Mama gave me her complete set of Havilland Limoges when I became a diplomat’s wife in 1975. How she loved the ring of those words, “diplomat’s wife,” and loved to brag to her friends about her younger daughter. She was so proud of me, and she wanted me to use the best items possible when I was entertaining and representing our country overseas. But as it turned out, I was required to use the embassy china for the many dinner parties I gave in the countries I lived in. I don’t know why. I remember the waiters coming to the house and unpacking all the gold and white china, only to pack it up the next day after it had been carefully washed and dried by my kitchen staff. It seems like it would have been simpler to let me use my own china. But oh yes, of course, I only had a service for twelve, and our parties were attended by four to six times that number of people. And so my handsome set of Limoges sat in my pantry, lonely and collecting dust, except for an occasional holiday meal over the next thirty-three years—until I retired from Washington-Lee High School. That’s when I actually needed a teacup.
That would be the first of several celebrations to make me feel especially valued as an educator. It was a very difficult time in my life, a very poignant time. And I needed a teacup. I suppose I could have brought a mug or a plain teacup. I have many from all my travels. But I thought I’d dust off one of Mama’s teacups for a tea the school was having in my honor. In my honor…imagine that! This was a real tea with scones, cucumber sandwiches, and people who came to wish me well in my new life. My new life…but that was a story that hadn’t unfolded yet.
Mama was thrilled when I told her. She felt that in some way my life had come full circle, as if my life had revolved around her Limoges china. And in some ways my adult life had. As I wrote this upon my retirement, I was seeing how.
I’d been an ESL teacher for over twenty years. I taught in Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, and Greece. I trained to be a teacher in college and was fully certified. Still, in my first years as a teacher overseas, I had little or no idea what I was doing. It wasn’t until I landed in Arlington, VA, that I truly learned how to teach. Teaching and learning: that endless hermeneutic circle that would define much of who I had become as an adult. I stayed at the same school for seventeen years, taught hundreds of students, and I was tremendously happy in my work. Getting my Master’s Degree in reflective practice only intensified my fulfillment as an educator. I enjoyed writing in my reflective journal about how my earlier life had impacted me as a teacher. I loved discovering connections between certain life events and my experience with students. In my 60th year, however, a personal challenge presented me with difficult lessons that needed learning. For a time, I felt more like a student than a teacher. And so I knew, then, that it was time for me to step down and refocus my energies, though I wanted to remain in education on some level.
It’s hard leaving work that you love, for whatever reason. So much of whom I’d evolved into at that time centered on my work. When I left my husband in 1991and brought my children back to Virginia, I threw myself into career mode out of necessity. I knew I needed to work to minimize the effects of the divorce on my children. So I went back into teaching, a demanding profession by any standards. Day and night I taught for a while, going to graduate school at the same time to upgrade my credentials. After a year I started full-time at Washington-Lee High School. My children eventually got through high school and college and, being so close in age, all three of them left home within six months of each other in 2000. Suddenly my job became everything to me. And for the next eight years it had consumed me. I knew then that jumping off the fast track wouldn’t be easy.
But I made my decision and was busy planning for semi-retirement. I knew people didn’t want me to leave; but I still hoped to fade away without a fuss. No such luck! This shy woman who avoided attention like the plague, who once lost her voice on the stage when it was time for her solo, was suddenly being celebrated multiple times.
“Please join us to wish a cherished colleague a happy retirement,” the invitation read. Cherished! My goodness, I was stunned by the word! This looked like my moment in the sun, and they don’t often come twice, so I wanted to enjoy it. One of life’s lessons I’d been learning was that we couldn’t go back and do things over…and we couldn’t go forward. All we could do, if we wanted to enjoy our lives, was to make the most of what was right in front of us. And this was my moment in my career as a teacher. What better symbol of my self-regard in this profession, my worth as a teacher which came to me at great personal cost, than to share my mother’s Limoges, not a Styrofoam cup, at a celebration in my honor.
The making of this china was difficult, like many hard-won accomplishments. But I’m glad I brought Mama’s china teacup. What had long since ceased to matter to my now-deceased mother has now taken on a new meaning for me: “Don’t be afraid to do the difficult,” she told me when I got divorced. “It will make you stronger.””