Is grief reflected in (un)polished silver?

One way I’m still processing my grief, two years and five months after my mother’s death, is by polishing her silver. Today, my hands are sore and chapped from completing that task last night.Tarnished silver showing a coppery glow instead of the whitish glint of sterling

Perhaps it was just the passing of more than the usual time while travel was ill-advised, but I think regional wildfires and their acidic smoke sped up the tarnishing of her sterling tea service. My irrational heart may also feel that these dark stains reflect the deprivations and loneliness of 2020.

If we couldn’t celebrate life’s occasions together, why shouldn’t our heirlooms wither and wilt in their own exile?

Silver heirlooms & family history

I was a girl, but old enough to notice, when my father bought Mom the silver tea set she’d coveted. I think I recall the particular room in the particular house we lived in at the time. I have memories of her excitement upon receiving it.

I’m not sure that Mom ever actually served tea or coffee from it, but it shone with pride of place in every dining room thereafter.Sterling silver tea service with heavy tray, coffee pot, tea pot, sugar bowl & creamer

Some families may own objects for generations; others build their own cache of keepsakes in the moment. It’s the memories that form mementos, not the artist or craftsman at a workbench or in a factory.

For myself, I take pains to use lovely things such as china and silver as often as possible. Regular readers may recall that I worked on my novel by candlelight last summer while sitting at my parents’ dining room table and keeping one ear open to Dad as he recovered from surgery. I know that five-branched candelabra was one of their Silver Anniversary gifts.

The use of three different styles of mismatched candles is entirely my own choice, and my mother, it must be noted, would be scandalized by such cacaphony.

5 branched candle holder with two gold beeswax tapers, two rust colored beeswax candles, and one smooth taperI use a silver tray to carry Dad’s post-surgical medications upstairs every night now* just as I did in August.**

It’s the right size to fit on his bedside table, lighter than wood, and less breakable than a plate would be. Some old-fashioned objects remain just as useful as their modern alternatives.

How to remove wax residue from silver

Before I polished all the silver, I had to pour hot water over the tray I placed beneath that 25th anniversary candelabra in order to remove all the wax I’d spilled thereupon.

Please note that, never, in Mom’s lifetime, could such a mess have been left for four months or more before being attended to! That, too, is entirely my responsiblity, and does not reflect the way Mom raised me.

If undertaking such a wax removal exercise, make sure you place a paper towel between the wax-stained item and your drain to avoid expensive plumbing repairs down the line. Very hot water does very effectively remove wax from even the most detailed metal surface.

I used water just off the boil, and the tray from which I was removing wax had no heavy, weighted areas to avoid heating. Be careful if treating candlesticks or other items which may contain meltable fillers as counterweight if you try the hot water method!

Amongst the almost innumerable blessings of my highly charmed life, I include the fact that my mother died in the summer of 2019, well before the pandemic. The children and I were able to spend the first holiday season after her passing with my father, accompanying him through what was a difficult time for all of us.

Frankly, anyone who knew my mother would recognize at least this irrefutable fact: she would have hated being locked down and isolated from society. Mom liked to be busy, and she reveled in the company of other people.

I don’t know if I could have survived such a loss in 2020 when travel took on new risks. The idea of Mom’s hospice care taking place while we were thousands of miles away is intolerable. I can’t even express the gratitude I have for the fact that I wasn’t challenged in such a way.

In spite of the mild miseries of my own experience of the pandemic, I know firsthand that heroic caregivers continued to minister to the dying in spite of the job’s personal risk. The long illness that plagued my mother-in-law came to an end in 2021. Hospice workers—and an investment in long term care insurance decades ago—gave her the dignity of dying at home, as she wished, though there can be no real respite from the ravages of grief.

It ranks high on the list of ways I consider myself luckier than I deserve that we six shared a household, thus having no question about our ability to be as involved as my father-in-law wished with her daily care at the end. Being there for a terminal loved one is difficult; knowing you can’t be must be excruciating.

How to polish silver without damaging it

While products abound, these days, promising quicker, less effortful removal of tarnish from cherished silver, experts universally decry the lazy man’s dips and hacks. Polishing silver isn’t particularly difficult, but it is best done with a bit of elbow grease and zero “quick fixes.”

Removing tarnish means, fundamentally, stripping away a thin layer of the valuable metal itself. It is best to tackle the job gently.

Apply a high quality silver polish using cotton balls, a sponge, or a rag. Rub until the dark stain of tarnish disappears, changing out your cotton or rag when it blackens. Finally, rinse or rub off the remaining polish, depending upon the type of object you are cleaning. A tray can be wiped dry or rinsed, then buffed; silverware or items you put in your mouth want washing after polishing.

Silverware as a shelf for memory

I have less memory of how this three-tiered silver tray came into my parents’ possession, but it does define the space for receiving Christmas cookies in my mind. Now that I’ve polished it, a bit of baking does seem to be called for.

