It's late morning and everyone will soon be safely out the door for the first day of school. As I do every year, as my mother did, I slip out of bed extra early on this first day and head out to the yard to find flowers for the table. This morning I pick morning glories from my back yard, and from the neighbor's yard I break off small, low-lying branches from a flowering tree that drops its petals all over my car. I put them loosely in a little tin bucket in the middle of the claw-foot table, and then set out the ruffle-edged plates, the matching saucers and delicate round cups of the first-day-of-school dishes.
They have never been anything else to me. They were on the breakfast table on my first day of school, beginning in kindergarten, and my daughters have eaten first-day-of-school breakfasts on them since preschool. My eldest child has graduated from school, so now it is my 17-year-old, Shelby, petite and painfully beautiful, beginning her last year of high school, and my 13-year-old, Hannah, tall and awkward, three years behind her in school, who arrange themselves sleepily at the kitchen table.
As the girls eat breakfast, tomato and cheddar omelets, chilled mandarin oranges and toast, our conversation about the dishes is the same we've had since their first days of school. I begin by asking if they can remember or guess how old the dishes are.
"Fourteen years?" Hannah, the youngest, offers.
"Wrong!" her older sister Shelby says. "You're stupid and wrong."
I ask Shelby if she wants to make a guess, but she ignores me, and stirs soy milk into her tea.
So I tell them again about the breakfast set being a gift to my mother at her wedding when she was 17, and that they were at that time extravagant, and are now at least 48 years old. As they do every year, they pick up the little turquoise cups and marvel at their thinness, their luminosity, their beaded handles. I tell them how my sister and I ate from these dishes, nervous just as they are — Shelby interrupts to tell me she is not nervous at all, but I have Hannah's full attention — feeling as they do that this year will be the great one, the one where we are victorious, or popular, or simply the best at something.
Shelby rolls her eyes at me, and leaves the table, calling, "Thank you, Mama," as she runs up the stairs.
Hannah looks at me with big eyes.
"You know exactly what it's like," she says. "I do want to be the best at something. And I think I am going to be popular this year, really."
I nod, hoping to appear wise.
"I think you can do it," I say. "I think this is your year."
She thanks me for breakfast, too, and hugs me. Her hair smells like cinnamon. In a moment I hear her stamp up the stairs after her sister. I sip my own tea, and not long after, their father is back from walking the dog, calling to them from the foot of the stairs. The last-minute rush begins, the gathering of book bags, lunch money, kisses, and then they all disappear out the front door.
I'm left in silence, sitting at the kitchen table alone with the first-day-of-school dishes, remnants of omelet, discarded tea bags, toast crusts. I want to tell my daughters so much more. I want to tell Shelby to suspend her cynicism if she can, to try not to be in such a hurry to just-get-through this last year of school and take some time to feel the music that is inherent in every day instead of rushing past it, pushing her way through to get to the other side. I want to tell Hannah that I felt just as she does now, and that it was never really my year, and it may never be hers, but that there are graces in every day and they can be enough.
But Shelby wouldn't be able to hear me through the rush and noise of teenage blood rising and buzzing in her ears. It says, got to get out, go do, go be. It's louder than any voice I can use. The things I would tell Hannah might make her more content to be who she is if she could take them to heart, but it would cost her the dreams she carries with her, and even knowing it is likely that she will be continually hurt, that hope belongs to her, and I don't have the right to take it away.
I stack the first-day-of-school dishes, so fragile in their delicate, Paris-blue way. I wash them, dry and put them back in their place in the china cabinet where they will sit for another year. I feel sorry for them, knowing as I do that only one place setting will see the kitchen table come next fall. Eventually, they will fall into disuse altogether, until my girls set the table with them for their babies, as my mother did for me.
Terri Stoor is a writer living in New Orleans. She manages the office of a national women's organization.