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

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.

The ideal souvenir: evocative, a little frivolous, but not useless

Is a souvenir always a mass produced tchotchke made in China, probably being sold by a franchised gift shop sending its profits out of the community?

That’s common today, but it’s not the only form a memento can take.

Should I bring anything tangible home from my travels, or are memories sufficient?

I don’t have to; I don’t always!

Nevertheless, a well-chosen souvenir can whisk me from daily life back to vacation bliss in an instant, for an instant, if it’s something I wear or use.

Bring a piece of your travels home with you

The ideal souvenir for me is very probably different than yours. That’s okay—great, actually! I’m always ready to advocate for people to assess their own needs and wants and try to ignore cultural noise arguing for random consumption without self-reflection.

Know thyself, and consume accordingly.

I’m not a minimalist, however. I admire austere spaces with their stark beauty, but I revel in a home built up with layer after layer of color, texture, and conversation-provoking oddities around every corner.

I do strive to purge what I don’t need or love, but my heart is large and my love knows few bounds. My tolerance for stuff is high, so long as the resultant collection reads “joyful exuberance.”

But I travel often, and usually with my kids.

If you’ve ever been to a store with children, you’ve probably observed their magpie like attraction to anything for sale.

In a kitchen store, they want tongs for squeezing a sibling’s ear from across the room. In a pharmacy, requests roll in for pill boxes with bright colors or a folding cane because… how cool is that? You can pretend to be infirm, and then hit your sibling from even farther across the room!

My kids have lots of nice stuff, but I’m not a parent who regularly gives in to this kind of begging. We don’t impulse buy toys. If we like something, we make a note, go home to consider it, and return to make a purchase. I’m trying to help them ignore the modern siren call of instant gratification.

From their toddlerhood, I’ve made and enforced strict rules about how one behaves in stores. This includes the rule that we will abandon a shopping trip, immediately, if behavior crosses a line that negatively impacts others, no matter how inconvenient to me and my agenda. Asking once is allowed; begging is against the rules.

Still, they will sidle up and ask—usually politely, often bubbling with enthusiasm—at every shopping opportunity. Souvenir shops are places I try to avoid.

Souvenirs for the kids

My approach to family souvenirs is to find something that we can enjoy now (during the trip) and continue to use at home. In Hilton Head, we bought a folding kite to fly on the wind-swept beach. Now, the kite lives in our beach bag.

Travel board games or small toys that meet my usual criteria for quality have been picked up on other vacations. Ideally, it will be something tied in to the location we’re visiting, but sometimes it’s enough to recall a trip when we take out a game to play:

“Remember, we got this on that rainy day in Seattle. We played in the hotel lobby by the fireplace and ordered the pizza with the spicy sauce…”

Even a Lego set or mass produced kit can evoke a special place or time. The Lego Space Needle set was purchased at… Seattle’s landmark building, the Space Needle. A Lego set with a camper was bought, and built, during our stay at a rustic fishing cabin.

More often than I would expect, my kids remember clearly when and where a toy came from. Taking this approach has worked pretty well for me thus far.

It’s not a given that a new toy will show up on a trip, but it isn’t out of the question if a rainy day or a need for quiet time presents itself in combination with a fascinating kit or object.

Souvenirs for myself

If I’m strictly honest, I’ll admit to the occasional toy bought for Mommy, too. We might have picked up another modular building to add to our family Lego display during our recent road trip. It’s entirely possible that I assembled a Parisian Restaurant as soon as the vacation laundry was done.

Lego Parisian Restaurant - 1

Much more often, I’m looking to avoid extra stuff to carry home from a trip. Usually, I acquire an inch or more of paper memories. Brochures, maps, and books are weaknesses I won’t deny. But, unless we’re on a road trip and there’s lots of room to store things in the back, I find shopping bags and bulky souvenirs stressful.

I plan what I carry on a trip. It feels wrong—even dangerous—to add items willy-nilly whilst en route.

My most successful strategy has been to purchase accessories as souvenirs, or, less often, items of clothing. These are things I can wear (i.e., use), and, when I do, I’m reminded of where they came from. It’s like a self-powered generator for joy.

A linen scarf, sewn by a bearded man

linen scarf from Ohio - 1Wear the scarf? Now my neck is warm, my outfit is complete, and my heart recalls a wonderful shop run by two bearded brothers who don’t offer wi-fi but do offer a hand-crafted, multi-level indoor tree fort in the back of their cafe to entertain the kids.

The Well Lancaster OH - 1

Lancaster, Ohio eatery, The Well

The brother with the shorter beard? He made the linen scarf himself. Oh yeah, and they serve a kale salad that my children agreed tasted good!

I think those guys are wizards…

A purple leather bag proudly bearing Roots Canada’s beaver logo

My purple handbag? Made in Canada, near the urban Toronto Roots location where I purchased it. I only own two nice leather bags. I’m not a purse junkie. This one, however, was the perfect dark purple color, just the right size, and had exactly the arrangement of pockets I’d been looking for.

I saw it in the window as I wandered around Toronto’s snazzy shopping district, finding my way to a theatre for a matinee. I paused. I yearned. I went to my show, but came back and entered the shop before returning to my hotel.

It felt like fate. My memory of the acquisition plays in my mind like a slow motion falling-in-love montage from a sappy film.

I’ve never regretted buying this bag.

I don’t shop recreationally in my everyday life, so purchases like these become vivid memories. The tangible results? They’re wearable triggers to enjoy them again.

If I find myself stopping by Target for clean socks while traveling, that’s a failure. I’ll need to plan better next time.

But, coming home with an accessory, or a hand-knit sweater, preferably locally made?

That’s my ideal souvenir.