Family rivalry

Mimi and Bess

In “my" china cabinet sits a porcelain cheese server, a misshapen, florid curiosity with a lid, as it has in blissful obscurity for twenty-something years. The only reason you’re reading this story is because, as I was retrieving something from that antique cavity a few days ago, it caught my eye, and fired a buried memory neuron.

I have only a few fragments of what might be called fact in this tale, and as you might guess, there’s no one now to ask. I confess that some of what follows may be invented. Memory, invention—what’s the difference? The main character, Mimi, my paternal grandmother, and her cruelladevillean older sister, Bess, are long gone. But in their childhood they would have been familiar with that piece of dishware which their mother, my great-grandmother Miss Ida, who lived to be 106, brought out only at Christmas.

To my way of thinking, there wasn’t much worth grasping among Miss Ida’s worldly goods, there being no money and hence no will, only some household items and an heirloom or two—the aforementioned china cabinet, an antique Philco phonograph with a cache of 78s, a clattery chandelier, a mountainous foot-pedal organ, and so on—and it may have been that scarcity which gave to a random piece of crockery such potential meaning. That meaning came to fruition when Miss Ida died, and the grasping began.

Actually it began some weeks before the actual event, when its inevitability became clear.

The sisters, as sisters will, had fought from the crib up, battles which Bess usually won. She had no soul and the tenacity of a pit bull and would have been a ruthless businesswoman except that she lived in the south in an age when women didn’t have careers, unless squeezing the blood out of her turnip husband Elmer counts as one. So in this case you can imagine to which Cadillac-driving sister the choicest pieces of Miss Ida’s estate went.

Except for the cheese server.

On that point, Mimi stood her ground. I’m pretty sure the dish meant nothing, really, to her, and that this fight was not about an object at all, but one fueled by spite, envy, the will to power, and the need for at least a minor victory every now and then.

“I will have that dish!” Bess, unrivaled in having, vowed.

But somehow Mimi ended up with it, keeping it under lock and key, and vowing to have it interred with her if she died first.

Which she did.

“I’ll get it out!” Bess had sworn.

Which she did. At the Visitation.

She waited until the modest crowd of bereaved had thinned, and slipped into the Viewing Room where one of the ghoulish and promising young assistant funeral directors caught her up to her shoulders in the casket. “Adjusting her dress,” she claimed.

“Mam, I assure you we have made every effort to—”

“Why don’t you make an effort to get the hell out of here so I can have some quality time with my departed sister,” Bess overpowered him—and then, almost tipping the casket, in her dear sister’s lap—found it!

I can easily imagine the triumphant gleam in her eye, the rich gratification coursing through her blood, even perhaps a little jig of conquest, there in that hushed room, holding the dish over her head like a rival’s severed head.

I don’t know how these emotions fared over the three years she outlived Mimi—I like to think they lost some of their glow—but die indeed she did, and no one mourned.

In the dispensing of her effects, she had outlived everybody who might have wanted any of them, which I’m betting was nobody, and certainly not Mama. Daddy, who liked to fish, couldn’t have cared less.

And that’s how the unlikeliest of beneficiaries, I, ended up with the cabinet and its collection of curios, including an ornate and forgotten cheese server, dusty and ridiculous.