The China Woman

The China Woman

by Sr. Sheila Devane MMM               Ireland                  16.09.2023  

Should this read the Chinese woman or the woman from China?   No, this is about the China Woman.   Let me tell you about her!

Last week, two colleagues called and, when offering them tea, I suggested mugs or china teacups.   They opted for the china!    Later, when washing up the cups, I remembered the ‘china woman’ who called to our house about three or four times a year when I was a young child in Boyle Co. Roscommon.   Every sitting room that I ever visited in Boyle had a  cupboard made of glass, called a china cabinet, and it kept all the really good things that were only used for visitors, like Waterford glass, china teacups and saucers and sometimes even Belleek pottery. Many of these items were wedding presents and were very precious; we had a key to our china cabinet and for years my parents hid it just in case……….

I was learning the name of the various kinds of china – Wedgewood, Willow Pattern and English Rose.  Such beautiful cups but in our house I only ever saw them used for visitors and on Sundays when granny Friel was staying with us.   Sometimes the China cups got chipped or a plate fell and was broken so we had sets that had something missing.  That was sad, but mammy found a clever way to get more china cups and saucers even though she didn’t have to get married again and have another wedding to get wedding presents.

There were no charity shops in Boyle, and everyone wore the clothes of their older brothers and sisters, and it was alright.  So, getting clothes was hard and getting new, bought clothes from a shop  only happened if you were the eldest in the family.  I wasn’t.  Mammy made all our clothes of every kind so that was nice.

People, now called “Travellers”, lived outside Boyle and made money by repairing metal things like horseshoes, making tin buckets & mugs,  and selling horses.  The women worked extremely hard and looked for ways to get clothes especially for the men and children.  One traveller woman called to our house looking for clothes and knowing how good mammy was with sewing and knitting was so happy to get clothes from her.  But she especially wanted clothes from ‘the boss’.  I didn’t know at first who the boss was but then I learned that this was the name she gave daddy, or any grown up man.  We gave her a name too and called her the ‘china woman’ because she came with china and gave mammy lovely cups, saucers , plates and fancy things and mammy gave her the clothes, especially the clothes from the boss.  Those china things went straight into our china cabinet, so we were able to feel less sad that a few things had got broken.

The china woman and mammy became particularly good friends; they loved each other a lot, as children we knew this.  They used to sit down in the sitting room and talk especially about their children and their  boss too.  Then we noticed that the  lady came sometimes and just said to mammy: ““I am here for a chat, mam.”   Mammy was a great listener; she didn’t ever say very much at all, but she allowed other people talk away.  They were saying things all about their children and worries about sicknesses and then they always talked about their  boss too!   I don’t think they said much about  the china and the clothes.  But it seemed particularly good because they used to smile and laugh, and the china lady would say leaving:  “I will be back mam…. and do you need any china?”

Before we left Boyle, mammy sent a message – I don’t know how she did this as the china woman lived in different places and there were no mobile phones then – to tell her dear friend we were leaving.  The china woman stood outside the house on the footpath as the furniture removal men packed the van for our journey to Dundalk. “I will see you again mam because we move around  and travel to fairs” were her parting words.

I feel sure those two special women have met in Heaven and are still worrying about the children and the boss in their lives……and even the china too!