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SUE BRUNS: Fine China, from the Red Owl

Sue Bruns' china set, bought from the Red Owl store in St. Peter, Minn., in the 1960s. (Submitted photo)

“You brought out the good china,” my daughter said as we sat down for Thanksgiving dinner last year.

In her 25 years of life, she had probably seen these plates a few dozen times, if that.

“Funny how a good set of china used to be something everyone had, but now nobody uses them,” she added. I knew what she meant. The truth is, a set of china wasn’t important to me either. As a young adult in the 1970s, I was minimalistic. Why have stuff that you didn’t use much? Why spend a lot of money on something that took up space in a cupboard?

My mother’s best set of dishes didn’t see the table very often either. She was more of a Malmac mom. We did have a set of parfait glasses that had come filled with Skippy peanut butter and a set of cereal bowls with a circular leaf pattern, prizes hidden in cylindrical boxes of oatmeal. If we had a matched set of glassware, it was because Mom had purchased four jars of jelly with Flintstones scenes on them.

We even got “free” bath towels inside boxes of powdered laundry detergent. (They were small, wimpy things, but, hey, they were free.) For a while, it seemed as if almost every commodity was competing with Cracker Jacks -- a prize inside every time.

“My mom got my china set at the Red Owl in St. Peter in the 1960s,” I told Jessy, pointing at the ivy-patterned plate in front of her. Each week there was a special at the store: a free dinner plate with your grocery purchase of $10 or more, a soup bowl, a dessert plate, a cup and saucer.  Customers could purchase additional pieces to round out the set.  My set of “fine china” (labeled as such on the underside of each piece), has pale ivy leaves around the circumference of the plate and a silver rim. The set included eight cups and matching saucers, 10 dinner plates, six sauce dishes, four soup bowls, nine dessert plates, a sugar bowl with a lid, a cream server and a teapot. One soup bowl has a chip and the lid for the teapot was broken beyond repair several years ago; otherwise, the set is intact. If I broke a piece and wanted to replace it, I could visit any number of secondhand shops or antique places where I’ve seen identical pieces for sale -- although they usually want to sell them as a full set.

Another Red Owl special sold flatware in the same way - a free teaspoon one week, a butter knife the next; or you could buy individual place settings. My brother, my sister, and I each had eight-piece place settings of flatware stored in Mom’s attic until we were “permanently” settled somewhere else. When my first niece was born, Mom decided to keep going with flatware sets for her grandchildren. Only my daughter, her last grandchild, born three years after Mom died, missed out on the deal.

Mom stored my fine china and flatware until I graduated from college and got a real job and had lived in one place for more than a year. When I was home for a visit one holiday, she presented them to me, unceremoniously, but with silent pride. I did my best to appear grateful, because it seemed so important to her, but I knew they would sit on a shelf, seldom used.

Now, almost 30 years after Mom’s death, even though they aren’t used often, those ivy-rimmed dishes are a tangible memory of my mother and the love she showed each time she purchased a piece at the local Red Owl.