When is it not better to confront a pleasing array of delicacies arranged on a silver platter? Or trois? When is a display not improved by height, texture, and depth?

While I wish my father weren’t recuperating from a painful operation, and I wish my mother were here, in her house, doing a better job of decorating, polishing silver, or tidying up than I every could…

Well, suffice to say that I am grateful for Dad’s recovery. I’m happy to spend the month of December surrounded by Mom’s things with at least the possibility of realizing a tiny fraction of her joy in the Advent season.

It’s a constant ache and awareness of loss to live amongst the remnants of my mother’s life, but such a gift that I have the luxury of time and access to process my feelings about everything she was, what she loved, and what she left behind.

The finer things in life only achieve that definition because we acknowledge how they add to our delight, or enhance our appreciation of the lives we lead. Even gold has only so much luster outside convention.

I would trade every precious metal for my mother’s presence if I could, but that’s not how living works, and that’s not a bargain anyone gets to make.

Grief is not the garland we expect for our holidays, but it is one most of us will hang one day. Whether personified by tinsel or a sterling silver tea service, holiday grief is a likely inheritance to everyone blessed by the chance to love and be loved.

It’s hard to make a family without generating holiday memories. Vanishingly few conduct an entire life without loss. Learning to live with grief throughout the holiday season is the burden—and the gift—of those who’ve been loved.

*For knee replacement number two

**When Dad became a cyborg, as he likes to say

Satisfaction derived from one (novel) work in progress

Five weeks in, I’ve written 39,645 words. I’m working on a novel.

If I ever finish it, and then publish it, you should definitely read it.

39,645 ÷ 5 = 7929 words per week

7929 ÷ 7 ≅ 1133 words per day

Truthfully, I don’t know whether to crow about this rate of progress, or if I should be mildly—or wildly—embarrassed by my sloth. Remember, I’m a dilettante who hasn’t published much more than a blog.

Then again, the world can—and will—think what it wants. In the meantime, I shall carry on developing the imaginary universe I can’t help myself from inhabiting, trying to do justice to a scientific concept that my celebrated husband offered as a plot device.

I think it is working. The fact is ridiculously exciting.

On the evening of day 35, around page 170, I got to the good part. You know, that moment where a handful of threads are woven together, and one suddenly understands why we heard about this, then that, then the other thing… ?

Truthfully, I didn’t, myself, see all of it coming. My takeaway: writing fiction can be weird.

If I were a different kind of creature, perhaps I could keep up with regular installments for a diverting blog while crafting a novel clever people would feel compelled to read. My reality defies this notion. The same pool of energy feeds both projects.

Alas, poor readers! The novel wins.

Lately, the novel also encourages me to imbibe a glass of wine alongside the lighting of a five-armed, silver-plated candelabra from my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, so it’s kind of a strange beast. Either that, or I am the odd one, but don’t you like knowing you are reading a work composed on a laptop by candlelight? That’s not just me, is it?

I’d love to share the recent story of “My First Flight in the Era of the Novel Coronavirus” (hint: uneventful) or “Flying vs. Amtrak Reality for Those Who Take Delta Variant Seriously” (hint: airlines impose mask regulations more seriously than train conductors), but I am forced to choose.

Happily, the kids and I have made it across the USA and back into the physical presence of my father. He needs an elective-yet-function-improving surgery, he was waiting to have family around to get the thing done, and it’s a Really Wonderful Thing that we are here to support him through the process.

Today we had to change the bed sheets prior to surgery and he started bathing with the special, sticky, infection-defying soap. Now, how do we keep the dog off his bed until the incisions heal?

It’s also downright bizarre to be anywhere other than where we’ve been for the past 17 months or so. How often are the rest of you realizing how definitely we are living through Interesting Times? How often do you give thanks for the fact that you’re still around to notice said fact?

My personal answer to that last one: at least once daily.

It’s almost definitely good for my family to have its paradigm shifted at this point. I know that I have become a creature who might just as well never leave the house at all, if left to my own devices. That could likely earn me some kind of diagnosis from the DSM if I were inclined to seek professional opinions on the subject.

I’m not.

Lacking that kind of openness to criticism, I still know I benefit from noticing what’s different here (time zone, state, county, population density) vs. what’s the same. The part where the kids and I are living with Dad’s pandemic puppy is a learning experience.

While I grew up with pets, the last time I lived full time with any was a pair of cats in the 1990’s.

I was really worried that Dad wasn’t training his dog, but the pup is much better behaved than Dad’s most comedic text messages suggested. Phew!

Fear not, blog-reading friends. I am alive, healthy, and grateful for both of these things to be true. Here’s hoping that soon I’ll be begging you, my favorite audience, for beta readers for a dys-/utopian novel. Is anyone game?

May you all remain healthier than the arborvitae my dad put in his yard right before temps topped 116º F here. He’ll be lucky if 2/5 survive the summer, I’d guess. God willing, the delta variant will remain less deadly than that ratio.