Happy Passover 2022

Tonight, my family celebrated our freedom with a Passover seder.

Every year at this time, Jews around the world thank God for being personally liberated from slavery. It’s a biblical story, but, according to Jewish teachings, that liberation still belongs to every one of us on an individual level, now, in this moment.

That’s the guidance offered to us by our religious tradition, and I deeply appreciate the reminder of the abundant blessings of my own daily life.

Without a doubt, in 2022, my family bowed our heads with specific thanks for the wisdom shown by my father-in-law way back in the 1970’s when he brought his wife, child, and mother-in-law out of bondage from the Soviet Union to the U.S.A.

He had no idea what to expect when he got there, but he trusted in the expansive nature of the big ideas in the “great works” of European literature that he’d read (illicitly, since they were illegal in Russia) to imply that something better existed outside the narrow intellectual constraints of 20th Century Soviet communism.

I daresay he’d say he was right to follow those instincts. I’m in total agreement.

Tonight, we prayed for those who live with less freedom than we are privileged to have. We thanked God for the exodus of DH, his parents, and his grandmother from the U.S.S.R., to the U.S.A., by way of a European refugee camp.

Parallels to today’s crisis in Ukraine are not lost on us. We bow our heads to those still suffering. We look at our beautiful children and acknowledge how easily they could have been born there instead of here; in servitude instead of free.

We are warm and safe and free to worship—or not—as we choose. What a wonder! What a privilege.

Table after meal with seder plate containing maror, vegetables, charoset, egg, etcGenerous sponsors in Europe and the U.S.A. helped bring my husband and his family forth from oppression to independence many years ago. The world must take similar steps to ease the way for Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression today.

Moses said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” My father-in-law said something similar, via his actions, to Brezhnev.

Now, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is saying the same to would-be Czar Putin, the killer of children, bomber of innocents. It behooves every lover of liberty, democracy, and personal freedom to support Ukraine in this effort.

Chag sameach! Happy Holiday!

Are dreams our final visits with the dead?

Within a few days of my mother’s death, I dreamt she was was puttering about in the room where my children slept. We stayed with my father for almost a month after her passing.

“Shh… Mom!” I told her, “the kids are sleeping. Don’t wake them up.”

I was fussing helplessly, impotently, about the orbit of her flurry of productive activity, unable to deter her from her appointed rounds.

And though she finished putting away their laundry—in this dream, so keenly reflecting the fastidious, caring life my mother lived—those sleeping cherubs did not wake up… until one did.

But the sleep-confused boy, even in the dream, could not see my mother there. He reacted only to me, and with mild confusion.

“What’s the matter, Mommy?” asked my baby-almost-grown-to-manhood, before drifting back to sleep, unaware that Grandma was calmly finishing her work within an arm’s reach.

Even in my dream, the truth remained evident. My mother was gone from this mortal coil. No matter how high the heaps of unwashed clothes, nor the number of days that beds remained un-made, Grandma would not be back to re-affirm the self-defined borders of appropriateness within her last home.

We were on our own with our mess, and the loss of her. My mother was dead and gone, and I knew that…

And yet!

My Mom saw me at least once in her last living days, her sight clearing for a moment while she looked straight at me, telling me, “I love you!” She said my name. She saw me.

The fog of cancer lifted for a minute; her gaze was clear. She seemed purely coherent then, contrary to recent history. My mother said good-bye when she got the chance.

I believe that was her last full day drawing breath, but I don’t really trust my memory for the time. In my recollection, I was the little girl, the smallest in her class, headed off to Kindergarten with her Snoopy lunchbox in the white dress Mom had picked out, red-tipped, with red leather shoes to match.

That’s what I thought Mom saw.

One moment took me back that far.

She’d been mostly not-quite-present for awhile, by that point, but I knew she was fully aware when she said farewell. I believe she was knew it was time to say a final goodbye, though I resisted that knowledge in the moment.

A few days ago, my mother again visited my dreams. It’s been about two years and eight months since she died.

In the dream, Mom was driving a large SUV.

While not her favorite vehicle—that would be a powder blue, late model Chrysler New Yorker sedan dubbed Gwendolyn, by me with navy blue leather upholstery, of course!—going somewhere by automobile suits my mother perfectly. In this, she was like other Baby Boomers.

