The Jewel Tea Man
Resting inconspicuously in my kitchen cupboard sits a small white bowl. It isn’t an original. It’s a substitute, a clone. The original disappeared long ago, either in pieces in a trash can or simply vanished as things do over the course of a long life. Being well-acquainted with the owner of the original I am reasonably certain it was the trash can. The original was one of a set. They were all identical, but over time over time and without being noticed they all vanished and I forgot about them. Decades after the last one disappeared I found this substitute in the back cupboard of a musty storeroom of a school cafeteria. The sight of it shone a bright light in a dim corner of my memory. I couldn’t resist, I took it. The warmth of the memories it triggered were greater than the coldness of taking something that was not mine. That was also many years ago and I have carefully kept it as a treasure of a long bygone time when I was a child and the world was a different place
It is pristine white in color, stands about 5 inches and is about four inches in diameter. Its sides are ribbed like siding on a house. It has no value to anyone other than me and for me its value inheres solely in the memories it evokes.
When I saw it there, unused, forgotten in a seldom-used cabinet my thoughts went back to my early childhood. I was seven years old, living with my four brothers and one sister in a ramshackle house on a largely depleted oilfield in the scrub brush countryside a few miles east of Drumright, Oklahoma. It was a time when many men were struggling to support their families in an economy that people my age and older refer to as “The Depression.” My dad was no exception. After several years of being only sporadically employed he had been hired by the Sinclair Oil Company as a laborer on a pipeline maintenance gang. It was the first permanent employment he’d had for several years and although he now brought in steady income to feed his wife and five children, the job required him to be away from home most of the time. That put my mother in the position of being a de facto single parent. Since Dad’s job required travel he kept the family car, leaving Mother without any transportation. We kept a cow that provided us with milk, a hog or two which Dad butchered each falland a few chickens. Mother always canned as many vegetables as she could during the summer and always baked bread for the family. Fresh vegetables, except when they were in season were a luxury, so trips to “town” weren’t necessary very often. When they were, Mother walked, pulling a child’s wagon to haul whatever she bought. It was an austere, lonely way of life for her I am sure. I heard her talk about it years later but at the time I never heard her complain.
There was at that time and place three companies that sent salesmen out to canvass all the country homes such as ours. They drove panel trucks filled with various products that a housewife might need: salt, pepper, spices, baking needs, and the like. One of those companies was “The Jewel Tea Company” which I believe now operates large supermarkets in certain parts of the country. The other, which flourished and then slipped into history as an artifact was “The Grand Union” company. The third was a company called simply “Watkins” which brand you may see today on the spice rack of your supermarket. Their wares were strictly spices, food colorings, and various patent medicines, the most famous of which was “Watkins Liniment” which could not only be applied to aching muscles and arthritic joints but could also be diluted with water and taken internally to alleviate sore throats and other “cold” symptoms. (I suspect its main ingredient was alcohol with all that implies.)
These peddlers called on Mother once or twice a month and I’m sure she welcomed the adult company as much as anything. She did, however, buy some things she needed from them – probably as much to keep them coming back to visit as any other motive. As for them, being salesmen they undoubtedly knew the value of small talk and being bearers of “news” as to what might be going on around the area. Anyone who has seen the movie “The Music Man” will understand if I tell you their visits were akin to the arrival of “The Wells Fargo Wagon” of an earlier time.
Of these companies the most successful was the Jewel Tea Company and part of their success might be attributed to the fact that they “rewarded” the housewives from time to time by giving them “freebies” for certain purchases. And that is where the white bowl enters this reminiscence. I don’t begin to remember what Mother bought but I know that over a period of time she accumulated a small number of these bowls. They were inexpensive pottery, not designed to be heirlooms; just simple utilitarian table dishes. I think, perhaps, I remember them only because we were quite poor and matching dishes were rare on our table.
Whatever the cause, when I saw that white bowl languishing in a seldom-opened back cupboard of a school cafeteria it almost brought a tear to my eye. By that point in my life I was middle-aged, my parents were long-gone. I was well-educated and making a salary far in excess of anything Dad had ever brought home. But for a few moments as I stood looking at that simple white bowl I was a small boy. I could see my Mother standing in the kitchen preparing food for her “brood” and I recalled the obvious pleasure she took in the visits of the “Jewel Tea Man” and in looking through the catalog filled with goods she knew she couldn’t buy.
Merle Haggard, a country music star of a few decades ago said it quite well in a song he wrote and sang as a tribute to his mother. I understand what Merle was probably feeling when he wrote these words.
“Mama never had the luxuries she wanted
But it wasn't cause my daddy didn't try.
She only wanted things she really needed;
One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes.”
As a postscript to this, my dad remained with Sinclair Oil Company until he retired from a very responsible position as a “Chief Engineer” for one of their electrical-powered pumping stations. By the time I was a teen ager my mother, although she certainly didn’t get all the luxuries she might have wanted, no longer went through her days with “hungry eyes.”
I have retired the white bowl to a position on a bookshelf where it is in the company of various other mementoes. It will rest there until at some point one of our children or grandchildren will either ask about its significance and wish to keep it, or until we close the book on our lives, after which it will, at best, end up on a shelf in a Flea Market.
About the author
This is how it's done folks. A story about a bowl? Yes, and a story about growing up, a story about a mundane, everyday object that has a legacy of its own. And a secret shared by an author who knows how to grab our attention and look again to find out what comes next.
As you have so often done, Dick, you buoy me up and encourage me to cast my line once more into the sea of my memories to see if there is one more I have not yet caught. I am blessed to have lived a life in which I've experienced both sunshine and storm and in some mystical way been both participant and observer throughout them all.
Two years have passed since I first read this story of a lonely white bowl. I come back to it because the words are so powerful, the images are so clear, and the memories it captured are still haunting. It will always be one of my favorites.
Visiting the white bowl again was like going back home.