Friday, March 2, 2012

The one (story) that got away

My kids love to hear their grandfather’s tales about when he was a camp counselor: over dinner they ask for story after story. When their cousins are present, sometimes the older kids are able to chime in with details they remember from when they heard my father’s stories for the first time.

But recently I found myself thinking about the stories that do not get passed down: not necessarily serious or tragic ones, or family secrets, but anecdotes no one ever bothered to retell.

This was on my mind because I was making a salad to bring to a party and decided at the last minute not to bring the set of salad servers that matched the bowl in which I was preparing the greens. That particular situation may sound like it has little to do with family stories, but in fact this particular salad set has everything to do with story-telling, or the lack thereof.

When I was growing up, my mother had a Lucite-type salad bowl, clear durable plastic, in which was embedded what appeared to be real preserved butterflies. It was a pretty serving bowl with lots of colors, so when my sister was cleaning out my grandmother’s kitchen inventory after my grandmother’s death and asked if I would like a similar bowl, I said I certainly would, happy as always to have kitchenware that reminded me of the pieces I grew up using.

Just a couple of weeks after the bowl and its matching servers arrived, I made a large salad for a dinner party. “So about these salad servers…” one guest said midway through dinner, and some of the other guests started to laugh. I assumed I’d missed an inside joke while I was in the kitchen and didn’t give it another thought until the next get-together to which I brought a salad. At that gathering, someone was more direct, asking outright, “Why does your salad set have a pattern of marijuana leaves?”

Honestly, I had no clue. It turned out that the new salad set was similar in materials and style to the butterfly one, except had I bothered to look a little closer, I would have noticed that where the other bowl had pressed butterflies, mine had what appeared to be pressed marijuana leaves. The pattern appeared in the serving pieces as well as the bowl.

I’ve had this salad set for about eight years now. More often than not, when I use it, someone asks about the unusual inlay. And the fact is, I don’t know the answer. I asked my mother, but she had no idea why her parents possessed such a peculiar kitchen item. She too had always assumed the decorative items under the clear Lucite were butterflies or dried flowers, and admitted that even if she’d looked more closely, she wouldn’t have recognized the five-point leaves for what they were. But apparently that puts her in the minority of people I know, because everyone else seems to zoom in on the pattern with laser focus.

So this is a case where a family story was not retold, and details were lost in time that can probably never be recaptured. Whatever the story behind this salad bowl is, my mother and her sisters do not know, and my grandparents are long gone, so we will probably never know.

I’d like to have some interesting tale to tell, but I haven’t even managed to make one up so far. I have no idea what lies behind my peculiar salad servers, and frankly, sometimes I get tired of being asked, which is why on the recent day that I was making a salad, I’d actually decided not to use that salad set simply to avoid the familiar old conversation.

It’s not really surprising that my grandparents neglected to jot down the story of the pot-leaf salad bowl and file it away with their legal documents, but I regret the fact that it’s a story I’ve never heard. All the narratives and details that family members share with one another as the years go by, whether it’s about being a camp counselor or where the key to the safety deposit box is hidden, matter on some level. Most of them matter more than the origins of my salad bowl. But I’m still sorry that this story is the one that got away.

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