Cars were a symbol of freedom and status for her generation!

In my recent dream, Mom had her head out the window as she navigated much too closely up to the window of an imaginary fast food restaurant. The part where Mom leaned out the window is wildly out of character, while the rest fits.

Though never explicitly stated, it was pretty evident she was there for ice cream. I don’t for the life of me believe she’d venture back for a burger, but for vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, and maybe a few sliced bananas?

“Watch your head, Mom!” I called. I was sure she’d knock herself senseless against the window boxes—standing like escarpments—surrounding the drive-up window of my dreams.

As in real life, Mom barely seemed to register my concern, carrying on according to her own plan. I’m not really joking when I describe my mother as a force of nature in her polite, petite way.

I woke up in the morning reassured by this “visit” with my mother.

A few days—maybe a week—onward, all I can say is, “my mother came to visit. She was checking in on me.”

It was probably just a dream.

There’s likely nothing more to it.

And yet…

And yet.

If you’ve lost someone, I pray that you find them again, if only in your dreams.

Season’s Greetings to all people of goodwill

Season’s Greetings to All!

I’d like to offer a Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating today, but also Warm Winter Wishes to the rest.Mom's idea of a restrained Xmas with dozens of gifts piled high under tall tree

I believe we all win when we give others the benefit of the doubt: if I tell you Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, I don’t intend to denigrate your savior. Instead, I hope you recognize that my own beliefs differ, but you have my respect for your Joyeux Noël.

My favorite Christmas lyric is “peace to men of goodwill!” May this message find every reader safe, secure, feeling cozy and full of joy.

A December 23rd article in the New York Times informed me that for many—especially women, people aged 18-44, and independents or Republican voters with modest incomes—2021 might be the source of even more stress over the holidays than 2020.

So many are exhausted and demoralized.

I immediately sent a text to my sister-in-law upon reading that story. I thanked her for all that she does, especially when I’m on the other side of the country, and told her how grateful I am that she married into our family. What a delight to enjoy—and like!—one’s relatives.

It’s easy to overlook kindness when life feels hectic. Extending a hand to someone else is a surprisingly effective way to find one’s own balance.

Let someone know they are appreciated today, and perhaps you can ease some of that holiday stress afflicting a loved one or yourself. If your home is beautifully decorated or you’re dining in relative splendor, make sure whoever provided such bounty to you knows it matters.

And offer to do the tidying up if someone else arranges most of your holiday cheer! A shout out to my kids who washed all the dishes after our festive dinner last night.

For all that I am firmly aware of the rising caseload of the Omicrom variant, and the lingering specter of inflation punishing our pocketbooks, December of 2021 offers good news that I feel compelled to acknowledge. Let’s look at those sunny spots on the horizon.

Without being totally divorced from reality, it is definitive that we are seeing some of the highest daily COVID-19 case rates of the entire pandemic. I agree that this sucks! Omicrom is a rip-roarin’ beast of infection; it’s many times more infectious than Delta, which superseded those original strains of SARS-CoV-2 from early 2020.

In spite of that ugly, hospital-cramming fact, the amazing step forward of mRNA vaccinations means that the novel coronavirus is now, finally, actually only approaching the flu in terms of order of magnitude of lethality.

According to David Leonhardt’s Dec. 23rd article in the New York Times, here’s some hard data on the current degree of risk from COVID-19:

The risks here for older people are frightening: A rate of 0.45 percent, for instance, translates into roughly a 1 in 220 chance of death for a vaccinated 75-year-old woman who contracts Covid.

You’ll want to view the article to see its excellent graphs to get the fullest picture.
That is frightening, but what about when we consider other common ailments? From the same article:

One reassuring comparison is to a normal seasonal flu. The average death rate among Americans over age 65 who contract the flu has ranged between 1 in 75 and 1 in 160 in recent years, according to the C.D.C.

Until I read this story, I wasn’t aware that COVID-19 has become, for a vaccinated senior citizen, less deadly than an average flu. What a powerfully reassuring data point! I find this a reason for great hope.

bandage on upper arm

Before I go on, allow me to make obvious this other point: the unvaccinated are not nearly so safe. COVID-19 is much deadlier for the unvaccinated than flu is.

