Here is My Handle, Here is My Spout: Pouring Out Happiness
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
A number of years ago I taught with a professor and his wife, Cecily, in New York. One evening I had dinner at their house, served on heirloom china Cecily had inherited from her mother who had inherited it from Cecily’s maternal grandmother. Each woman had received the china on the occasion of her wedding. Cecily kept her china set in an antique corner hutch in the dining room, and had typically only used it on special occasions. But due to a recent situation she had decided to use the precious china more often, rather than her everyday dishes.
Cecily and Mark had gone on sabbatical to England for a year, and during that time rented their furnished house to a visiting professor from Japan, who had a wife and two children. Cecily had assumed the family would use the dishes in the kitchen cabinets, of course, and hadn’t worried about her heirloom china set at all. She assumed that since she would be afraid to break something of value in the home her family had leased in London, that her own tenants would adopt the same view.
But when Cecily and Mark returned, the Japanese professor asked if he might purchase from her the heirloom china teapot. He said his wife loved it, and both of them thought it made the best tea of any teapot they owned or had ever used.
Cecily explained that the teapot not only came with a sugar bowl and creamer, but it was part of a complete heirloom set, passed down in her family, and the set was intact. No one had broken a single cup or plate. She had plans to continue the tradition and pass it down to her own child on the occasion of a wedding. The set would be broken if she gave away the teapot. Downcast, the professor politely continued to plead for the teapot. He would be heartbroken, it seemed, to displease his wife, who treasured the teapot and had taken such good care of it during its daily uses. The teapot was special to them and he would give her a big compensation to be able to take it with him.
Cecily said she would think about it, and in the end she gave the family her teapot. She felt sad about the broken set, and the broken tradition, but the teapot meant a lot to the Japanese family and she found herself unable to break their hearts. It meant more to Cecily to give away something that caused her some painful feelings of loss, than to deny another human being something that he had so determinedly wanted.
Over the years the teapot became more alive for her when she thought of the family in Japan drinking their tea from it every day as if it were enchanted. She had not used it very much, and it had found a home far away from the rest of the china set. The giving of this gift altered her perception about legacies, and about the use of valuables. If not used, and shared, they would not be enjoyed. Now, when the china came out, so did her mother and her grandmother, and reminiscences of family recipes, written on old index cards.
When she gave away something, Cecily made room for other experiences. Happiness finds its way even into the broken places in our lives, filling the empty places, the losses, with possibilities that connect us across continents and even across time.
Guest saddle: What is something you have given away, or given, until it hurt? How did your gift change the way you view things? Has someone ever give you something that was precious to them, be it material or immaterial? Did you recognize the magnitude of the gift?