“How can you not smile here — among all these pretty things?”
That’s what I heard when I was standing at the salad plate swap table. I had forgotten to bring one of my many vintage salad plates to swap, but I was checking out the selection, anyway. And the pleasant lady was right. Beautiful pieces of china, silver and crystal surrounded me, and I desperately wanted to take all of it home. And so did every other person there.
Here, in this place, my impulses were not weird. I was not strange. I had, at long last, found my tribe.
Last week, I had the privilege of making about 500 new friends at the Beautiful Table Settings Bash in Wetumpka, Alabama. So your next two questions are “What is a Beautiful Table Settings Bash?” and “Where is Wetumpka?”
Let’s take the easy one first. Wetumpka is about 15 miles north of Alabama’s capital city, Montgomery. It’s a sweet little town with lots of old houses, a casino and a pretty iron bridge.
The Beautiful Table Settings Bash was the second annual in-person gathering of the Facebook group, Beautiful Table Settings. The creator of this group is the retired decorator May Ridolphi Eason. In a few short years, this Facebook group has grown to 167,000 members. She started the group in September 2019, and in retrospect, her timing seems divinely ordered, because this group has surely stopped countless china-hoarding Southerners from losing their ever-loving minds during the pandemic.
It’s a community of folks who love decorating their tables and then posting pictures of their settings for others to see. During the dark, lonely days of the pandemic, people from all over the world spent their lockdown decorating their tables for the holiday meals they would never have and posting photos of them to the group. In the comments, you could see the members consoling each other about the loneliness and grief they were experiencing during this cataclysmic event. May's Facebook group offered free mental health care for gracious people who were missing their loved ones and were tired of being alone.
With the worst of the pandemic behind us, those same folks showed up for the BTS Bash — warm people who treasure pretty things and family heirlooms. They were people who love tradition, family and grace. I was perfectly at home.
They are not things. They are memories.
The gathering reminded me heirlooms don’t have to be fancy. Sometimes a person’s most precious possession is a small collection of dishes a relative collected during weekly trips to the grocery store or drinking glasses pulled from a detergent box. These items on their own may have limited value compared to more expensive patterns, but they were the stuff of childhood memories, and therefore, they were priceless.
When I was a teenager, my grandmother went to her small town grocery store week after week to collect eight place settings of Johann Haviland Blue Garland china for my hope chest. I got the works: serving pieces, teapot and a gravy boat. I took that china with me wherever I went. Even though I was young, I always felt like I could host a proper dinner because of her relentless effort to give me what she didn’t have when she was my age.
I treat that china pattern with the same love and care I give to my Royal Albert Old Country Roses. I am as heartbroken to lose a piece of Blue Garland as I am to lose any expensive piece of china from my other collections. That grocery store china represented my coming of age. It was my grandmother’s push from behind into a world of grace and polish that she never had the chance to enter. She could not open the door into that world for me, but she could give me the trappings of it. So yes, that grocery store china is precious to me.
Prepare to become addicted
If Southern Living is the decor-obsessed Southerner’s bible, the Replacements, Ltd., facility in McLeansville, North Carolina, is the high, holy temple. One highlight of the event was a talk given by a Replacements representative. When he showed us a video with the camera panning through cabinet after cabinet inside their china-pattern museum, every one of us gasped with delight. And we were not the least bit ashamed.
Then he showed us their pattern finding tool I’ve become seriously addicted to. I’ve even gotten some people in my church obsessed with it. It’s not an app or a special website. If you don’t know what you are looking for, you might miss it. It’s a little red camera icon in the search bar.
Click on it and you get these options.
I suggest you take a picture of your item against a plain background and then choose that photo from your smartphone. Taking a picture inside of the tool did not work for me.
Here is an example of how it works. Upload a picture like this,
and you get this result.
But I got a surprise when I tried it on my Waterford Lismore.
Immediately, I pointed my finger and said, "Gotcha, Replacements!" Then I remembered I bought these stems from an ex-boyfriend in grad school. I wasn't sure it was Lismore, but it looked close enough for my youthful standards, and the price was right. But when I entered a picture of an actual Lismore wine glass, Replacements got that right.
Even those odd patterns of sterling and silverplate flatware that I've picked up over the years are stored in this magical machine.
I spent an entire afternoon going down this pattern-searching rabbit hole, and I finally confounded it with several of my more obscure pieces. That is to be expected. But the hours of fun you can have with this tool are unbelievable, and the memories you can make with a friend or a relative while cleaning out Aunt Myrtle's house are priceless.
So grab a friend and pull out those pieces of china, crystal and silver you've always wondered about. And never underestimate the importance of small moments, because they attach themselves to beautiful things and live forever.