The last flu outbreak to kill millions, plural, was the “Asian flu” of the mid-1950’s, with a total death count estimated around 2 million souls worldwide.

An otherwise similar unvaccinated elderly woman is 13 times more likely to die of COVID than the vaccinated hypothetical person above. There remains a much, much higher probability of death for that unvaccinated 75 year old woman than she would face in a typical flu season.

COVID-19 leaped onto the charts as the third leading cause of death for Americans in 2020, and the elderly bear the brunt of this burden. We lost 1.8 years of life expectancy last year; that’s the worst decline in over 70 years, since WWII saw so many killed between 1942-43.

It is wonderful that we’re moving toward taming the novel coronavirus from killer of millions to “only” fatal to hundreds of thousands. While not enough, that is good, and it should be appreciated…when it actually happens.

As of November 22, we’d lost more Americans in 2021 than we did in 2020. No one should ever forget that.

Yet savor the positive news as much as you dwell on the negative and your life will be better. If you are fortunate enough to have been vaccinated, your personal risk now pales compared to those who’ve mostly been tricked out of taking a life-saving inoculation

happy face smile
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In addition to the lifesaving wonder of vaccines that measurably reduce deaths amongst our most vulnerable population, we’ve also seen two new drugs approved as treatment options for COVID-19 in the USA this week. Where the latest variant has rendered ineffective some of our most effective earlier therapies, these new treatments arrive just in time.

They could also save us a lot of money.

To have new treatments people can self-administer at home—thus sparing exhausted, overburdened hospital staff while our total case numbers reach record heights—is another blessing. It’s hard for me to quantify how much I would prefer to pick up a prescription from my local pharmacy for a few days’ worth of pills if I had COVID over making repeated visits to a hospital or clinic.

The antiviral COVID pills from Pfizer and Merck will initially cost the federal government around $700 per dose. This represents an enormous savings spread over millions of doses vs. pricier monoclonal antibody treatments all of which cost $1200 or more at the heavily discounted government bulk purchase rate.Pile of money
Patients will also be spared unpredictable fees for visiting those staffed locations necessary to administer IV therapies. In an era of high inflation—and personally facing a mandatory switch to a new health insurance plan from a different provider starting January 1st—I find this a great relief.

I’ve never had a confusing or even shocking bill after visiting a pharmacy, unlike every time I’ve been a patient at a hospital. Reflecting on the fact that I’m so incredibly privileged that I’ve never had a gap* in my insurance coverage, it seems likely that others fear surprise bills far more than I do.

The pandemic isn’t over. Thoughtful individuals should still be wearing masks and making efforts to improve ventilation while meeting with those outside their households. That said, we understand more than ever about how COVID-19 spreads. Many of us are vaccinated, thus protected against the worst outcomes of the disease. Available treatments have expanded from desperate guesses to multiple effective therapeutics.

This ugly, lonely, uncomfortable period in history will end, though those of us who’ve lived through it may well spend the rest of our lives processing the experience. For example, many of us grew up with grandparents whose behavior was permanently affected by surviving the Great Depression.

Right now, on Christmas Day, 2021, I encourage you to look for the positive anywhere you can. Experiencing terrible events isn’t the only predictor of future suffering; so is how one responds to those challenges, and what one makes with the memories.

Things could be better, but, of course, they could also be worse. Having made it to my father’s house and remained in good health in spite of the journey, I find so much to celebrate this year.

May all these little celebrations be less fraught in 2022.

Wishing every reader good health, good cheer, and a large measure of optimism for the year ahead!

It was a painfully frustrating message replete with disinformation from an old friend the other day that prompted me to research and think about these comparisons. For the vaccinated, COVID may now be similar to a “mere” flu; for the unvaccinated elderly, endemic COVID-19 is still a virulent threat to be taken seriously.

Publicly available data makes all of this very clear. In 2020, 3 million people died from COVID-19. In a usual year, flu kills between 290,000 and 650,000 around the world. No math degree is required to calculate that somewhere in the ballpark of four to 10 times as many deaths occurred in 2020 than we would have expected from “mere” influenza.

