Hear the podcast: Phoebe Stone reads her memoir here.
I was with my mother at Christmas time in England when she found the tea set. It was late in the day, I was eleven years old, and there it was, sitting in a cramped low-ceilinged antique shop next to a pillar. I can see the tea set clearly now in the oval orb of memory where it floats, dusty and blue-green and delicate with gold edges around the scalloped cups and plates. My mother knew immediately that she wanted to buy it.
That was the year my mother couldn’t say no to anything antique for a table. Not here in this quirky, quaint country where she felt so isolated, like an island herself. Not when she wanted to go home to America so much. She often cried and told my father so over and over again. Many of their terrible fights were about money, money we didn’t really have, money my mother was spending on little English antiques that seemed to her so reasonably priced, they were almost free. Almost.
As my mother looked at the teapot, she imagined she would bring breakfast on a tray to my father in bed. Their lives would be transformed by the tea set. She imagined a morning as the sunlight hit the edge of the turquoise scallops. My father would look up at her as if in a painting. He would be lying among yellowed folds of linen, propped against a pillow, a tray on his lap overflowing with sunlight and this tea set tucked up with buttered toast and boiled eggs.
While my mother bought the tea set, I looked through the window. Outside the air was crinkly and bright with tiny Christmas lights along the cold nighttime street. Sweet shops and tea shops shimmered; the air was steeped in excitement and yet rubbed with a layer of anxiety, a layer of foreign snow, and unfamiliar Christmas carols about a mother in a blue robe hiding with her miracle baby in a barn from a cruel king named Herod in a desert country thousands of years ago…
Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay
Memory and dream mix and mingle. It was Noel, the season of Good King Wenceslas in England and yet everything seemed dark, blurred with the cold colors of stone and gray brick, chanting choir music, the vaulted ceilings of cathedrals we had toured, and then Christmas lights, the twinkle of anticipation, the thread of magic, wonder, edged all in gold. There were thorns of holly, wreaths, crowns, and pricked fingers bleeding in the snow, drops of blood like berries falling from green boughs . . . . Once in royal David’s City . . . and the flaring eyes of King Herod, a Jewish king. And me—a Jewish girl or half Jewish. My teacher at school would drill past my desk, pierce holes in the air around me. “Christ was killed by the Jews,” she would say and then she’d look deep, deep, deep into me.
What did I have within? I was but a girl, eleven years old, who stood there holding back with her weightless, narrow body what was to come. I was but a small church with a blue ceiling and in the back next to the organ, hidden behind a door not yet opened, my pitiful Jewish father hanging by his neck from a rope, no, a bathrobe belt, his long boney and beautiful feet drifting above the floor, the soles of them almost touching wood, almost touching stone . . . almost.
Perhaps my mother and I drove home that evening with the box of turquoise dishes on the car seat. Or maybe we walked with the cold English night air blowing through our coats, my mother carrying the box in her arms. Where were my sisters? I cannot say. All that remains is this orb, this isolated oval of memory, a turquoise tea set floating there in the shadowed store.
For Christmas at school I was to be one of three angels in white alone on the stage singing, “Angels we have heard on high.” I had a white choir gown, ironed freshly, smelling of pressed cotton and steam and starch and soap. I was to kneel in front of the audience with the other two girls chosen. In practice, we sang, our voices quavering with high notes, clear and blue, like the interior of a chapel painted the color of sky. But do not open the door in the back next to the organ, for therein, you will find his legs, the pierced palms bleeding, the boney knees slumped above the long tender feet almost touching the floor.
The night of the Christmas performance at school my mother and father attended, all dressed up, my father in a neck tie, my mother’s face bright with tears and moisture and lipstick. They came into my school and sat in the audience…in our classroom? I cannot recall. All I remember is the moment before I went out onto the stage with the two other girls in white. That moment, I discovered a way to look like I was singing without singing. It seemed like magic to me. Oh, a trick I just invented! I will mouth the words and not sing, and no one will know.
