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

Mail a greeting card in 2020 to uplift lonely holidays

Even if you don’t usually send Christmas cards or other holiday greetings, this year might deserve to be an exception. So many people are lonely and missing far-flung families due to the pandemic; getting a hand-written note in the mail may be the most human connection in a person’s day. That is well worth 55 ¢ in postage and a few minutes of your time.

greeting cards on desk blotter with pen and stampsI send cards sometimes; other years, I don’t get around to it.

I have written Hanukkah greetings, Christmas cards, acknowledgements of the Winter Solstice, and best wishes for happy New Years. I send the message I think the recipient would most appreciate; my religion* in no way dictates the blessing I offer a friend of a different persuasion.

My family hung the same red felt banners on the entry hall wall every year of my life. They went up early in December, empty canvasses, ready to receive holiday missives as they arrived. The oldest was made by my mother’s mother and features pockets and a waving Santa at the top; Mom had to craft another when I was little to accommodate the deluge of communiques that her sociability and dedication to friendship and public service inspired. Cards were pinned or stapled to that display.

In 2019, my mother died.

Somehow, that year also saw a huge reduction in the number of Christmas cards my widowed father received. In years past, every inch of these many yards of felt was hidden by the volume of cards and letters; last year, only one banner ended up even partially covered.

Torn black felt heart pinned to garment to signify grief and k'riah

I don’t believe that people were intentionally ignoring my dad in the absence of Mom, though her enthusiasm** for Christmas did put that of other, mere mortals to shame. I received fewer cards last year, too. The dentist and the auto body shop we used only once historically sent pre-printed cards, untouched by even a secretary’s hand. A lot of that has stopped. I suppose it’s a sign of the growing reliance on electronic communication, and I don’t miss impersonal mailings from businesses too much.

Dad’s passing comment about getting so few cards, however, was like a punch in the gut to me. It was already such a hard year for him; I grieved again to see him feeling forgotten. What a dreadful time for the world to decide to save a tree and skip a mailed paper greeting!

I’m going to be sending at least a few cards this year, myself. I’m prioritizing older relatives, and those who live alone. Even if you never send cards, hate to write, or don’t celebrate any of the winter holidays, this may be a year to reach out in the spirit of warmth, light, and joy—just because.

There’s no real deadline, either, in case you’re worried about the already overburdened postal system. Send Warm Winter Wishes in January, if that feels more appropriate. After the happiest of holidays, that month can be a real let-down. After a grim, lonely season you believe should have been festive? January could be gruesome.

Our shared humanity is reason enough. Care for others is the animating gift of all societies. Winter is dark and feels too long in the good years; 2020 has not been a particularly good year for most. Pandemic winter is an enemy to us all, but a terrorizing monster to the isolated and the lonely.

Reach out, if you’ve got a few minutes, an envelope, a stamp. You’ll be making the world just that little bit better for someone else. I’m willing to bet it will brighten your day, too.

I might even argue that the very definition of faith makes the fear of someone else’s difference a rather fundamental failing of it…

** Mom liked to say that Christmas was the reason the rest of the year exists. She called herself Mother Christmas, and Dad had a song commissioned for her about that by a talented musician friend. My parents’ over-the-top outdoor decorations were so spectacular, their house was featured in a television public service announcement in the 1990’s. Mom had a unique holiday outfit for every day between Thanksgiving and Epiphany, reckoning the arrival of the Wise Men was the true end of the Christmas season.

I wouldn’t turn back the clock to more paper spam either. This is not an argument that we return to physical documents for conducting most business.

That said, I do notice, enjoy, and appreciate the personalized greetings sent by some institutions, such as my son’s school and my former personal trainer who takes the time to hand write all of his cards.

American Patriots must demand Legislators defend US law

A patriot is “one who loves and supports his or her country.”*

Merriam Webster dictionary definition of patriot from websiteI am a patriot.

Theoretically, elected officials in any reasonable incarnation of a democratic society should also be patriots. Of course, we know that self-serving, would-be autocrats abound in the halls of power. Human nature draws the worst—as well as the best—of us there. However, the U.S. Constitution was written as a curb against despotism.

Text of the Constitution of the United States in history bookYou cannot love America while wiping your nose with its foundational documents.

