Still Lives, Past Lives, and the Embedded World

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

One of my favorite little volumes is Mark Doty’s 70-page book titled Still Life with Oysters and Lemon that uses the same named painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem from nearly four centuries ago.  Using the painting as a taking off point, he examines and weaves a reflection on how objects, some that have long out lived their creators or original owners, are embedded with meaning and providence that sometimes we can not fully wrap our heads around.

I have written here more than once that if there is an afterlife it is not in heaven or an other world, but here in the current world where the next generations experience a bit of us in the debris or treasures we leave behind.  Having nearly 60 years on earth do date, I have collected an enormous amount of objects, debris, and memories.


One still life that reigns significant is a set of Noritake China from my maternal grandparents.  It comes with a story of the Christmas of 1934 when the Depression was deep, but that side of my family had fared better than many but had lost a daughter earlier that spring.   That Christmas as gifts were passed around, my grandmother kept a cheerful spirit until the last gifts had been opened and there was a lengthy moment of silence when she stared blankly into space as she held her only gift of the holiday, a cotton dish towel.  She wasn’t one to show sadness, but my mother who was eight sensed the grave disappointment on her face.

With a wry smile, my grandfather said, “Oh, I think there might be one more gift out in the garage.  I’ll go get it.”  He returned with an enormous wood box that held the Japanese china that she pulled out from the raffia one plate, sauce, cup, gravy boat at a time.


I came onto the scene nearly a quarter of a century later and recall many meals served on the modest china that survived without any breakage, scratches, or cracks.  Through the years it was relegated further back in the hutch, but when my mother was in her final days, she urged me to take it with me.  I finally did, transporting it halfway across the country, through the Mojave and up the San Joaquin Valley, nearly repeating the route of the other side of my family who were often referred to as the poor neighbors of the Joads who had to hitchhike west since their jalopy never made it past Amarillo.


I have served a number of meals on the plates over the past decade that they have been a part of my home.  I am always struck by how small they are.  The dinner plates are the size of 21st century salad plates.  But they are embedded with so many memories.  Perhaps a dinner of oysters and lemon should be served soon.


One response to “Still Lives, Past Lives, and the Embedded World

  1. This is so beautiful.
    The china too 🙂

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