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

Hot water bottles to warm up 2020’s chilly COVID socializing & studies

It’s 2020, autumn, and the pandemic did not miraculously resolve after the election. For those of us who believe in science and value the health of others, the only safe way to socialize these days is to take our meetings outdoors.

Red autumn plant by fence - 1I suffer more from the cold since developing an autoimmune disease, but November in New England isn’t traditionally known for sedentary al fresco activities. Even hale and hearty young people become uncomfortable sitting still as the mercury drops much below room* temperature.

Snow sprinkled evergreen trees in autumnAnd, of course, we got weather like this in October!

The first step to staying comfortable outdoors is wearing appropriate clothing. It is always wise to bring at least one layer more than one thinks is necessary for extended jaunts on cool days. Wear a cap, and bring your gloves, too, of course. But if the sun sets, or the temperature drops below 60º F or so, the amount of clothing required—or the need for expensive, highly specialized gear in which you may not wish to invest—can become burdensome.

teal softshell rain

Why I use hot water bottles at home and outdoors

I send my child to outdoor classes—and welcome visitors to our yard for socially distanced visits—with a cheap, simple, classic, soothingly warm hot water bottle. Adding a source of radiating heat beneath a blanket or tucked into a jacket can add hours of comfort for anyone, and, as a bonus, it also helps ease pain for those of us with arthritis.

Unlike a heating pad, you aren’t tied to an electrical outlet with a hot water bottle. And, while I also use microwaveable “warm bags” —which I’ve heard friends call “rice sacks,” “heat pillows,” and also “heating pads”— the grain filled type weigh just as much, yet cool down relatively quickly compared with the long sustained warmth of water with its very high specific heat capacity.

Red rubber hot water bottle on bed

My history with hot water bottles

Before I married my husband, I’d never even seen a hot water bottle in real life. I knew what they were from old novels and cartoons, but hadn’t noticed they were still sold in stores.

Quaint and old-fashioned hot water bottles may be, but I’ve become a convert. I’ve found them readily available in major chains and tiny Main Street Mom & Pop drug stores across America. Ask the pharmacist—or the oldest person on staff—at your local shop, and you will probably get what you need.

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Key Straps save my stuff: how Tom Bihn’s bags keep arthritic fumblefingers from ruining my day

In other posts, I’ve referred to the way Tom Bihn bags often make my life better. I want to expand upon that point lest I sound like a mere company shill.

Tom Bihn PCSB and Cafe Bag with Sunday Afternoons hat on hotel desk

Tom Bihn bags and Sunday Afternoons hat

Today I’ll talk about how one “key” feature of this particular brand helps me stay organized and deal with the ongoing issues of a chronic medical condition. I’m talking about removable Key Straps that can be attached to O-rings integral to Tom Bihn bags and many other anchors on luggage or in hotel rooms.Tom Bihn Clear 3D Organizer attached with Key Strap to handicapped rail in hotel bathroom

Key Straps are the “key” feature

I carry a Cafe Bag ($70, size: Medium, color: Original/black Halcyon with Wasabi lining) almost every day, sometimes swapping it out for a Travel Cubelet ($40) or my Packing Cube Shoulder Bag (PCSB, $34) when I travel light. My Cafe Bag is generally fitted out with six separate Key Straps at once, each serving a unique function.

Tom Bihn yellow Key Strap on Cafe BagKey Straps ($5) come in 8-inch and 16-inch lengths, and are currently offered in seven colors. Many of mine are the older style, sewn from folded Dyneema/Halcyon nylon fabric. Newer Key Straps are made of webbing instead. Key Straps come in two varieties: with a snap hook on both ends, or a snap hook on one end with an O-ring on the other.

Additional Tom Bihn accessories that go virtually everywhere with me include:

  • Clear Organizer Wallet ($17) for cash on Wasabi TB Key Strap
  • Coach purple leather card wallet on Steel/grey TB Key Strap
  • Solar/yellow TB Key Strap left empty for… my keys!
  • Pocket Pouch ($10) in Aubergine with Wasabi lining for lip balm attached with its own integrated clip
  • Eagle Creek pouch on Ultraviolet TB Key Strap
  • Aubergine Small Q-Kit ($18) on Iberian/red TB Key Strap for medication
  • Wasabi Mini Q-Kit ($15) on Wasabi TB Key Strap for electronic charging cables and earbuds
  • Clear pouch with red back for paper and longer objects I want to carry, often including a checkbook, a full length emery board (nail file), or a passport

I attach non-Bihn items by various methods. You can see the Key Strap snap hooks attached to a key ring on my card wallet and a fabric loop on my Eagle Creek purple pouch in my detail photos. The integrated O-rings and detachable Key Straps are tiny things that make a tremendous functional difference in my Tom Bihn satchel, but these accessories play very nicely with other brands.

By designing modular pockets, pouches, and parts for the end user to attach or not with separate Key Straps, every bag can be customized precisely for its specific purpose. This works really well for me.

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