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One man’s sweet, simple action was a quiet commentary on the imperfection of Life.

DarinLand: An Imperfect Piece

by Darin Lowery

In the small Chicago antiques shop in which I worked many years ago, a customer waved me over and asked to see a piece of pottery. She was a petite blonde with fluttering hands, and she pointed to a vase behind glass. The piece had a thick, almost syrupy glaze, and the colors were too bright, almost loud. It was an excellent example of late1920’s English ceramic arts. I carefully took it from the case and placed it in her hands. She studied it for a moment and then frowned. “Okay, thanks. You can put it back.”

I smiled. “Are you a collector?”

“Not really, but I love orange. It’s got a few bumps on it, though, and it isn’t smooth. I’m going to pass.”

I persisted, not so much to make the sale as I was to find out if she knew what she was looking at. “You’re aware this is a Clarice Cliff piece? It’s from the original ‘Bizarre’ line.”

“Honey,” she said, “I don’t care if it’s from the Titanic- it’s bumpy. I don’t want bumpy- I want smooth.”

I couldn’t help myself. “This is priced unbelievably low. It’s ‘bumpy’ because the artist painted older blanks- ‘seconds’-  with an overglaze rather than an underglaze, and these pieces usually go for a fortune. It looks like the dealer wasn’t aware of what it was when he priced it.”

She pursed her lips and looked me in the eye. “I. Don’t. Like. Bumps. Okay? And you know why? Because it has to be perfect.”

To keep the peace and to keep my job, I decided it was best to drop it. The customer eventually found a perfect bowl with a perfect finish for her perfect bedroom, and I was very happy for her.

In my twenties I always shopped in junk stores and was delighted when I’d find something old, something unusual. Vintage dinnerware always got my attention. Many times it was damaged- a rim chip, a ding at the base; perhaps a hairline crack. This didn’t matter to me. The simple fact that the item had been made before I was born was enough to make me dig into my pocket for what I could afford. Later, when the jobs paid better I became a serious collector. Serious collectors buy pristine pieces- my acquisitions of choice were Bakelite jewelry and Art Deco chrome barware. By the time I hit my late forties, the opposite applied: I wanted ‘wear’- original, chipped paint and rusty metal. Think peeling vellum-washed bureaus and ‘shell’ patio rockers.

Last year my friend Ralph and I were out junking. He laughed at something I picked up in the thrift shop- a dented galvanized bucket, or an old twisted-wire birdcage, I can’t remember, and I told him the story of the lady in Chicago, and how she’d missed out on a spectacular item because it wasn’t up to her standards. She wanted perfection in a world which couldn’t offer it.

Few things in Life are perfect- isn’t this true? Oh, the melody of a baby laughing or the rushing crush of water in the mountains- those are beyond compare, and the way a flaming sun sets low overhead after a hot, hot day is pretty close to perfection. As are the roiling ‘Jesus’ clouds in a placid blue sky (so named because they are numerous and voluminous, sometimes shot through with a beam of sunlight – one can’t help looking for the purple robes, Him with arms outstretched, welcoming all to Heaven). Other things too, which are unparalled- making love on blue winter mornings and drinking rich, hot coffee afterwards, lips numb and burnt.

In early August I drove out to see Ralph in Safford, as was the plan every Thursday. We’d have a few laughs and eat at El Charro. He’d been working on his house for awhile- a complete remodeling job, professionally done. Most of it he’d handled by himself. “I’ve got something to show you,” he said, and pulled me over to the kitchen sink. New mosaic tile had been set into the backsplash- a gorgeous grey and sage combination. I nodded and told him what a beautiful job he’d done. “But wait!” he cried, “There’s something else.” Pulling back the café curtain, he asked, “Do you see it? What do you think?” He pointed to the tile along the sill.

I almost missed it. In the last row of tiles which butted the window frame was one tile which looked different. There was a slight depression, a discoloration, as though a thumb had pressed quickly into the clay before it was fired. An imperfect piece in a row of uniformity. “I put that one in for you, D. Nothing’s ever perfect, is it?” He laughed out loud, pleased with his gift and my reaction to his generosity.

Ralph taught me a lesson on that summer afternoon- about the perception of beauty, about the deliberate alteration of a clean line. One man’s sweet, simple action was a quiet commentary on the imperfection of Life. Within a month he’d be dead, alone in his house, just a few yards from the lasting statement he’d created.

His was a perfect life, a tragic death and an incomprehensible loss to those of us who knew him and loved him. We can only hope he is now at peace, a perfect peace, his grave marker slightly off center. This would be fitting, and I think he would smile in acknowledgment.


  1. Beautiful. Thank you.

  2. I’ve finally come to terms with my imperfect life and now look upon it quite fondly. It took just a mere half century!
    How special that Ralph was thinking of you when he laid that row of tile. And thank you too for sharing the story with all of us and hence keeping Ralph’s memory alive.

  3. Wonderful~ and heartfelt… that is why I love the quilts with the stuffing coming out of them. ~It just means that they were loved even more!! ~I miss Ralph too, thank-you for the sil story… lovin’ u!!

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