Sorting through the dishes at our parents’ house one day, my sister Sally suggested that we take out the bone china teacups and saucers from the dining room sideboard and put them into everyday use. What were we saving them for, she asked with some exasperation, why not enjoy them? Exceedingly rare nowadays were the bountiful dinner parties that Mum and Dad used to host, when, after the feast, the bringing out of the tea and coffee cups would be met with oohs and ahs of appreciation, and a leisurely evening of animated conversation (okay, argument too) would unfold. But the china was still there: why not bring its artistry and color into our lives every day? So we did, and now they bring us—and my mother especially—beauty and pleasure on an everyday basis.
Sally’s suggestion brings to mind Alice Walker’s early and much-anthologized short story, Everyday Use, in which two sisters have very different relationships to two old family quilts, pieced together by their grandmother from scraps of old clothes, and then finished by their mother and the sister who never got a higher education and was still living at home. To the educated city sister, the quilts are part of their African heritage, to be preserved as cultural artifacts, where, for the sister who is a homebody, the quilts, while equally precious, will be put into everyday use after her marriage.
Thinking about my own use of things that have special meaning to me, I find that it moves back and forth between the views of the two sisters in Walker’s story. My treasured “best china,” from which I derive great pleasure, is a near-complete set of Royal Jackson bone china that belonged to our opposite neighbor’s late mother, and that I bought from him at a yard sale. I bring it out on holidays and at family gatherings, along with a particular silver-grey linen tablecloth that sets it off perfectly.
My everyday china is a sturdy set of blue-and-white dinner plates, with a number of more-or-less matching saucers, bowls, and side plates, which has little market value, but which, if truth be told, I like as much as the best china and furthermore, enjoy on a daily basis. There is value is saving certain precious pieces, especially family heirlooms, for special occasions, and in preserving them carefully so as to be able to pass them on; but there is also value in using them regularly so as to fully appreciate their beauty as it was meant to be experienced—in use.
Another point comes to mind, that certain items give us that special thrill precisely because they are not in everyday use. Once, years ago when I was frying puris, my father quoted a Marathi saying in this regard, one that I do not know in the original but whose gist is that chapattis are like a wife while puris are like a mistress. That is to say, chapattis are plain, nutritious, daily fare, while puris are rich, delicious, but not to be indulged in too often. (I won’t make any moral or political judgments about this saying, but the psychology of the domestic vs. the erotic is a fascinating one, discussed recently by therapist Esther Perel, who believes that the two can be married.)
Too often, we take for granted the people and things in our everyday life and forget to treasure them, forgetting that the very fact that they are always there for us is a sign of their deepest love and highest value. Yet, as human beings, we all need respite from the dailiness of our lives; by setting apart certain people, objects, and experiences as special, we invest them with special qualities that bring us back into contact with powerful, deeply buried feelings of our own.
When something becomes a habit, for better or worse, we begin to engage in it every day almost without thinking. This is frequently a desirable thing, as in the case of taking daily exercise, setting aside regular time for meditation or prayer, or maintaining daily routines of work, housekeeping, and personal cleanliness. But it can also be a destructive thing when the habit is an unhealthy one, or precisely because we indulge in it unmindfully, failing to appreciate its meaning and value.
This reflection was actually conceived in English-teacherly irritation by the frequent failure of writers to distinguish between every day and everyday, whose difference actually gets to the heart of what I have been talking about here. When we use something “every day,” we mean just that: that it is in daily use; there is no value judgment being made. When we speak of an “everyday” occurrence, we are referring either to its dailiness or to its ordinariness. In the two-word phrase, “every” is an adjective that qualifies “day.” For instance, we might do aerobic exercise every day, every other day, or every third day. It’s also an adverbial phrase in that it qualifies an action, such as walking or eating. “Everyday” as one word is an adjective that qualifies the person, place, or thing that is in daily use. It depends on our attitude toward it whether the fact that we use it every day relegates it to everyday status, makes it commonplace. And again, it depends on our attitude toward the commonplace whether we designate it more or less value by virtue of its everyday presence in our lives. In Buddy Holly’s song, Everyday is spelled incorrectly as one word when it should be two, but we forgive him for the error because he’s Buddy Holly, because it’s a great song, and because it conveys beautifully the feeling of being newly in love, full of anticipation and longing for the beloved to reciprocate (and long before that love becomes an everyday thing).
I feel that the very fact that our mother, who, sadly, has Alzheimer’s Disease, now uses her best china on an everyday basis is preserving and enhancing her cognitive faculties as well as her pleasure in life. Every day is a new day, and every day she enjoys the beautiful china anew. A touch of its special-ness still lingers, too, and perhaps its associations with many happy occasions in the past. For her, and, taking her cue, for me too, everyday use does not render it ordinary; on the contrary, it fills us with pleasure every day as we repeat the rituals of daily life, and reminds us to treasure their beauty—indeed, their holiness.