An Imperfect Expression of Memory

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It’s strange that jadeite glass and kitchenware was created to brighten people’s day in the early part of the 20th century. The idea that the glassware was made without any real focus toward consistency of color and defects makes it more interesting to me. If I were in charge of the world, every cup, plate, spoon, and fork would be distinct, both in style and color. Consistency for appearance is one of the biggest constrictive forces in our lives.

When I was young, my grandpa often drank from a jadeite coffee mug. There’s so much I don’t remember or remembered wrong. A few years ago, I thought I had it figured out but as if often the case, my certainty evaporated into 100% confusion. I find it hard to reconcile that I remember so many distinct moments so vividly, but yet somehow have lost 99% of the memories around them. My grandparents were magical to me, in part to their living at the edge of a cotton field, and in part to my youth, one punctuated by upheaval and anger. If I had to define an anchor point of my young childhood, it would be the simple house along highway 39, where I learned to love salt pork, mustard sandwiches, and coffee. I once tried to enumerate the number of places I had lived in my youth and it exceeds 20 and almost certainly reaches 30. I would consider the place in City View to be another defining place for me, one completely dissimilar in geography and content than the one in Monroe County, but one which shared the connection of people.

I had my first cup of coffee when I was very young. I remember my grandpa shushing my grandma Nellie. He was a big proponent of letting people try things, even if they shouted in surprise or pain as they did so. It’s part of the reason I learned to wince when I hit my fingers with a hammer, instead of screaming in pain. I sat at the table, trying not to burn my fingers on the hot glass of the coffee cup. Grandpa made me that cup of coffee in a green jadeite coffee cup. He put a dollop of evaporated milk in mine, mainly because he thought I’d like it better that way. Given that I once loved eating ashes and cinders, he should have assumed that I would prefer it black and bitter. (I still prefer coffee to be black – and I still can’t resist the taste of a burned match tip and the much-maligned flavor of a lot of burned foods.)

It’s very likely that grandma and grandpa got their jadeite with promotional items. It was included in sacks of flour, at giveaways at grocery stores and with ‘green stamp’ promotions. Grandma always had several glasses that were, in reality, empty snuff jars. Most were W.E. Garrett snuff jars. Like most people of her time, she also had an extensive collection of butter bowls and other assorted kitchen items which served other purposes in their previous lives. Grandma also saved anything interesting so that I could bury it in my ongoing excavation project next to highway 39. Both grandparents lived through the Great Depression and it molded much of their attitudes about things. Because of nostalgia, mason jars for drinking are in vogue. I’m waiting for snuff jars to get their turn in the sun again. Jadeite made a resurgence a few years ago thanks to Martha Stewart and a few ardent aficionados. It’s also weird to think that jadeite was widely used in diners and cafeterias, an almost valueless item back then.

I also know that my grandparent’s glassware was by Fire-King because grandpa would often set his coffee cup directly on the wood stove in the living room. I learned to read a few words ahead of my time, as life was slower in that part of Monroe County. Sitting on the floor, idly tracing words and letters was a great way to pass the simmering days, or poking myself with a sewing needle as grandma patiently showed me to sew without a thimble. I’ve never used one, despite discovering that I could stick one into my finger fairly deeply when distracted.

It turns out that cups made from original jadeite glass aren’t supposed to go in a microwave. (I also find it incredible to think that residential countertop microwaves first appeared in 1967, the year I was born.) One of the things I learned is that a couple of the companies making jadeite glass used glass that contained uranium. They did so up until WWII. Like all things, jadeite has a wider history than I would initially believe. To learn one thing without learning a spider web of interconnected details is impossible.

Even though I’m a minimalist, I ordered a green jadeite coffee mug from a collector on Etsy. The one I ordered is similar than the one I recall. As a nostalgia item, it serves its purpose despite not being quite right. If my grandpa could see that I had not only figured out what type of cup it was but also buy one online, he would shake his head in wonder at the crazy things that people do, especially for dishes. Like me, he would think anyone wanting matching plates and cups had lost his or her mind.

After years of wondering and searching for the green coffee cup I remembered so well, a friend of mine on social media unexpectedly posted a link to the exact brand I was looking for. I can’t completely explain why figuring out the origin of the green coffee cup was so satisfying for me, but it was. A few years ago, I asked my mom about the green coffee cup. She remembered a couple of them but since her memory wasn’t tied to anything personal, it didn’t have the same power of imagination and recollection attached to it. Grandma had some blue cups made by the same company, too.

Holding this touchstone from decades ago, I can imagine my grandpa, sitting in his chair, watching me as I sat on the wooden floor in front of the stove. He gave me the gift of coffee and the effervescent joy of running carelessly in the mud which inevitably curves its way around the fields.

 

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