Recently my friend Gina and I were chatting over lunch. She’s into chalkware, those funky wall plaques from the 1940s and 50s painted in bright colors. She said she was looking on eBay for a fruit plaque to replicate one she remembered in her grandmother’s house. I think she said bananas or apples or maybe grapes.
I knew exactly what she was talking about. My Aunt O had a chalkware Dutch boy and girl hanging above her kitchen sink in her farmhouse back in Illinois. I inherited the pieces after O died in 2013. The Dutch figures hadn’t seen the light of day in forty-five years, but I said I’d rescue them from the resale heap. I remembered the colorful pair as a kid along with the delicate smell of Castile soap, O’s red and white kitchen curtains and a little man in a top hat made out of soap. He was Charlie McCarthy, probably dating to the time she set up housekeeping in 1938.
Gina said she’d been checking eBay for the perfect chalkware fruit plaques. So far she hadn’t located one, and the real things are become quite collectible. One can pay up to $25 for a prime example.
So there we were at the lunch table, both of us products of the 1950s, trying to re-create something we’d seen in a relative’s farm kitchen back then.
Gina’s quest is somewhat difficult because chalkware breaks easily. Once the fad subsided, most of the plaques were discarded. I snapped up my cousin’s offer of the Dutch pair and found a perfect place for them in our laundry room. The Dutch boy still has the price written on his backside: $1.50—a fair amount for a time when $1.50 would buy about two bags of groceries.
I decorated my kitchen in retro: bead board cabinets in 1940s green and vintage chrome canisters. A while back I found the perfect accessory to hang above my own kitchen sink: a green Bakelite clock from 1931. I had it re-wired and cleaned and it’s happily ticking off the hours of our life. You see, my mother had a clock above her kitchen window too.
Like my Aunt O and my mother, my kitchen curtains are white with red trim. I never considered that similarity until just now. Our tastes, our idea of nostalgia is set at an early age, and as we grow older, we yearn for the same feeling, the friendly coziness of eating Neapolitan ice cream at my Aunt’s kitchen table, looking out over her horse lot and the giant weeping willow branches we swung on when nobody was looking.
Gina told me that she’s also into carved egg shells. She quickly showed me an example on her iPhone. They look like works of lacy art. I thought about how you might clean such a delicate object. You’d have to keep it under glass, out of the dust.
And then I told her Aunt O’s secret. She had saved the first egg laid on their farm in October 1938. It was a small brown fairy egg marked with the date hand written by my uncle. Once we kids discovered the aging egg in O’s kitchen cabinet, we would demand to see it during every visit.
Gina gasped when I told about the egg. Turns out she has kept the first swan’s egg found at her lake house. It’s a large, bluish egg. Quite lovely. She has it kept in a basket with some other specimens gathered from wild ducks.
An egg is like a first child, she said, and once something so delicate has been kept that long, it’s a shame to get rid of it.
Gina and I discovered more common stories over lunch. How many years could have passed without us two talking about the eggs? A lot, I suspect, which makes me wonder how many other things we share that we don’t know about.
It reminded me of the story about Greg, a man in my Sunday School class who grew up 30 miles from my hometown of Shelbyville, IL. We were amazed that we had somehow settled 700 miles away in Catawba County, and had chosen to join the same Sunday School class. It would be several years before it came up in conversation that Greg’s aunt and uncle lived across the street from my parents.
If we stay long enough in another person’s life, we can usually find these odd crossings that tie us together. The problem is that we’re too busy doing something else in the meantime.