On Mom’s antique coffee table, a deep green Asian-inspired piece once owned by my grandparents, sits a large crystal candy dish filled with an assortment of after-dinner mints and some old holiday candy. It is the kind of cut crystal that was popular in the 1930s. It’s about six inches in diameter with a covered pedestal lid, a mainstay among gifts of that period. Back in the day before television, cell phones, and the internet—when people went visiting on the weekends—every proper living room had a dish to serve visitors something sweet.
As a child, I always remember being told not to touch it. “That’s good,” my elders would say. Their harsh tone scared me, but I immediately understood that it was not a child’s toy.
I loved the delicate and artistic nature of all the fine things I saw in my grandparent’s home. I loved to stare and touch them all, imagining grown-up tea parties. I couldn’t wait to be big.
My grandparents were collectors. During the Depression, they knew how to barter. I’d always assumed that this candy dish was just another collected item, something traded. It wasn’t a piece that held much monetary value, but it had survived a few decades in different homes without getting chipped.
Only recently did I learn why it was “good.”
My mother was eight years old in 1929 when her favorite uncle, then 35 years old, finally chose a woman to be his bride. Uncle “Pep” (a name my mother gave him for his boundless energy) never had any trouble meeting women. He did his fair share of dating in the New York social circles. To test the waters when he began dating a woman, he would often bring his beloved niece—my mother—along. Uncle Pep wanted to marry a woman who would be a good wife and mother. According to Mom, Uncle Pep always said that if a girlfriend wasn’t comfortable around a little girl, then she was too self-centered to be a good wife.
Mom remembers that many women were immediately off put by her presence. Some were downright rude. Some tried too hard to make her like them. But finally he settled on Grace; she and my mom adored each other right from the start.
When it came time for the wedding, Pep and Grace received many wonderful gifts. My mother’s gift to her favorite uncle had to be special, and so my grandmother took her into New York City on a special shopping trip.
Standing inside the department store, Mom was just tall enough to push her nose over the top of the table. It was entirely covered with cut crystal glassware. The light shining through all those pieces looked like diamonds in the air. To be a little girl on a special shopping trip to buy a special secret gift was very exciting. It was only natural that the gift of choice, decided by a doting eight year old, be a candy dish.
Now I know why the elders always told me not to touch it, because “it was good.” Its real value was in the relationship between a little girl and a favorite uncle.
Aunt Grace and Uncle Pep on the beach in Florida in the early 1950s.
About today’s contributor: Mary V. Danielsen is is a personal historian and public relations consultant in New Jersey. Her company, Documented Legacy, helps people and organizations record aspects of their personal history by documenting their experiences, values, beliefs, and charitable decisions through the use of storytelling, legacy writing, and ethical wills. Mary is currently researching the art history of her great grandfather, Fidardo Landi.
Note: A version of this story originally ran in Mary’s blog, As Mary Sees It.
Photos from Mary’s family collection.