Two weeks after a nationwide election certified by our courts and by our own chosen election officials, only 17 out of 253 elected Republican lawmakers—6.7%—had publicly acknowledged that Biden defeated Trump in his bid for President of the United States. That leaves 93.3% of them derelict in their duties, openly flouting the oath each person swore as Senator or Representative to the 116th Congress: to support and defend the Constitution.

That’s not just a failure of bi-partisan politics worthy of personal shame, it’s the first step towards treason.*

Merriam Webster dictionary definition of treason from websiteTwo thirds of Americans voted in 2020; that’s a level of turnout that hasn’t been seen in over a century. At least 160 million members of the electorate are paying attention. Casting a ballot is important, but our work as citizens is not done.

I voted Election sticker - 1If you live in a district with a recalcitrant elected official, speak up as a constituent and demand that s/he acknowledge the will of the people. Take note of who’s doing his or her job, and whose back remains turned to what can be credibly described as an attempted coup by a blessedly incompetent strongman.

Fair-minded, law-abiding people must speak out now for what is right. In our silence, liars, cheaters, and extremists try to pervert American ideals, sullying our name. Moderates must now make themselves heard.

I respect honest disagreements, but I will never bow to tyranny.*

I acknowledge the will of the people.

I champion the rule of law.

I am a patriot.

Are you?

* Definitions from Merriam-Webster: patriot, treason, tyranny.

In 26 states, the ultimate person in authority over elections is him-/herself elected. Other states have an appointee in charge. A total of 33 states have elected individuals directly involved in oversight of their elections, sometimes via a board sharing responsibility with an appointed chief. In most others, the elected legislature or governor appoints someone to the position(s). Here’s a great resource for understanding regional election management differences across America. I learned a lot from it.

The gist of it all, however, is that the people in charge of our elections are themselves a product of our representative system; this is the way a constitutional federal republic is supposed to work.

Wish You Were Here in a You Are Here demitasse

Starbucks packaging describes this little demitasse cup as an ornament, but it is food- and dishwasher- safe in addition to being tiny and adorable. Starbucks wish you were here ornament demitasse - 1

Part of the You Are Here collection, the box is dated 2016. It was a gift from my mom a few years ago, from one of her last Christmases.

Mom died in July 2019.

Being something of a sentimentalist, a pack rat, and terrible at imposing order on objects in general, I’d stuck the Starbucks ornament in the back of a kitchen cupboard that includes coffee stuff I use only for parties.

Unlike my mother, I never developed a proper holiday stashing system, nor do I tend to decorate seasonally. Unless we consider the accumulation of Amazon shipping boxes on the landing before a gift-giving holiday a form of décor?

For my autumnal birthday this year, my dear husband finally gave in to enabling my caffeine addiction and bought me an espresso machine of my very own. Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t enjoyed my favorite beverage since March 12.

Starbucks wish you were here ornament demitasse - 3That’s more than six months without tasting espresso!

A week or two later, I happened upon my You Are Here Oregon demitasse while putting away my thermal cooker. Since then, I’ve enjoyed my daily espresso or two—okay, yes, now that the machine is in my home, I’m drinking three single shots per day!—from Mom’s gift.

A year and a third since her death, that only brings me to tears once or twice a week.

Starbucks wish you were here ornament demitasse - 4Mom loved Starbucks, though my own espresso preferences are a bit more locally roasted and single origin.

Mom knew how much I miss the state of my birth, and the part of the United States that I still, deep down, consider Home.

Mom would’ve noticed this cup boasts lots of my favorite color.

Of course, to Mom, it was an ornament. To me, it’s a cup. We saw a lot of things differently, but, luckily, mostly we saw eye to eye on the things that really matter.

I can’t bring myself to recycle the little box where Mom hastily scratched through the price tag. She gave so many gifts, just wrapping them was a herculean task. She had to work fast to get it all done. Mom was a perky little dynamo. A half-obscured price tag feels like another spider silk thread from the ghost of her hand to mine when I hold it.

The collection is called You Are Here, but, for me, it’s a Wish You Were Here cup.

Real world Valentines, or, “There’s something weird on the toilet”

My husband always remembers to buy me flowers.

I lead with this fact because I’m well aware that not all spouses are as:

  1. generous with their displays of affection, and
  2. organized with their time

as my not-quite-perfect-yet-perfect-for-me husband. In a world where partner-bashing could be a professional sport, I like to clear a space to express my inter-personal gratitude and all the ways that our relationship makes my life better.

