It all started with the cobalt urn. It belonged to my grandmother Emily, a calm, serene Yorkshire woman, whom I never heard raise her voice in the entire time I knew her. A survivor of both WWI and WWII, she was steeped in practicality and the art of making do. She loved homemaking, and had clearly not let the privations of rationing disturb her ability to turn out an excellent meal in fine style under any circumstance.
My grandparents lived next door to us, having emigrated from England when my grandfather retired. My father, erratic and eccentric, had purchased a barn on twelve acres in Pickering, with plans to convert it into conjoined houses for the two families, and had induced my grandparents to join us there. Descriptions of its progress clearly outstripped reality, so when my Grandparents arrived they sustained a considerable shock. Small-town Ontario in the mid 1960s was a significant departure from the very civilized and gracious town of Harrogate in the north of England from whence they hailed. But in characteristic fashion, they quickly settled into an orderly routine. Grandpa set to, not only constructing their own house but designing and planting four acres of gardens, including an enormous vegetable garden, a formal rose garden, and many perennial beds.
Grandma unpacked her precious treasures from England and displayed the china in two cabinets. I paid them scant attention to them as a child, being more interested in the games of Ludo, Monopoly and cards we played together. With endless patience, and not a little humour, Grandma taught me to knit, crochet and to cook, and especially to bake.
Quietly observing the chaotic housekeeping and non-existent meal preparation at home, she diplomatically suggested to my mother that I eat dinner with them each weeknight, as they were in the habit of taking an early meal, best suited to young children and the elderly. Each afternoon, I would come off the school bus and go directly to their house. It was oasis of calm and order. There were fresh flowers from Grandpa’s garden, the furniture glowed with careful attention, and delicious meals emerged from the tiny kitchen.
But as I got older the cobalt urn with pink roses always caught my eye. I admired it each time I visited. Sometimes it would be gracing the table, filled with peonies or roses. At other times it was resting in its place in the cabinet, awaiting its next outing.
When my grandmother passed away, it was the only item I requested from her treasures, and today it takes pride of place in my collection of tableware. It’s not the most valuable piece in monetary terms, the gilt is rubbed off in many places, but like the Velveteen Rabbit, it’s the most loved. It’s where it all started.