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

Hand-embroidered linens: a celebration of the unique gifts of mothers

I’ve got something you don’t have!

I say this gleefully, hand to mouth to hide my smile. But my treasure isn’t valuable in a monetary sense. Instead, I’m celebrating the absolutely unique nature of a collection of linens—primarily kitchen and tea towels—that my mother just sent. Most of them were hand-embroidered by the grandmother I never knew.

 

Linen hand towel wreath

Genuine linen. Not even ironed! In the guest bath!

My maternal grandmother died when I was a baby. I met her, but I was too young to be aware of it. I’ve always hoped that she was glad to meet me—her first grandchild—before she passed away.

My mother has pack-rat tendencies, though her house is immaculate and very well organized. She has more bedding than she could wear out in a lifetime. She keeps everything, just in case she needs it someday. While her attempts, thus far, at “down sizing” strike me as beginning the process of moving a mountain by picking up a pair of tweezers, she is taking steps to clarify things family members might want “someday” and she has gone so far as to gift items even she admits she’s unlikely to use. Grandmother’s linens fall into this category and arrived UPS in a medium size box.

Mom’s perfectionism meant a certain lack of freedom of expression during my childhood. I was involved in the decision to buy coordinating bedding sets for my bedroom, say, but under no circumstances could I have used pillow covers atop my bed that didn’t match the theme exactly. Some of Mom’s standards are pretty rigid. We did get to enjoy hiding our preferred, sometimes whimsical sheets out of sight beneath the spread. I used a particular set of Sesame Street sheets right up through my college dorm.

Other favorites of mine, once I was old enough to pick them out on sheet-changing day and tall enough to see them tucked away in the least used corner of the linen closet, were an array of delicately embroidered white cotton pillowcases that didn’t have matching sheets. Mom would let me use them with plain white sheets, which were close enough. (Sigh). My grandmother embroidered some of these, and some of them were wedding gifts to my grandmother from women she had known growing up. They were deemed too nice to use, I think, and so they waited in one closet, and then another.

I loved them, and I wheedled, and I used them. My mother didn’t mind too much. She did complain that they required more ironing than her preferred poly-cotton blends, but no bed sheet ever makes it into service without pressing in her house. No-iron means “easier to iron” in Mom’s lexicon. For all her compulsions, my loving mother has always tried to make her children happy, though she might grumble about some of what that takes.

As a teen, I dyed my hair the occasional interesting color, and I wore it black off and on. I ruined my very favorite embroidered pillowcase by sleeping on it one night after a dye job. I was really sad. Mom was somewhat cross. Then, we both got over it. I learned two lessons that day: first, to be more careful with wet hair that’s been dyed black, but, more importantly, that those wonderful things we want to save for a more important day are still better used and enjoyed than kept “safe” in a pristine prison. If we won’t use them, why have them?

Which brings me back to my new, old tea towels. Mom didn’t use those because they didn’t match her kitchen. Mom’s towels always match her kitchen, including the adjusted color schemes of her seasonal décor. Also, some of them have spots. Or stains. They aren’t perfect enough for my mother’s kitchen.

But I think she kept them all these years because they remind her of her mother.

Tea towels days of week

Racist embroidery depicts a stereotypical Chinese servant. It also likely reflects attitudes during my grandmother’s upbringing in early 20th c. California.

They must bring back memories of all the tuna-and-egg salad sandwiches made for a little girl’s lunch by loving hands. Perhaps even the stains convey nostalgia for a woman, my mother tells me, who was not a perfectionist, and shook her head over a little girl growing up already rigidly wedded to the notion of perfect matching sets and an immaculately made bed. I seem to be a little bit more like my grandmother, in this respect.

So I unpacked the box and unfolded towel after towel, napkin after tablecloth. They don’t match my kitchen. Some of them have stains. Their delicate embroidery may not hold up to my take-no-prisoners approach to washing kitchen towels.

I use them every day. I cherish every singular stitch. And every time I dry my hands, I think about the grandmother I never knew, and I’m grateful for the mother that I have.