Letters to advice columnists are the stories people want to tell about themselves, with the stories they don’t want to tell embedded in them, so the reader and the advice columnist work together to read the second kind of story out of the first. Yesterday, the fourth and final letter to the “Social Q’s” column of the New York Times Sunday Styles section read as follows:
I am the oldest of four girls and named after a flower. Growing up, the fancy family china had the same flower on it. My mother often commented that it would be mine one day. This china has a lot of sentimental value for me. My mother is now in her 80s with dementia, and my father has suddenly grown attached to the china, though he doesn’t use it. (It’s in a box in the garage.) I shouldn’t put my father through a tug-of-war over it, right?
Philip Galanes, the columnist, told the letter-writer not to press the issue, while venturing a few jovial guesses as to her name. But that barely began to unpack the tightly sealed box that the writer—“Rose” being the obvious answer, let’s call her “Petunia”—had taken off the shelves of her mind and presented to the reader. Whether or not to harass her father about the family china was so clearly not the real question, as Petunia herself understood, that she undermined the whole premise of seeking advice by putting “right?” at the end.
The striking feature of Petunia’s problem, or what Petunia claimed was her problem, is that, in insensitive practical terms, it will mostly take care of itself. Assuming her father was not the May in a May-December marriage, Petunia’s parents are both in their 80s. Odds are they have less than a decade to live; even if they do, they will probably be divested of their house and garage and moved on to some other living arrangement. The box of china will have to go somewhere.
Galanes, honing in on one of the key subtexts, advised the writer to “talk with your sisters about the importance of that floral china to you.” Petunia’s story about sharing her name with the china pattern, and about her mother designating her to receive it—not just once but “often”—seemed to establish her claim more completely than was necessary, as if in rebuttal of someone else’s claim, somewhere off the page. So, too, she chose to point out as the very first thing that she was the eldest. Before challenging her father for ownership of the china, she had to clear the field of her sisters.
But what is Petunia trying to win? The fancy family china was for fancy family dinners. It is in a box in the garage, where her father doesn’t use it, because the occasion for using it no longer exists. His wife is no longer presiding over gatherings, flattering her daughter, making commentary about the dishware—she is, herself, there but not there, out of reach, sealed off. He has “suddenly grown attached” to the family china that he will never use again.
The thing Petunia wants for herself is already gone. Attention will never again be centered on the child and the plates (which came first, the name or the pattern?). The four girls are separate adults now, not stages in a hierarchy. Her father is an old man with a house full of things. She is in a tug-of-war, but not with him, and her real foe always wins.