Jennie, a native Connecticuter, has both a scientific side and a creative side. Recently retired from a career in the field of Mineral Processing, she is thrilled to devote more time to creative writing. Her main focus, at this time, is telling the stories behind things in her possession–stories to be passed down to future generations even if the possessions are not.
Enjoy Jennie’s moving story of a gift gone wrong.
Why the Cows Left Home
The week prior to Jake and I marrying, two things nearly derailed our going through with saying “I do.” The first was a crash course in my learning to drive a vehicle with a standard transmission. Specifically, “Edgar Romeo,” Jake’s beloved Volkswagen Beetle. Edgar Romeo and I somehow made it unscathed through that ordeal. I can’t vouch the same for Jake. The second thing was Jake’s wedding present to me, a china cabinet. How one piece of furniture could unleash so much anger, frustration, regret, guilt and even sadness prior to our nuptials, and, continue to do so through the first few months of our marriage, still has me shaking my head. It left deep hurt on both fronts. And even a couple of casualties.
“Keep your eyes closed,” Jake insisted, leading me up the stairs to our newly rented apartment. “I want to give you your wedding present early.” Even now, I sense the twinge of a bad taste in my mouth after typing your. Had Jake said “my wedding present, to us,” I doubt there’d be much to write about. But he clearly said “your wedding present.”
“Now, open your eyes! Ta da!!!” Jake guided me into the apartment’s living room. There, standing in the spot where we’d agreed a few days earlier to put my bookcase, stood the cabinet. “This was quite a find!” Jake gloated. “It’s mahogany! I discovered it stacked in pieces behind an armoire. The antique shop owner couldn’t wait to get rid of it. See, I reassembled it, replaced the glass and refinished the wood. The door knobs are new. And look at the back piece on top! I painted, our initials, entwined, in gold.”
My heart sank. This was not a “Ta da” moment for me. Rather, it was an “Oh no” one. I finally asked, “What is this to be used for? We told your parents we didn’t want a set of china as a wedding gift. They’re giving us Pfaltzgraff stoneware instead. And now where will my bookcase go? This cabinet’s taking up the last of the wall space in the apartment.”
“It’s for displaying special things!” Jake sounded both impatient and hurt. “However, the shelves are thin so, please note, nothing heavy can be put on them. This is not for your mineral collection or books. And don’t cram it with stuff, like my parents’ china cabinet. What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?”
“It’s a beautiful gift. Thanks,” I mustered up a mumble. From an appreciation of antique furniture point of view, it really was a striking piece. Not too large, chunky or ornate. Instead, it was simple and elegant in a subdued sense. But I came from an upbringing where every piece of furniture at home had a useful function. We didn’t have a bric-a brac shelf, corner cupboard or china cabinet for displaying “special things.” In viewing the cabinet practically, it was the last thing Jake and I needed at this time.
We hardly spoke to each other the rest of the evening, each of us stewing silently. Jake even hesitated kissing me goodnight after driving me home. Which, in that moment, was fine with me.
The “What should I put in it?” question festered in my thoughts overnight and into the following day. I couldn’t think of anything I had worth displaying other than quartz and calcite crystal specimens and old volumes of books owned, at one time, by a great great uncle. In fact, I was contributing very little to the apartment overall. I’d lived in college housing for the past four years and was currently back home sharing a room with my sister. So, my personal belongings basically consisted of clothes, books, a small stack of records and a growing rock and mineral collection. The hope chest, that Jake gave me when we were engaged, was to be stored in my parents’ attic until the time came when Jake and I moved to a bigger place.
To get my mind off of the china cabinet dilemma, I sorted through my belongings at home. My sister kept watch, making sure I packed up everything so she finally could take complete ownership of the bedroom we shared. I filled just five boxes with things to take to the apartment, namely clothes. I also threw in five of my favorite books; that was all that would fit on my nightstand’s bottom shelf. I wasn’t sure where the cookbooks would go. Grumbling and mumbling, I pulled out the large boot box from the top shelf of my metal wardrobe. My cow collection! How could I have forgotten about that?!
Due to peer pressure, I started collecting cows my freshman year at college. My roommate set up her frog figurines in our dorm room and another good friend, who lived down the hall, amassed anything horse-related. They insisted I must have a favorite animal and start a collection of my own. One of my earliest memories as a child was of a great aunt lifting me up onto the back of a cow in the Nimtz farm’s dairy barn. I wish there was a bumper sticker, “I brake for cows,” because this perfectly described my relationship with them. I stopped to take pictures of cows when biking or walking rural roads, rubbed their heads at country fairs and cut out pictures of these farm animals in Yankee Magazine for my scrapbooks. In my teens and early twenties, the cows, for me, became more than things to collect. They represented the dream to live out in the country on a large piece of land and to have a garden, a few chickens, and of course, a milk cow.
My collection was manageable, just the boot box full of mainly ceramic figures and one hand puppet. At college, my herd grazed on the top shelf of my dorm room desk. However, in the two and a half months between graduating and getting married, the cattle stayed in the box as there was not a place in the shared bedroom to display them. Plus, my sister didn’t particularly like cows; she preferred cats.
