An Irishman asked me this week what connections could I claim to the Emerald Isle as justification for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. “I own Waterford crystal” was my sure reply.
I didn’t come about my Waterford through a careful selection process in the Bullock’s bridal registry. Rather, I made a swift decision in reaction to Soviet-era merchandise, or more precisely, the lack thereof.
As I was leaving to study at Leningrad State University the summer of 1977, my parents gave me some money so I could buy myself “something nice” to remember the trip by. My mother kept stressing “nice.” I also took with me her list of people important to our family for whom I was to bring back small gifts – omiyage. In the one letter from home I got while I was there (my mother said she wrote one other, and I believe her, but only one got through to me), she stressed again “not to buy junk” for the omiyage or for my own special souvenir.
The problem was, the merchandise was pretty much limited to what was available in the hard-currency stores for tourists, the berioskas. For the omiyage list, I struggled against small busts of Lenin, folkloric spoons, and matroyshki dolls. As my classmates and I made the rounds of the different berioskas, I searched out items I thought more interesting, settling upon a small whalebone carving, a Ukrainian embroidered tablecloth, and packets of Georgian black tea for the folks back home.
For myself, I admired, but refrained from getting a palekh lacquered box. Last minute at the urging of some classmates, I instead got a Julie Christie-style fur hat (a story unto itself). I should have gotten the box instead of the shapka, which I found to be too warm to wear even in Washington, D.C. winters (which aren’t that cold, I know). My favorite momentos ended up being the non-berioska items: my snachki pin collection from places like Doestoevsky’s apartment and of the Bronze Horseman, and Russian literature I bought in stores along Nevsky Prospect, standing in three separate lines Soviet-style, for mere kopecks.
That is all to say I was in London that August, cramming in the sights there before making the last leg of my trip home. I had accumulated many a small souvenir, but had yet to come across that one “nice” purchase. I flew into famed Harrod’s, to see what there was to see. After a summer of eating in the LGU cafeteria and generally living in Soviet deprivation, the Harrod’s food hall and dazzling array of luxury items seemed incomprehensively decadent.
When I saw the Lismore goblets in a large Waterford display, I thought they were mesmerizingly beautiful, sparkling and intricate—a level of craftsmanship the polar opposite of the berioska standard. Yes, I knew I’d have to pay to ship them, and yes, I knew I could buy Waterford back home, and yes, I knew I was buying them in London and not Waterford, Ireland. But in my 20-year-old thinking, I didn’t know if I’d ever visit London again, let alone ever get to Ireland, and I thought, well, I’m buying them here in Harrod’s. Mom would like that, this is most certainly nice, and instantly, I knew I had liked them. I bought six, for the now-laughable price of about US$20 each.
Later when Bing and I married, John and June Fee, our Irish family, generously expanded my Waterford collection, along with other friends. Now in my remodeled kitchen, I have easy access to my crystal and make a point of using it. The sugar bowl and creamer often are small flower vases, and ice cream goes in the champagne saucers (which I don’t even think they make anymore). My Leningrad books and trinkets still have sentimental value, but my Lismore goblets purchased on the spot did turn out to be the “nice” enduring souvenir of the kind my mother had in mind.
In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m claiming my long-standing Irish connection to Waterford, here along with some “bells of Ireland” flowers and wisteringia from my garden. I had shepherd’s pie ready for Akemi to eat when she came home last night for a week of spring break. Today was made more special by celebrating our relative Pat Tom’s 80th birthday with other family and friends at beautiful Descanso Gardens.
I have gotten to return to London; maybe I’ll get to visit Ireland yet, and adopt other “Irishness.” But I didn’t think one had to be Irish to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?