Darkness flows up from the cellar. It’s been over two years since we settled into this house and we still haven’t found the will to install a light, not even one of those touch lights that sticks to the wall. It’s okay though, I know where to reach now.

The good dishes rest on wooden shelves above the basement steps, next to a case of seltzer and our 20 pound bag of rice. The shelves are sturdy, anchored into 19th century brick with a permanency that has outlasted generations. The open shelving makes the dishes easy to find, but offers little protection. If the stairwell door slams too hard a shower of plaster crumbs will rain down. I always wash them before use.

You won’t find my grandmother’s serving bowl or the milk-glass deviled egg plate on these sturdy perches. Instead, the sacred shelves hold the Glad containers and the take-out boxes. There are disposable aluminum baking pans, Ziploc bags, and marinara-stained Tupperware. Plastic cups and utensils fill in the cracks. An array of leftover napkins flutters down the steps if you move too quickly, coating the concrete floor with images of wrinkled balloons, monkeys, or lace.

The collection is significant in size and meaning. These are the dishes that fed us, day by day, when we first became parents. These are the good dishes.

Our community showered us before the birth of our daughter, but they fueled us in the aftermath. The crab cakes weren’t just pan-fried and the enchiladas were more than just cheese and chicken. They were a welcome to our girl and a tangible offering of love, infused with support and served with a side of hope. Nothing says “we believe in you” like Thai red curry and a six pack of Kölsch.

People emerged from all parts of our community in those early, hazy days. Friends who poured a glass of wine, family who offered that secret recipe, co-workers who before had never been invited for dinner. There was a woman from church whose name I first learned when she knocked at our door. As she dropped off her tortilla soup she said, “In a bit you’ll be on this side of the meal delivery too. You’ll make it. Hold on to the containers.”

These are the dishes that are passed on to others.

When it’s time, I choose each one carefully, first evaluating the volume of the container and then the seal of the lid. There is always a matching lid. A lost or cracked lid indicates the dish has fulfilled its purpose, and it should be laid to rest on Thursday morning with the week’s empty milk jugs and old newspapers.

Our stash is dwindling, but still, there are three newborn onesies and six burp rags hanging on the wash line next door. It’s time to raid the shelves again.

I cross the street to our overgrown garden plot with a chipped blue colander and a pair of scissors, cutting only the most tender lettuce leaves while collecting half a dozen mosquito bites. I return to our kitchen, praying for sleep for the new mama in the other half of our duplex.

The lasagna noodles are just starting to boil as I mix an egg in with the ricotta, adding a shake of pepper and a pinch of salt. I slice radishes, shred carrots, and whisk wishes for health and no colic into a dressing.

The rhubarb blueberry cobbler in the oven bubbles steadily in its square aluminum pan, the peaks golden and crispy from the love-and-butter-filled dough.

I unhook the lock at the top of the door and feel my way through the paper and plastic. There it is: a clear, round container with a light blue lid that will fit the salad perfectly. As I reach for a pan suitable for layering lasagna, my two year old daughter runs into the kitchen.

“Mommy, what you doin’? Makin’ supper?”

“I’m making supper for Miss Sara and Mr. Dave.”

“And Baby Violet?”

“Yes, and Baby Violet.”

“Can we do it together?”

We are now the feeders. My baby can demand whole milk with words instead of wailing for breasts. She can run into the kitchen and ask to carry the salad next door. Each good dish we have parted with has strengthened not just the people we fed, but has been a sign of the growing strength of our family. As we got back on our feet, we could begin to lend a hand. Our empty shelf is a sign of our supported clan.

When my husband and I talk about adding to our family, I first remember how a newborn consumed us. Then I think of the dishes and how they’ll be replenished – emptied of the chicken & rice casserole, filled with encouragement and a side of tacos. 

For every family fumbling in the dark, there is another family who has memorized where to reach and knows which lid fits. They’ll pull out the dish, fill it with goodness, and pass on the beauty of community.