Working Jigsaws

A week ago I set on the left-hand corner of my desk a saucer — in the optimistic speckled pattern of Franciscan’s Starburst — filled with chips and slips and shards of china mottled still with red clay dirt, to remind me. Of what? Of something that china elicited from me; something that the sight of it laid out in my palm left on the tip of my tongue to want to say.

I am on the cusp of forty-four, my body has without me really noticing how or when become the sort of soft motherly body I despised my own mother for when I was fifteen, and lithe and taut and tan (it being 1979 after all), and she was the age I am now. Why not do sit-ups, I wondered, with the completely unconscious cruelty of youth. Why not buy some decent clothes? Why not take care of herself?

And now I know exactly why one wouldn’t. Because other people are being taken care off first, and once that’s been accomplished you might have other things on your mind besides your clothes. Because it’s more pleasant to purchase things for your lithe, taut beautiful offspring — how on earth did such heartbreaking loveliness emerge from the welter of your DNA? —than take inventory of your own battle-scarred body in some three-way mirror at Target, where the clothes are cheap but neither fit nor flatter in the less palatable part of the maxim you get what you pay for.

I am by no means the fashion-plate I once could have been, but in service of the merest ghost-wisp of memory that such a thing was once was possible, I walk. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a child in a stroller, sometimes with another mother. In summer I walk at six in the morning and in winter I walk at four in the afternoon when the temperature is highest and as I do I wonder how I ever forced myself to do so at the peak of the opposite season.

I used to walk wherever the mood took me, but now I have a particular route. I’ve measured it on Google Ped, I know it is a little over three miles. It takes me past dogs gotten loose and dragging chains I take back to their owners and seafoam spangles of safety-glass from the latest smash-and-grab of cars left recklessly with cell phones or their chargers in plain view. This time of year, it takes me past the holiday inflatables in every other yard, deflated: snow globes and santas on motorcycles and nativity scenes all melted into puddles on the brown-grassed yards like the remnants of The Wizard of Oz’s wicked witch.

This neighborhood, it gentrifies in fits and starts, and five long years ago, developers started buying up the kudzu-draped vacant lots between the 1920s bungalows and post-war Levittown-like starter homes (the last two seasons of overreaching prosperity this neighborhood knew) and constructing over-muscled craftsman homes, bulked up into two stories and three-car garages and all the other things we now believe we need that the bungalows they’re theoretically based upon never possessed. And some of them — I love an old house with cracked plaster as much as the next person, mind you — are lovely, what with porches you could raise a family on and solid doors with leaded fanlights.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who likes them; rumor has it that these houses are the ones the kick-in-the-door bandits make a beeline for because they’re not stupid either and new house equals ipod and flat-screen, and even with an alarm if you know what you’re doing you can be back out the bashed-in front door in 45 seconds flat.

But all that is neither here nor there.

There is a particular spec home on my route that paints the story you can follow in the newspapers these days but made more manageable, like a miniature painted onto ivory with a sable brush.

Before there was a house there, there was a vacant lot full of tossed tires. Located around the corner from the elementary school built in 2000 on — people say — a landfill.

I walked through summer and winter, through one child’s graduation out of the stroller (a season in which I gained some weight) and through the disappearance from my life of one simpatico walking partner and indow the welcome appearance of another, and during all that the house was not there and then suddenly … it was.

Crew after crew of Spanish-speaking labors swarmed over scaffolding and the red clay earth was broken open to pour the foundation. The view from the back yard was of a warehouse-turned-daycare-turned-abandoned-building and Section Eight housing but so what: the workers lugged in granite countertops and painted the exterior a particularly fetching shade of Bunglehouse Blue (you would know it when you saw it, it being as pervasive in exteriors these days as Martha Stewart Jade-ite green is for the inside walls of houses).

And then work stopped. Completely. The landscaping had not been started, or the sod that covers a multitude of sins unrolled; the house rose like the prow of a wrecked ship from sculptured piles of red dirt and a smattering of weeds that rattled against the bricks as the months went by.

Eventually, somebody figured out how to jimmy open the bottom story’s windows. One evening I saw a boy around eleven or twelve clamber out the upstairs window and scamper along the roof line (a call to 911 and a visit with the beat-cop ensued).

The windows were starred with broken glass, the weeds grew taller, and one morning when I pushed the stroller past, my eyes caught on a bit of china glinting in the dirt meant to some day become front yard. It was that same Martha Stewart Green, that arsenic-like color that a previous generation frantically painted over whenever they encountered it on a wall, that we now, as a generation, adore.

And there were more, and more, and more, once my eye adjusted to seeing them. A bit bearing still the tag-end of the manufacturer: …ango China….castle, PA. Another sporting a maker’s mark of crown. Crackled glaze and slabs of marble. An art nouveau pattern curving around the lip of a bit of bowl like an elegant glimpse of the neck of a woman in a black velvet evening gown. Heavy diner china with three lines of color banding the rim, suitable for Edward Hopper paintings. The cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottles.

I had found either treasure or the dump!

Lucky for me the neighborhood I live in gentrifies only in fits and starts and the sight of a woman poking around the front yard (and then side yard, and then back yard) of a half-constructed house apparently gives no one any pause.

I can be as crazy as I choose and in a neighborhood where the guy who has no teeth (who greets every single homeowner into the area for the past ten years with an unintelligible, slightly threatening request for ten bucks) spends hours strolling through the neighborhood using a beat-up walker without anyone noticing it as something out of the ordinary — nobody will chastise me for trespassing.

What on god’s green earth will I do with all these bits of broken china?

But I love them all for what they might be pieces of: our past. The chinoiserie’d goldfish swimming across its broken universe of plate. The floral, fireworks-like explosion of painted blossom. Right now, I have in front of me a slice of plate that has, ensnared upon it it a tiny-bas-relief image of a swan. Black pin-point of eye, brown beak, tucked wings and all emerging from reeds painted the blackish green of Charleston-style shutters. 

The plate itself, if whole, would be quite ugly.

But how miraculous the piece is! As is the thought that out of anything I might have stumbled upon — this being garbage after all — I stumbled upon this! 

The swan is no bigger than my thumbnail, it glides serenely into the future, it endures.

1 Comment

  1. Oh man oh man Katherine! Beautiful story says I who has a fondness for bits and pieces of broken glass and china that bubbled up in our yard from any good hard rain. And in our sewing classes we take an ugly vintage sheet from the thrift store, cut a small piece, and suddenly we see beauty in its deconstructed-ness. And our 11 year old students can see it too. I think those pieces of china may just be your next novel. Merry Christmas!

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