The two most commonly prescribed antibody treatments, those made by Eli Lilly and Regeneron, don’t work against the Omicrom variant. Only GlaxoSmithKline’s sotrovimab—the most recently approved monoclonal antibody therapy—offers protection from Omicrom. These therapies cost thousands of dollars per dose (retail of ~$3000-5000 according to this news story, though other sources state that the federal government bought in bulk for $2100 per Regeneron dose and $1250 each for Eli Lily’s) and are administered intravenously, requiring a trained health care professional’s presence for every dose.

*Though the Affordable Care Act has led to a major increase in how many Americans have health insurance at any given time, in 2020, 9.5% had some coverage but also experienced a “gap” in continuous care, whereas another 12.5% remained completely uninsured.

Home education success: elite college acceptance!

For modern, middle class American parents of high school seniors, there can be perhaps no better holiday gift than finding out one’s child has been accepted into the college of his or her choice. Getting the financial aid package one needs to make attendance feasible is often a close second.

My own baby-who-is-now-technically-an-adult received the good news this week. He was accepted Early Decision* to his preferred university. The kid certainly did most of the hard work for this achievement… but, as a home educating parent, I’m going to take at least a small bow for my part.

Together, we took the road less traveled by, and that gamble appears to have paid off. It may not have “made all the difference,” but our unique choices do appear to have impressed the admissions officers in question.

About 3% of U.S. students elected home education over the past decade, except during the pandemic, when the rate jumped to an unprecedented 11.1%. (Source: Census.gov)

According to published statistics from my child’s intended university, just over 11% of applicants were accepted in its previous class. I mention this statistic as a nod to my kid’s hard work and success, but also as vindication of the fact that the typical way is not the only way to get into an eliteschool.

My kid never took an AP course or exam… but he did start attending Community College courses as a high school freshman.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a school district that offers a Dual Enrollment program to its students, your children might earn actual college credits for less than the fee required to take an AP exam that only claims to approximate college level learning for the high school audience.

Why settle for the simulation?

My own selective private college did not grant any credit for students arriving even with the highest AP exam result of five out of five. All I got for that expensive test fee ($96 in 2021) was the ability to replace mandatory Freshman English Composition class with the Literature course of my choice. Total savings: $0. A department placement test could have granted the same privilege for nothing but an hour of my time.

AP classes and exams, like the SAT, are products offered exclusively through the “nonprofit” organization, the College Board.

This Wikipedia article gets at some of what bothers me about the College Board.

I’m all for high standards, but I think that an annual gauntlet of standardized tests actually lowers the level of meaningful engagement for most while offering any given student no educational advantage. Does anyone believe kids today find the standard curriculum particularly relevant or intellectually stimulating? Test takers themselves get nothing for the hours they spend sitting these exams.

I also think a test all but required for university admission should be much less expensiveto everyone, without submitting embarrassing financial aid forms–than the SAT is. Not everyone can spare $55 plus all the extra potential fees one could accrue, but we’re all aware that wealthy families typically pay hundreds if not thousands more for “optional” tutoring, multiple test-taking attempts to increase scores via brute force attack, or to flat-out fraudulently pay a ringer to replace their less able children at the desk on exam day.

No, if a test is going to be mandatory for college admission, it should be offered, at minimum, at every public high school for free, perhaps in place of one of the other annual exams our taxes already pay for.

Beyond the College Board’s offensive effect on students’ schedules and pocketbooks, I’d argue that the directors of an education nonprofit reaching its fingers into the pockets of every college-bound student in the country should earn far less exorbitant compensation. The CEO earns well over $1 million annually. There’s no genius required to squeeze money out of a captive audience desperate for the elevating power of a prestigious degree.A red leatherette University degree folio stacked with a black High School diploma case

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m a huge fan of the move toward test-optional admissions that the pandemic accelerated. My child did choose to submit scores because one of his safety schools requires them specifically for home educated applicants. His efforts earned solid, if not spectacular, results. That was “good enough” because home education for high school allowed for the accumulation of more than thirty actual college credits along the way.

What better evidence that one is well-suited to college level work than a 3.96 GPA… at college?

I’d like to see even more options available rather than definitive “test blind” policies dictating against even considering any test results.

Given my druthers, I would let students select for themselves how to put their best individual feet forward. I appreciate startups like the CLT (Classic Learning Test) seeking to disrupt the status quo though I liked them a lot more when the CLT10 alternative to the PSAT was free for all takers. It now costs $44, and the SAT-equivalent CLT $54, while being of interest to far fewer institutions than the SAT or ACT.

