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Shambhala Sun | March 2013

The Most Valuable Cups in the World

LEANORA McCLELLAN’s grandma handed down many skills and four crazy cups that have no price.

Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was asked by a student: “What is the most valuable thing in the world?”

The master replied: “The head of a dead cat.”

“Why is the head of a dead cat the most valuable thing in the world?” inquired the student.

Sozan replied: “Because no one can name its price.”

In the house I grew up in, there are four cups in the left corner of the topmost shelf of the pantry. All the other shelves are filled with spices and herbs, boxes of pasta in different shapes, assorted tea bags, and everything you might need to make molasses cookies or a birthday cake. Anything you might need to season a rack of lamb or marinate chicken thighs. But amid all of these things, or rather, above all of these things and to the left, are the cups. They sit in a row; they have sat there for years. And even though a cup is not a bottle of vinegar or a bag of rolled oats, they seem to belong.

The cups have faces on them. They aren’t cutesy faces. They are faces with long, skinny noses, wide-flared nostrils, a winking eye, a bushy, raised eyebrow. They are faces with curly mustaches and parted lips. They are weird faces. But they are also familiar, comforting faces because my grandma made them. She made that dimple with the tips of her old fingers. She pinched the bridge of that nose between her forefinger and thumb until it was thin and straight. My grandma made beautiful things out of clay. Not just pots and cups and bowls, but sculptures too—even kitchen sinks. Maybe it seems juvenile to believe that your grandma could do anything. But I’m not a child, and that’s what I believe.

She could bake half-moon cookies. She could build a doll- house. She could make spinach roll-ups with lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese. She could fix a wicker chair with a hole through the seat. She could knit a sweater, plant a garden, and weave a basket. She could shoot a rifle. She could finish a difficult crossword puzzle in one sitting at the kitchen table. She could give birth to six boys and one girl and then raise them all in a little white country house.

My grandma is my dad’s mom. My dad told my mom (and my mom told me) that my grandpa once gave my grandma a black eye. The woman who could usually be seen bustling around the house—painting a desk or wallpapering the living room—was still after that. She sat in an armchair in the living room. She drew the curtains shut and sat in the dark. When the sun went down, she sat in a darker dark. She sat in silence. She sat there, in that chair, in the dark, without speaking, until the bruise around her eye lightened and disappeared.

It is strange to think that a woman who could render the perfect likeness of her father with a paintbrush would let a man punch her in the face. Stranger still, that a woman who once took home first place in a rifle-shooting competition would continue to cook that man his dinner.

But people are funny like that.

When my grandma got cancer and was too sick to get out of bed, my dad brought clay up to her room. He made the basic forms of the four cups, and she sat in bed and molded each weird little face.

She had made face cups before, lots of them. But she made the four cups that sit on our top shelf when she was in her bed, dying. Then she died. And in that way, the cups became special. That’s why they sit in a row on the top shelf. That’s why they aren’t filled with coffee or tea or mint-chocolate-chip ice cream like cups should be.

When I left home for my freshman year of college, my dad told me that I should take one of the cups to school with me.

“Pick one,” he said. “Which one do you like?”

I wanted one. I still want one. But they are safer on the top shelf. I never picked the one I like best. I don’t touch them.

Maybe it seems like a juvenile thing to think that your dad can do anything, but I believe that too. At least, it seems that way sometimes.

My dad can bake half-moon cookies. He can knit a sweater. He can make spinach roll-ups with lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese. He can fix a wicker chair with a hole through the seat. He can plant a garden. He can do those things because my grandma was his mother.

My dad is also a potter. When I moved to my new apartment in Boston, I picked out six bowls that my dad had made. My dad makes his own glazes, and I chose the six colors I liked best: white with black speckles, cerulean blue, earth brown, rust red, purple, and cream. They are good bowls for cereal or soup or pasta.

Yesterday, I went to throw something away in my kitchen, and beneath a translucent, empty cereal bag, I saw the broken pieces of the cream-colored bowl.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Looks like somebody broke a bowl.”

I didn’t feel angry with my roommates for breaking it. I didn’t feel annoyed that no one told me. I didn’t feel sad to see it in the trash. I didn’t feel anything.

I didn’t feel anything because it was just a bowl. And my dad wasn’t dead.

It occurred to me, when I saw that broken bowl in the trash, that I might as well go home and pick out which cup I like best.

Because it is just a cup. And my grandma is dead. It occurred to me, when I saw that broken bowl in the trash, that I might as well take that cup off of the shelf and fill it to the brim with hot tea. I might as well drink from it. I might as well wrap my hands around the sides and let the ceramic warm the tips of my fingers.

Because if I asked my dad to teach me how to make spinach roll-ups with lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese or how to knit a sweater or even how to make a cup, I’m sure that he would.

Introduced to Buddhism as a student at the University of Vermont, Leanora McLellan has noted a shift in her interest, from the purely academic to the deeply personal. She was especially pleased to complete her first silent meditation retreat in 2012. More recently, Buddhism’s influence has found its way into the creative nonfiction writing McLellan has undertaken as a master of fine arts student at Emerson College. She works in Boston as a writer and yoga teacher.

From the March 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to see more from this issue.

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Photo by Chuck Salvatore

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