Here’s hoping I’m half as well appreciated by him! I’m also quite definitely imperfect, after all.

But this isn’t going to be a post about my “perfect” husband’s grand romantic gestures for Valentine’s Day. Instead, I’m moved to write about the imperfect intersection of family life, daily reality, and romance. Odd bedfellows, indeed!

I’ve told my husband about a million times that he doesn’t have to battle the crowds of beleaguered husbands to buy day-of flowers for me on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, or any other Day When Good Men Buy Gifts. I do emphatically! enjoy being acknowledged, but I’m quite happy to let dates slip by a day or two in order to avoid crowds and gross inconvenience for my partner or myself.

I’d rather eat in on a holiday to avoid dining elbow-to-elbow in a packed room at the “correct” time for celebration. Along the same lines, I’m happy to receive my flowers on another day.

And yet, DH—being a gentleman with old-fashioned manners—showed up last Friday with a large bouquet of red roses for me. Yes: his mother is suitably proud.

I was having a rough day as far as my ongoing health issues go, so I decided to forego a heavy crystal vase in favor of anything I could lift.

Dozen red roses in yellow ceramic pitcher on windowsillMy favorite vessel for cut flowers is actually a little dijon yellow ceramic pitcher. I thought the red roses looked quite fetching in it, and the arrangement matched my outfit, too.

DH’s largess, however, meant I still had quite an array of blooms left for which homes wanted finding. It crossed my mind that a bud vase next to my desk would be a nice reminder of how much I’m loved while I work on the bane of every first quarter of the new year, our income tax returns.

3 red roses in a short, tulip-shaped bus vase of purple glass

A slim glass vase held only a few more stems, though, so I wasn’t done re-homing flora.

In keeping with the lower-center-of-gravity-means-less-knocking-over-by-arthritic-hands philosophy of the day, I remembered my tiniest crystal vase. It’s good and heavy for its size, but also quite stable. I was having that kind of day. Arthritis makes me a klutz.

Half a dozen red roses in a small crystal vase

I placed the final half dozen or so roses and went about my business.

Valentine’s Day fell on a school day this year, and, eventually, my younger son arrived home. Upon entering the powder room after dropping his lunch box in the kitchen, he yelled,

Hey, there’s something weird on the toilet!”

Yes, dear readers, I’d placed the final little vase in one of the few uncluttered spaces in my maximalist home: atop the toilet tank lid in the guest bath.

I suppose “something weird on the toilet” is better than “something rotten in the state of Denmark,” at least as far as home decoration goes.

Small crystal vase of red roses atop white ceramic toilet tank

Here’s what Instagram stories rarely feature: we all live imperfect lives. Many families have messy homes. We certainly do. Yes, even on holidays.

Maybe especially on holidays!

Loving partnerships thrive in cluttered suburban McMansions, Korean banjiha, dilapidated farmhouses, and also I’d expect in zen-like modern interiors kept up by teams of professional cleaners as seen on tv.

Here’s the long view of my other vessels full of horticultural affection.

The kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes, but our hearts are full of love!

I fussed for about five seconds trying to take a “pretty” picture of my Valentine flowers, but if I’d had the energy to get the dishes done and work on the taxes, it already would have happened.

It’s easy for me to get caught up in foolish self-inflicted punishments.

  • I can’t buy that bouquet today because they will look dumb on my cluttered dining table.
  • There’s no point replacing my tattered towels when the kids keep staining the good ones.

Lipstick on a pig!

You can follow that path to all sorts of dreadful places, like not buying flattering clothing that fits for want of losing weight. It’s silly, it’s harmful, and I try not to live like that.

My Valentine flowers are a loving gesture from a person who actually strives to make me happy every single day. That’s well worth celebrating in and of itself! Seen in that light, it would be downright shameful of me not to share my imperfect photos with the world with the celebration and joy that selfless love deserves.

On Valentine’s Day, I didn’t feel in wonderful health and my house was a mess, but I had the good fortune to spend the day with people I love and who love me back. It’s lovely; it’s enough. I wish everyone felt free to bask in such glorious imperfection.

And a skeptic as to my sincerity when I protest obligatory flowers, even 20+ years into our relationship!