Tag Archives: storytelling

Blue Willow Special

Blue Willow. They are common, everyday dishes. The pattern has been around since the 18th Century, massed produced in various countries, and widely used in diners and restaurants in the 1920s to serve up a hardy, inexpensive meal, commonly called “Blue Plate Special.” The plates are so familiar that unless you’re a collector, you probably wouldn’t give them a second glance at a second-hand shop.

Common in ubiquity. Common in color – blue image on white background. Common with an unvarying arrangement of objects. Common in terms of everyday functionality. Now, close your eyes. Can you recall the detail?

The Blue Willow pattern is actually complicated. It depicts a traditional Chinese waterside garden with images that tell a traditional folk tale of wealth, arranged marriage, forbidden love, honor killing and transformation. The lovers turn into the pair of doves prominently featured at the top center. The pattern is a feast for an imaginative mind.

IMG_1870The single place setting now in my possession could have been purchased almost anywhere in the early 20th Century. Maybe even today. But it wasn’t purchased. It was a gift from the Pungo River, nudged along with dozens of similar pieces, amazingly intact, to the water’s edge. It solidly served as the everyday tableware for the good folks who owned our house and inn about 100 years ago. Their descendants recently gave me this five-piece set. Yes, it’s complicated.

Not just any common Blue Willow plates, these particular Blue Willow plates, are among the things Linda Shavender Sluck remembers about her grandmother Ruth Wilkinson:

“She never used anything else. I remember standing at the sink and helping to wash them after a meal. Especially remember all of the delicious food that was prepared and served on them like her famous fried chicken.”

Linda was a little girl then, and her memories are more feeling than detail. “One thing I remember about staying on the street you live on was the predawn sounds of people coming to work at the crab house across the street,” she wrote to me. “Sometimes they would be singing.”

There are condos where the crab house once stood. The workers are long gone, but the river – the same one that delivered the special Blue Willow plates –  still carries their tune. When it’s quiet. Before dawn.

These oh-so-common plates are neatly stacked in our living room — not a typical place for a set of dishes. They are there to remind me that the most familiar things deserve a second look and that an uncommon story can turn an everyday dish into a family  heirloom.

Two birds flying high

A Chinese vessel, sailing by

A bridge with three men, sometimes four

A willow tree, hanging o’er

A Chinese temple, there it stands,

Built upon the river sands

An apple tree, with apples on

A crooked fence to end my song.

–A variation of a short Willow Pattern poem

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From the Ears of a Child to the Words of a Man

 

IMG_1747 When my husband and I pulled up to the Pantego Academy Historical Museum, in a tiny hamlet of 179 people just outside of Belhaven, NC, John Ratcliff was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. He didn’t know we were coming; he didn’t know if anyone was coming, as the museum is open for limited hours every weekend. Yet I had a strange feeling he was expecting us.

Fortuitous. I had just read a collection of tidbits John Ratcliff posted in an old newsletter, archived on line, titled Murder, Mayhem, Robbery & Houses of Ill-Repute. That grabbed my attention and prompted our visit.

Having spent most of his life in Pantego, raised in a multi-generational household in an era when children were seen and not heard, John did “a lot of listening,” he told us. A retired high school teacher, John has a gift for storytelling, and we had him all to ourselves. He guided us through the former Male and Female Academy/Pantego High School, originally a subscription school he explained, where students paid per subject. Non-academy exhibits that take up a lot of the building now include a collection of items from daily life, rural living/farming and a replica of a general store. Two buildings – a wooden jailhouse, one of only two remaining in North Carolina, and an old lumber office — were moved to the property for preservation.

During the nearly two hours we spent touring the property, John weaved in stories about his childhood, local lore, and his relatives – including a murdered aunt whose sewing chair, the one in which she was bludgeoned to death, is a museum oddity; his mother didn’t want it in the house. Another item of interest is the old schoolhouse bell (circa 1879), cast out of horse manure and sand, documented by the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs.

Although many of the exhibits inside the Academy can be found replicated in other small-townIMG_1746 museums, the structure itself is architecturally significant with a one-of-a-kind exterior, arched staircase with 21 steps on either side, one for males and one for females; the academy was way ahead of its time, welcoming both sexes, when it was founded in 1874. For us, the true novelty of the day was meeting John, who clearly loves his job as a volunteer docent and caretaker of the past, his past.

I’m convinced that if we spent just a little more time inside the Academy with John, we might have smelled the pinto beans cooking in what was the kitchen or heard the distinct footsteps of a former headmaster who had a wooden leg. The ghosts are stirring to be heard, if not seen. Just ask John. If you’re lucky, he might just be waiting on the front porch when you arrive.

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