And so, as I knelt there, I opened my mouth and pretended and I did not sing. There were only two voices of two angels, the third mimed the words and made circles and squares with her lips and was silent. It would have been a triumphant moment had I sung. I had, it seems to me now, a beautiful child’s singing voice, but I didn’t sing. I had a crowning moment within my reach, and I had dropped it, not realizing. I had broken it. Instead of clusters of glory, praise and passion and cookies dripped in green icing, my father was bitter with me after the performance.
“Why didn’t you sing?” he said. “I didn’t come here to listen to the others singing. I came here to listen to you sing.” He turned, buttoned his coat and walked away.
I didn’t know what I had done or what I had missed or even why I done it. My white choir dress lay wrinkled in my arms and we must have gone home then, leaving me with that single orb of memory, being in the glaring bright light, in the silence, the voices of the two girls singing, “Angels we have head on high,” my mouth going up and down, opening and closing and uttering not a sound.
My mother must have put the turquoise tea set in the kitchen in a cupboard. She might have used it after a dinner she created in the tiny dining room where the large upright piano stood. There was no window in that dining room, only a small coal fireplace and sometimes a table. We had a roast beef dinner there that holiday season with wine goblets and English silver crystal and heavy sterling forks. My father spoke with reverence about Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine and we each had a sip of it poured into our delicate wine glasses. It tasted harsh and burned like blood in my throat, thorns of holly, swaddled in folds of memory. We taught our fingers that night to go along the rim of the wine glass at just the right angle to make a high-pitched whine, a wailing cry, a keening siren sounding. A warning.
The roast beef was too fatty. I felt sick. The room too small, the silverware too heavy, the coal fire too hot. Did we have tea in the turquoise tea set after dinner? It seems now in my mind to have been threaded to that Christmas, as if those delicate turquoise Copeland Spode butterflies were in the air or passing lightly over our plates, hovering above a mandarin orange pie baked by my older sister, a butter crust such as I have never tasted since. And tiny tender canned orange slices, doll sized. Everything around us exuding mystery, as if even the air were wrapped in Christmas paper or in a kind of blue luminescence, tinsel at the edges all around the rims of my memory.
And then the next day, my father pulled me aside in the hallway, while my mother napped or vanished in her gray foggy raincoat to the park along the Cam down the street. She loved to walk along the river where the swans floated, her face awash with longing, flickering joy and homesickness, a conflicting blend, like the black watch plaid skirt she wore.
“I bought a Christmas present for your mother. Would you tell me what you think? Will she like it?” my father said. A secret moment between us, we stood together, he and I, leaning in and out, my father revealing his tenderness, his youthfulness, the young boy lying within behind the sad eyes. At that moment he was darkly romantic to me and anguished and pulled a tiny red leather box from his pocket. The light so bright, the little box in the palm of his hand trembling. Leaning towards the wall, he was the skinny poet, long legged and hopeful, a nervous suitor, a shy lover, all revealed, all pretense dropped. “Do you think she will like it?” he said. “It reminds me of her, the face of the woman.”
How honored I, as if bestowed with a gentle mantle, a mantle of trust, responsibility, adulthood, a tiny slice of what was to come, I stepped for a moment into the waiting body of my future self. My opinion? My father wanted my opinion. I, the fallen angel, the eleven-year-old watcher, I who looked down at myself in the bathtub, seeing my tiny breasts forming and pubic hair beginning in strands of blue against my milky child’s skin, all in the green water as I floated there, the curved porcelain tub holding me, lifting me into my new forming body stretching out under me, light as wood. Me the awkward singing angel who was silent? My opinion?
My father opened the little box and inside a ring, a delicate gold band with red stones surrounding it, a tiny painting of a woman, a lovely face set among red jeweled facets of the ring. Oh, such a tiny treasure lying in his large, moving palm.
“Do you think she will like it?” he said again.
