By Kathleen Flanagan Rollins
The plates showed up at my front door in a box labeled “fragile” and filled with foam padding and layers of bubble wrap. Deep inside, the contents lay separated by tissue paper and cardboard: five collectible Christmas plates I had bought on E-bay when the seller accepted my bid.
Royal Copenhagen holiday plates are blue and white dessert-size plates marked with the year on the bottom, a star at the top, pinecones and ribbons around the edges, and a sweet, nostalgic holiday image in the center. The 2016 plate features a girl standing next to her bicycle, her skates thrown over her shoulder as she watches other skaters in the square.
From 1968 to 1974, my mother sent me one of these plates every Christmas. They struck me as ridiculous at the time. Now they haunt me.
The 1969 plate featured two plump geese and two smaller birds in a barnyard. The image refers to part of a traditional Danish Christmas dinner: roast goose. My parents grew up in Harlem and the Bronx, and later moved north of New York City. Neither had lived on a farm or killed a goose for dinner, ever.
The summer of 1969 I listened to Janis Joplin sing at Tanglewood and watched Neil Armstrong on TV as he stepped onto the moon. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Either one of those, it seemed to me, would have been a better moment to celebrate on a plate. After I moved to Michigan, I put the geese plate under a potted plant. Eventually, it broke.
The 1970 plate featured a cat sitting by a window. While it’s winter outside, the insert explained, the Christmas rose is blooming inside, the symbol of peace and tranquility.
Peace was in short supply that year. Like many others, I spoke out against the war in Vietnam. Friends of mine came back from there almost unrecognizable. One who’d been a Green Beret spent a year in Walter Reid Hospital hooking rugs after he returned. When I finally saw him, he told me not to ask him questions because I didn’t want to know the answers.
My roommate’s husband was assigned to Laos, but since the US was never officially there, she couldn’t get mail from him or hear how he was.
Four students were shot dead by the National Guard for protesting the war at Kent State University.
One night, I joined a group of protestors on the MSU campus. Shortly after the march began, police showed up in full riot gear, their faces completely hidden behind dark shields. They told us we had five minutes to clear the area, but as soon as they finished the sentence, they fired tear gas at us. I tried to get back to my room. As I walked along the main street, people began running past me. When I turned around to check what was going on, I saw a man sprinting along the sidewalk, swinging a heavy chain back and forth, shattering store windows as he went. I took off. At the corner, I ducked into the entry of a basement restaurant. Three cops were there too, standing on the stairs with their helmets at their feet, drinking cold coffee, talking about their families. Nice guys from the other side of the battle lines. It was unnerving.
In the middle of all this, I met George, a hippie musician/philosopher who worked in the local pinball parlor. We played guitar, banjo, flute, blues harp, glockenspiel, bongos, glasses partially filled with water, whatever we could find that made enough noise to drown out the news.
The 1971 plate featured a cute rabbit near a pasture gate.
That year, Richard Nixon began secretly recording all the conversations that took place in the Oval Office. He told H. R. Haldeman and Henry Kissinger, “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy that are using any means.” In July, Nixon ordered the Brookings Institute burglarized.
Change blew in. The Chicago stockyards closed. Borders Bookstore opened in Ann Arbor. The first Starbucks coffee shop opened in Seattle. Ms. Magazine was launched. Bell Labs conducted the first test of cellular phones. Race riots lit up LA and New Jersey. Sections of Detroit that burned in the 1967 riots still lay in charred ruins. Marvin Gaye sang “What’s Going On?”
I moved into a commune. One of the residents rebuilt a motorcycle engine on the dining room table. I painted flames on the gas tank. We wrote messages on the wall next to the phone and all over the refrigerator. The front door was never locked, so we took in a lot of folks who had nowhere else to be. Since we had no television, we talked and played music and got high instead of watching the box. One day that fall, George and I took LSD at Rose Lake and watched hundreds of migrating ducks and geese drop out of the red-streaked sky behind us, fly just over our heads, then land in the red-streaked water, each with a rush of wings and a sudden splash. They crowded together in the sunset lake, squabbling and cooing and sorting out families for the night. It was the most beautiful moment of my year, the high point from which everything else fell.
The 1972 plate featured the three wise men riding camels past an oasis, on the way to find the Messiah.
That June, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. The ensuing drama consumed the country.
George was fired from his job and reconnected with an old girlfriend, but we got married on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. My parents couldn’t be there since my father was ill, but my mother said she was glad to see me “settled.” She had no way of knowing I was completely adrift. Not a wise man ̶ or woman – in sight.
The 1973 plate featured a steam engine pulling a train through the snowy countryside. Two children wave to it. Kai Lange, the artist, explained the scene represents the sentimental journey home for Christmas.
My father died in January of that year, a terrible loss for me. My mother sold the house and moved to Connecticut.
In order to live a purer life, George and I bought a piece of land and started building our own house. The project lasted until he got bored and ran off with a friend of mine, leaving me in a half-finished house with no heat except for a Franklin stove, no drywall anywhere, and no running water except in the bathroom ̶ but a lot of unpaid bills. I learned it’s possible to get by without a telephone but much harder to live without electricity.
By this time the plates were no longer just cloying holiday sweetness. They were certificates of failure. I made sure the few plates that had survived the George years broke.
And yet, here they are, back in my life.
When my mother died, she disappeared without cremation or burial. She’d donated her body to the local medical school so they could study a brain with dementia. Her three children, their children and grandchildren gathered to celebrate the life of a woman none of us really knew. She was a long hallway full of locked doors. But for seven years, she bought me these plates that whispered of nostalgia and warmth. She wasn’t much for enjoying absurdity, so something about these plates apparently struck her as important, or at least safe, perhaps as a gift she could give her rebellious daughter without any need for explanation.
But I think it’s more than that. The plates are like the birthday cards she sent sometimes, decorated with delicate watercolor images of flowers or birds, and graced with a formal signature, as if our world was always that pretty and all the bad times had never happened. I wonder if, behind her casual cruelties, she too pined for something simpler, more beautiful, and probably unattainable.
So the plates are a belated thank-you for my mother’s gift and a nod to her buttoned-up pain, neither of which I understood at the time.
Copyright Rollins 2017