As a rule, I abhor most of what the College Board stands for today as a barrier between those who yearn for an education and college admission. Historically, when the SAT was closer to an IQ test than a Common Core final exam, its limited usefulness was more obvious for students whose schools didn’t offer advanced coursework. I’m happy that we engaged so little with that organization, with an October sitting of the SAT our sole act of acquiescence to their extortionist monopoly.

Perhaps it would be better if individual institutions returned to more unique applications and processes, testing would-be students for themselves on exactly what matters to their program. The Common Application (and its cousin the Coalition Application) may have removed the drudgery of filling in repetitive information across multiple similar forms, but the ease of shotgunning applications has also led to ridiculous bloat in the average number of schools considered by each student.

The average cost to apply to each college in America was $44 apiece in 2020 (arithmetic mean, most likely), but elite schools more often charge around $75, and some institutions expect more than $100 per applicant just for the chance to be rejected! Here’s looking at you, U.C. San Diego & (bafflingly) Arkansas Baptist College.

Kids are applying to more universities because they are afraid they won’t get in to any of the places they’d really like to attend. A return to specialized applications could ease this inanity.

I tend to be somewhat contrarian, if that’s not obvious, and I made that fact clear to my child as decisions were made during his home education journey. “Typical school enrollees do this,” I would point out, “and here’s how I feel about that, but this other position might make you more competitive.”

My opinions did seem to influence my kid, but the application process was his own. We did not supervise or monitor his application. We didn’t even see it§ until he was finished. At that point, he asked both parents to be proofreaders a day or so before the submission deadline.

That’s the way it should be when a child reaches the cusp of adulthood. That was the underlying foundation of every lesson I sought to teach my child via home education. If he had an idea for a way to reach the goals we’d set, it was his right to try that way unless it proved ineffective or inconvenient.

Modern institutional schools are a mere blip in human history, and learning is available to all of us, from far more corners than educational power brokers would lead the masses to believe. Strict policies and procedures tend to be convenient for bureaucrats, not conducive to individual excellence.

My hat is off to my dear child who did the work, made his choices, lived with their consequences, and seems to be reaping the just rewards of all that effort.

If you’re a potential homeschooler or home educating parent reading this while mulling your own options, I encourage you to follow your instincts and do what feels right for your child or yourself if you are the student. That may look “normal,” or it may give the relatives pause. Where the result is a young person gaining skills and internalizing the value of education for its own sake, damn the optics.

My child is one more data point showing there’s more than one way to get admitted to an excellent college in 2021. Your kid could be the next.

Best wishes to the class of ’22, and may all of your dreams–college or otherwise–come true.

*Early Decision, as the name implies, is an application process whereby a student submits materials early to one and only one college, creating a binding agreement to matriculate to the chosen institution if accepted. “Early” means applying by November whereas the usual deadline is January. In exchange, the student knows by mid-December instead of in the spring if s/he’s been accepted.

Early Action is a similar, but non-binding process, for those who’d like earlier decisions without committing to attend a certain school. Often this is to allow for comparing merit-based financial aid packages, which can make or break a deal for middle class kids.

I’ll use the term “elite” because this university ranks within the top 50 domestic schools according to US News & World Reports. For my child’s privacy, I prefer not to make public his choice of institution.

Dual Enrollment, sometimes called Concurrent Enrollment, usually refers to a program wherein high school students take college courses and earn simultaneous credit toward a secondary school diploma and future university studies. Wikipedia offers a more detailed description, but these programs vary widely in availability and cost between states or even by local community. For example, our district offered full tuition for one course during a single year of of my child’s high school period. Because the state program funding Dual Enrollment was directed toward communities in need, and our city’s demographics improved at the community level, he was only eligible for free tuition in 9th grade. Since then, we paid out of pocket for higher education classes, mostly at our affordable local community college.These costs were significantly lower than private high school tuition would have been.

§As a home schooling parent, it was my responsibility to prepare a letter in place of the usual college admissions counselor recommendation, but I logged on to the application through a separate portal unique to educators. I could only see what the student applicant would normally show a counselor.

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