As I sat on my bed unwrapping then rewrapping each cow, my excitement grew. One of the china cabinet shelves would be perfect for displaying this treasured collection! The cows would be protected from being knocked over and broken. And there’d be ample room on the other shelves for displaying wedding gifts, things like vases and crystal.
That evening, while Jake was out giving lessons at a local music store, I went to the apartment and arranged the cows on the china cabinet’s top shelf, careful not to scratch the wood in doing so. Bookcase disappointment ebbed away as I, so-to-speak, finally added my own stamp to the apartment.
My happiness was short lived. Jake stomped on my stamp. He called me later that evening after I arrived home. “It feels like a slap in the face,” he growled over the phone. “I worked so hard at bringing this fine piece of furniture, better than anything your family owns, back to life for you and you put a childish collection of farm animals in it! What were you thinking?! Grow up and have respect for the cabinet. I want those cows gone in the next twenty-four hours or else they’ll end up in the dumpster!” He hung up before I was able to suggest that maybe he should marry the cabinet instead of me!
I borrowed my parents’ car and slunk over to the apartment the following evening, knowing Jake was out giving another music lesson. I carefully rewrapped each cow, my tears smearing the ink on the newspaper. I felt I was packing away a dream, plus, this was not how happily ever after was supposed to look. I was defeated and deflated. Accidently, the cutest of the cows slipped out of my hand onto one still in the cabinet. A leg broke off the dropped figurine and the head cracked on the other. They were as broken as I felt. I drove home and put the boot box in my parents’ attic.
I added nothing to the china cabinet before we got married nor did I put anything in it the first few months after we tied the knot. Besides the Village Pfaltzgraff stoneware, my in-laws gave us a silver-plated tea set. Jake suggested that it should go in the cabinet. I just shrugged and said he could put it there if he wanted. I did set our framed wedding photo on top of the cabinet, making sure it blocked the view of the tangled-up initials. Childish, I know. But I still held a grudge against that cabinet.
Right after our first Thanksgiving as a married couple, Jake suggested we buy an artificial Christmas tree and ornaments. We both wanted one but faced the dilemma as to where in the apartment it would go. We didn’t use the Pfaltzgraff for everyday dishes; it sat in stacked boxes in a corner of the living room. Jake got out a tape measure and figured where we could squeeze in a tree if the Pfaltzgraff was moved somewhere else.
“Jake, I know the stoneware is heavy, but if we display some place settings of it in the china cabinet, I think there will be room for the remainder in the bedroom closet. Can we take out a setting and see how it looks?”
Jake opened a box and took out a piece. “The mustard and brown of these dishes go quite well with the mahogany,” he mused. After carefully opening one of the framed glass doors, he stacked a single set consisting of dinner plate, dessert plate, cup and saucer on one of the shelves. “I have to admit,” he finally said, “these go very well with the cabinet. Would you mind pulling out another set?”
By the time we finished, we had six sets positioned on the shelves and found there was room on the bottom of the cabinet, without it looking too cluttered, for the remainder including the salad bowls. The stoneware complemented the cabinet far better that any china set I’d ever seen.
“Wow,” Jake whistled. “I love how this looks. What do you think?”
“Perfect, Jake. It looks and feels perfect.” Before I went to bed that night, I reached up and moved our wedding photo to one side so our initials were in full view.
Over the years, when Jake was still alive, we added a handful of additional items to spaces between the stoneware. Pewter pieces from Williamsburg and New Brunswick, Canada and brass and ceramic candlesticks. After Jake passed, I added a few additional items, however, none of them cows.
About five years ago, I spent time helping Jake’s sister clear out my in-laws’ home. In discussing items in the house, she showed me an old hope chest tucked away in one of the bedrooms. It belonged to Jake’s paternal grandmother. I gasped when I first looked at it because there on the lid were his grandparents’ initials, entwined. Jake never let on this was why he painted our initials in gold on our china cabinet. I can only guess he never mentioned it because he was too disappointed in my initial reaction to the piece and then, later, angry and indignant over the cows. I wish he had. Whether or not it would have made a difference in how I initially felt about the cabinet, I can’t say. But now knowing this is why he, uncharacteristically, painted letters on an antique, endears the piece to me even more. For you see, out of all the furniture I own, the china cabinet is my favorite piece. Despite the banishment of my beloved herd of cows, which by the way, ended up being donated to Goodwill, it’s the furnishing to which I feel the closest connectedness. The cabinet represents the history, the evolution and maturity of a union. Our union. The worst and best of times. Transition from yours/mine to ours. Compromise. Love. It is the one piece of furniture I dare to hope that one of my children or grandchildren will want after I leave this life. However, whether they do or not, I will make sure a copy of this written history is folded and tucked under one of the Pfaltzgraff plates for its next owner to make sure they are aware that this is not just an antique mahogany china cabinet.
There is much, much more to it.
Copyright © 2023 by Jennie Nimtz