“Oh yes, Daddy. Yes, it’s beautiful, so beautiful,” I said, my little hand on his back, my eyes heavy, weighted.
On Christmas eve, I lay in my steely bed with my older sister, the cold night sky outside full of candles and songs of angels and clouds of fire, sharp green ivy and pine, blood red holly berries. Was I a Jew? Was Christ killed by the Jews? “What my teacher says, is that true?” I once asked my father.
“What do you think?” he said, turning away again, his face merging into shadow. My mother was not a Jew. My father was a Jew. What did it mean? What about the churches we visited all last autumn? Endless arched doors we had entered. Tintern Abbey all in shambles, grass everywhere inside it, grass climbing over the tombs, over the statues, the figure of Christ seen just barely through the broken stones and blowing soft green leaves. And then in bigger cathedrals the long statues of dead kings stretched out on top of heavy tombs, or the sad queens in marble lying cold with their beloved pets, a carved greyhound at the foot, a favorite dove nestled in hand. What about the line of choir stalls, the tearful red stained windows above the kneeling sorrow, the feet of Christ crossed at the bottom of the body, pierced with nails, the palms bleeding . . . long boney feet, the soles almost touching the floor?
I knew my mother did not like jewelry. I never saw her wear a necklace or bracelet or a lovely ring. She told my father over and over again, “I want a silver teapot for Christmas. Sterling for English tea.” Her face half turned to the window, the wan English light casting her profile in longing for home, for America.
That Christmas, that winter, as I lay in the long tub of green water in the large bathroom upstairs, dark linoleum underfoot, I drifted there in the water and as I drifted, I changed, transformed into a stranger to myself, tiny breasts grew larger, soft pubic hair thicker. I floated there unknowing. Asleep. Awake. Startled.
My father in early March in a rooming house in London tied a bathrobe belt around his neck and hung from the back of a door, his body dropping low under him, his long expressive feet almost touching the floor. Into the folds of yellowed memory, he disappeared. And never came back.
But who was to blame? Who caused it? No one. No one was to blame. It was not the ring, not the money for the turquoise tea set, not the angel with tied vocal chords who did not sing. It had been something already in motion, already set and ready, like a trap poised to snap or a teapot waiting to be filled on Christmas morning with warm, soothing, healing water.
Many years later on another Christmas morning, when I was in my twenties, my mother gave me a gift in a brown cardboard box. I would cry over it as it as it lay there in my lap, the turquoise tea set, each piece swathed in newspaper. I would see the butterflies through rips and holes in the wrapping. I did not know then that my life would be a kind of puzzle with a pattern. I did not know the pattern of the turquoise flowers and butterflies on scalloped white porcelain would somehow repeat itself or weave itself into my days, my months, my years.
And then one night in another Cambridge, in Massachusetts where I was living later, I had the tea set on the counter in the kitchen. And when a nail gave out, a cast iron frying pan fell off the wall suddenly and knocked the teapot to the floor and smashed it into pieces. I sat up all night gluing every single piece back together, every morsel of china so that when finished, the tea pot looked to be whole, although it could never hold water again.
It sat on a table glued together at breakfast. The repairs barely visible, the blue green delicate pattern overriding the cracks, the fissures. But when the light from the morning sun fell across the body of the teapot, casting shadows on hidden moments, you could see clearly the pure and the raw, the shatter of it.
Phoebe Stone is a painter, poet, and author of seven novels for young adults—most recently Romeo Blue and The Boy on Cinnamon Street—and three picture books, including When the Wind Bears Go Dancing. Phoebe grew up in Vermont, in a family of poets and novelists, and has spent most of her life painting and writing. Before concentrating on creating books for children and young adults, Phoebe had a successful career as a fine art painter and exhibited her work in many museums and galleries all around New England and New York City. She is presently working on a series of memoir/short stories for a book. Read another excerpt here.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative nonfiction for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.