Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Decoration Day Memories
I set this table and photographed it for you on Memorial Day. Yes, I thought of using the colors of the American flag. I do love those colors and everything they represent. For me, however, Memorial Day brings back a flood of memories that are only partly connected to the courageous men and women who gave their lives in service of home and country.
Growing up in the rural South, it seemed to me that we celebrated Memorial MONTH! Decoration days (as we called them then) took place at different cemeteries throughout May. My mother always took my younger brother and me along as she placed flowers on family members’ graves in at least three (sometimes four) cemeteries. The “Third Sunday” decoration day was the one she loved the most. Her aunts, uncles, and cousins would drive in from far and wide for a family reunion. There would be a program at the little country church she’d attended as a child. Afterward, tables would be set up in her aunt and uncle’s front yard.
It was a challenge for the ladies to plan what to wear. The month of May can be tricky in Tennessee. Some Third Sundays would be hot and muggy. Often there would be a slight chill in the air. I only remember it raining once, but that was always a possibility. They all managed to look “mighty stylish,” as my grandmother used to say. And the food – so much of it, all delicious! It was like a recipe contest, a friendly competition with all the participants sharing the very best their kitchens had to offer.
I’d like to dedicate this post to all those caring mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins. Many of them had lived through the Great Depression. Most were stay-at-home wives and mothers. Somehow they all knew how to feed their families delicious, nutritious meals on a budget (not necessarily low in calories!). They managed to clothe their families in style too -- without spending a great deal of money.
They all loved to set pretty tables. The dishes might have been acquired with trading stamps, from saving boxtops, as premiums inside boxes of detergent, or purchased inexpensively as the “dish of the week” from the supermarket. Whatever the source, they used them with pride. Their centerpieces were always garden flowers -- although we said “from the yard." Vegetables came “from the garden!” Yes, we knew flowers could be ordered from a florist (wreaths for funerals and corsages for special occasions), but the flowers in their yards were grown from seeds or from sharing with friends, neighbors, and relatives.
The dishes I’m using today were hand-painted by women (and perhaps a few men) who lived similar lives. They’re mid-Twentieth Century “Blue Ridge” china made by Southern Potteries of Erwin, Tennessee. You can tell the underglaze decoration wasn’t done by machines, because there's often considerable variation from one piece to the next. I’ve read that it was mostly done freehand. Certainly some of the artists had heavier/lighter touches than others. At one point Southern Potteries was the largest hand-painted pottery business in the United States, but revenues declined in the 1950s due to the rise of inexpensive imports and the development of plastic dishes that didn't chip or break. Remember Melmac? I can’t say I ever liked the stuff, but it was wildly popular ... for a while.
Blue Ridge dishes are considered collectible, but most pieces are still quite affordable. As with any type of vintage china, the best values are often found when buying full (or almost full) sets.
As I share these images of a cheerful, colorful mid-century-style table setting, I’m thinking of the hymns sung in that little country church, of my grandfather and his brother on the front porch playing bluegrass tunes on the fiddle and banjo, of the smell of the dust from the road leading to the old cemetery (mingled with honeysuckles in bloom). Of the even sweeter powdery smell of my mother’s handkerchief as she wiped a smudge from my face on the way to the church.
The old men making music on the wide front porch were WWI veterans. The men scattered around the shady front yard, smoking Marlboros and Lucky Strikes, were WWII and Korean War vets. Some of the younger ones would later find themselves in Viet Nam. I'm thinking of them all today. I'll be quiet now as you scroll through the pictures. Here’s a Tennessee Decoration Day table: