgiving. The night before the big feast, she would lovingly set the table.  When she was done, it looked to us as if Mom could entertain royalty at that table. It was, in our eyes, a magnificent sight.

Mom taught all of us how to lay a proper table and to know exactly where the soup spoon should be placed and which way the knife should face and at what angle the glasses should be situated. She was adamant that her four children would be comfortable around an elegant table and would know how to eat with proper manners. Mom’s silverware – which by the way also came in a “good” set and an “everyday” set – was obtained by redeeming Betty Crocker coupons.

The elegance and sophistication of Thanksgiving was quite different from everyday meals in our home. At dinner, Pop always sat at the head of the table and Mom sat to his left. For everyday dinners, the plates were stacked in front of Pop who would make each of our plates, and then we would pass them around from me, to my sister to my brother to my other sister until each of us had our dinner waiting in front of us. 

Even if the plates were heaped with food and we were starving, we did not touch our food until Mom sat down and led us in grace. Nothing was tasted, nothing was savored, nothing was enjoyed until Mom made sure we asked God to bless us and to bless “these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord.” We also prayed at the start of every meal for the poor souls in Purgatory.

After dinner, no matter how fast we scarfed down our food, we could not leave the table until everyone was done and we said our after meal prayer: “We give thee thanks for all they benefits, almighty God who lives and reigns for ever and ever, Amen.”

Then, while my brother, sisters and I would clear the table and clean up after the meal, my mother and father would sit at the dining room table and linger over coffee or iced tea and talk and reconnect and share and – without them even knowing it – show my siblings and me what a happy and committed marriage looks like.

Dinner around the dining room table was mom’s ritual for her family. We ate together every single night of the year. “We are a family, we do not eat in shifts around here,” Mom would declare when one of us kids would want to grab something quick in order to get dinner out of the way so as to move on to something else.

My mother made a big deal about us gathering around the dining room table because she declared it the altar in the domestic church that was our home. “Just like church has an altar where we celebrate our faith and pray, this table is our altar where we celebrate our family and pray,” I remember her telling us kids more than once.

Indeed that table was our altar. It was where we bonded as a family, where we prayed together, where we shared our important news with our parents and our siblings. And the “good china” on Thanksgiving and the everyday dishes the rest of the year were the vessels we used to celebrate who we were as a family. 

Long after we children left the nest and started our own families, visits to Mom and Pop included meals around the dining room table. There were no adult tables and children’s table – all of us squeezed in together around one table to be a family and to eat as a family and to pray as a family.

Mom continued that Thanksgiving “good china” ritual even after my dad died and right up until a couple years ago when the dementia that ultimately killed her got to be too much for her to orchestrate a Thanksgiving feast. 

This is the first year we will celebrate Thanksgiving without mom. She died a couple of months ago.

The “good china” had been packed away for several years until just last week. Ironically, the service is not being brought out to prepare for another Thanksgiving, but to be inventoried as part of mom’s estate. 

On the dining room table right now are stacked the boxes of Mom’s “good china” and the silverware she collected by redeeming Betty Crocker coupons. Each of Mom’s four children has a soft spot in our hearts for these items and for the dining room table on which they were so lovingly placed for many years. 

We will figure out between us who gets the “good china” and the Betty Crocker silverware and the dining room table that has chips and nicks and scrapes from one family gathering around it like an altar for more than half a century. 

We look at them as treasures. And, treasures they are – not because of their actual value, but because of the value placed on them by the lady who no longer is around to make sure we eat like ladies and gentlemen and know what it means to gather as a family and know that we must always recognize and be thankful for the gifts given to us by God.