A few years ago, I was at doing some pre-Passover shopping at The Christmas Tree Shoppe (yes, I see the irony) and a set of dishes caught my eye. They were colorful, bohemian, funky: me in tableware form.
For a long time, I’d wanted to own things that reflected my personality. The problem was, I was slow to discover my own tastes – or, more accurately, to modulate them. Part of it had to do with growing up fat, which limited my options in terms of wardrobe. I grew up before chic stores began catering to a “plus-size” clientele, so my only option was Lane Bryant, which was for women my mother’s age. I was the only fifteen-year-old on the entire eastern seaboard wearing tapered capris.
Then I discovered thrift stores, where I could buy vintage polyester tops to pair with men’s corduroy pants and Vans, and top with a jacket the color of Sunny Delite. (I was ahead of my time.) My bent for flair was evident, as was my complete lack of taste. In response, my mother took me to The Gap for a tutorial: “Black: The Gift that Keeps on Giving.”
I’m not saying Mom was wrong – she taught me to hone my flair into actual style – but as I was already prone to self-doubt, I concluded that I could not trust my own opinion.
This followed me for years, long after I’d dropped the weight. (Turns out that self-confidence has nothing to do with body size – who knew?) I vacillated for months before cutting my hair short, even though I knew I would love it. Choosing what color to paint my room gave me a migraine. When I registered for my wedding, I was drawn to the more outrageous patterns, the brighter hues, but I tamped down the impulse and went with clean lines and plain, sensible whites. It was a solid decision, but when I looked around my house, I felt like it belonged to someone else.
So when I saw these dishes, something clicked. I ogled them, caressed them, envisioned a gorgeous table with them as the centerpiece. They had to be mine.
But as I went to load them into my cart, something stopped me: as much as loved the dishes, I didn’t actually need them. I had two perfectly good sets of dishes at home – boring white, maybe, but functional, sturdy, and paid for. There was nothing to justify this purchase except the fact that it would make me happy. And that didn’t strike me as reason enough.
So, with a wistful glance a la Barbra Streisand at the end of “The Way We Were”, I left the dishes on the shelf.
But I didn’t forget about them.
Those dishes haunted my dreams for weeks afterward. I imagined them in my cabinets and was brokenhearted each time I didn’t see them there. I longed for them when I sat down to dinner, tortured by the whiteness of my own dishes, their utter lack of personality. I had clearly outgrown our relationship, but I’d stayed far too long out of a sense of loyalty and fear of the unknown. (What about the children?!?) It was clear to me now that I couldn’t go on this way; I had no choice but to go back to Christmas Tree and buy the dishes.
But when I got there, they were gone.
Of course they were. Some other boho-chic shopper with more initiative than I had probably snatched them all up, and was debuting them at a dinner party of artisan galettes and coq au vin in her fabulous artist’s loft at that very moment. (Because everyone has an artist’s loft in Cherry Hill, NJ.)
I won’t say I was devastated, but I may or may not have consoled myself with a caramel-scented candle.
Fast forward to yesterday. Once again, I was at Christmas Tree, pre-Passover (are we seeing a pattern here?), and once again, I wandered into the tableware section. And there they were: a set of dishes so beautifully playful, and in the precise shade of blue that I adore, that it was obvious they were made just for me at a factory in rural China. They were even better than the ones I’d walked away from three years ago. Again, I held them, delighted in their design, and pictured them transforming my table into a Joss and Main dining room.
And again, I choked. I thought about how much they would cost me, how much I didn’t really need them, and I left them there.
But then, about halfway to the checkout, I stopped. I remembered the disappointment of the first set of dishes – not just in losing them, but in myself, for not valuing my own opinion or desire to own something beautiful. I had hidden behind practicality out of fear of doing life wrong. And, despite having learned my lesson, I had almost done it again.
Well, not this time.
I marched right back to the display, and counted out eight dinner plates, eight appetizer plates, and eight soup bowls. It was thrilling, not just because I was acquiring something I loved, but because buying them was my personal endorsement of me.
And that is the best present I could give myself.