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

Larry Levine’s Meats & Deli saves our pandemic Passover with Seder in a Box

If it weren’t for the generosity of local Jewish charities and businesses like Larry Levine’s Meats & Deli of Peabody, Massachusetts, my family would not have had a proper Passover seder this year.

Larry Levine Kosher Meat Market & Deli contact info

Yes, I, too, was googling “how to make matza at home”… but I don’t keep any wheat flour in the house since we cut gluten out of our younger son’s diet due to his autoimmune disease and a relative’s diagnosis with celiac. Things were about to get really artsy-crafty around here. Oh, yes, and I was a nutcase!

On Tuesday, April 7th, I left my house for a public space other than the park/a sidewalk for the first time since March 12, 2020. I went out to pick up a “Seder in a Box” kit at Larry Levine’s kosher deli.

Seder in a Box Larry Levine 2020 pandemic letterOur “Seder in a Box” was organized by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies group out of Boston. I’ve received email from CJP and other local/regional Jewish organizations for years as our family has gratefully enjoyed programs like PJ Library which offers amazing, free monthly Jewish books for kids of Jewish and interfaith heritage.

In case you are wondering, a “Seder in a Box” includes all the elements that need to be represented on a seder plate, a box of matzah, and a small bottle of Kedem grape juice. You’ll still need to prepare the “festive meal” to go along with the kit to make a full and proper Passover seder.

seder plate with bitter herbs, charoset, shank bone, etc.More properly described as a “seder in a paper bag,” the package had everything one needs for the seder plate plus approximately enough grape juice (8 oz.) for a skimpy* solo seder.

crystal goblet filled with wine on silver salverHere’s Elijah’s cup on our table. Poor Elijah, like me, had to make do with mostly grape juice this year.

Manischewitz kosher wine bottle, mostly empty, on silver salver

Luckily, I had a bit of Manischewitz sweet kosher wine in the house and one 32 oz bottle of organic concord grape juice to supplement. The one full box of matzah included in our kit was sufficient for our family of six to celebrate a Passover seder, though I rationed matzah in a way I’ve never done before.

My hope is that each of us can eat at least a bit of the matzah we received in our Seder in a Box every day throughout the eight days of the Passover holiday to fulfill the commandment to eat unleavened bread. Luckily, I feel confident that God will understand if we fall short of orthodox religious interpretation this year amidst pandemic and societal chaos.

I’m not sure if a financially comfortable family like ours is the most deserving recipient of any beneficence, but I clicked through and requested a Seder in a Box immediately when I got the email offer from CJP. I would not have gone into a grocery store for these items; not at this time, not this year. My family would not have continued our tradition of celebrating this very important Jewish holiday in the traditional fashion if we hadn’t had access to this gift.

Here’s what I know: I can’t get a grocery delivery slot from anyone these days, and I am unwilling to visit stores in person while I have ample calories available in my house. The health of my family—especially my septuagenarian in-laws downstairs—demands that I sacrifice all trivial wants at this time.

Passover, to me, isn’t really a trivial pursuit. To be fair, I wouldn’t risk the lives of anyone in my household to honor the holiday, but I will certainly go outside my comfort zone to do my very best to host a meaningful seder.

This year, the Seder in a Box was a lifeline for observing Jewish traditions that date back for millennia. I’m so grateful for what I received, and I hope the people at CJP and Larry Levine’s are aware of how meaningful their gift was to me and my inter-generational household.

* Strict interpretation of Jewish law says we should pour each of the four required cups of wine for a seder into a cup that holds 3.5 oz, and each of us should drink at least ~50 cc per cup. 4 cups x 50 cc = 200 cc = ~7 fluid oz per person.

Note: if you need to drink grape juice instead of wine for health reasons, that is totally okay! If you’re diabetic, I’m less certain. Maybe Passover will kill you unless you’ve got some insulin to inject?