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

When is a box really a coffer?

My father-in-law is a gentleman of the Old World whose interest in art often takes him to local auctions. For himself, he attends auctions in search of under-valued original works of art. But, when he finds a good deal on housewares that are antique, delightful, and a bit too fancy for his own table, he often thinks of me.

Yay!Silver box etched with floral ang geometric patterns

He gave me this silver plated box a few years ago.

Maker's mark indicating James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield, EPBM 1155My fairly brief investigation into the hallmark engraved on the bottom gives me the impression that this box is not too fancy, and not so valuable. It is electroplated silver over base metal, made by James Dixon & Sons, of Sheffield, England.

Regardless, I find it quite fetching.

2 lit tapers on wooden table next to open silver chest containing beeswax candlesI immediately put my little silver box to good use. I store my Shabbat candles inside.

There is a notion in Judaism of Hiddur Mitzvah, whereby the act of beautifying a ritual enhances its spiritual significance. I find myself in complete agreement with this idea: to engage all of the senses in worship seems, to me, an obvious acknowledgement of the beneficence of the ultimate Creator.

One day, during the pandemic, I asked my child to fetch the coffer so I could put out the Shabbos candles. This led to the sort of inane conversation with which all parents are likely familiar.

“Please bring the silver coffer out of the cupboard, my darling,” says Mother, “so that I can get the candles for Shabbat.”

“The what?” asks Punk Kid #2.

“There is a shiny silver box inside the Kitchen Queen in the dining room,” replies Mother, still beaming with the sabbath peace. “The candles are inside.”

“What’s a Kitchen Queen?” responds Punk Kid #2.

“The Kitchen Queen is the antique wooden cabinet in the dining room that came from my grandmother, of course,” says Mother, rapidly losing her cool.

“Some people would call it a Hoosier Cabinet,” I offer as the steam billows out of my ears, my dear child looking on, taking no action, drooling, and perhaps going a bit cross-eyed…

Shalom bayit recedes into some future Shabbat during which I fail completely to engage with my own children and therefore achieve inner peace…

We could go on at some length describing how not one, but two, intelligent children failed to find a quite visibly special box containing the ritually important candles used to usher in the day of rest in a Jewish home, but, well, what value is there in teasing my kids?

I found it fascinating how definitely I defined my silver box as a coffer, and how my younger child immediately latched on to his own mental definition when I asked for one.

He was looking for a “box full of gold,” by the way, which is not a ridiculous notion for what a coffer might be.

Dictionary defining coffer as a chest or strongboxMy little box—it is about 6″ tall and 6.5 × 8.5″ at the base—may not be as imposing as a medieval lord’s strongbox. The lion heads at the sides, however, imbue a certain gravitas. Their noble expressions may be my very favorite part of the box!Lion head holding ring handle on side of silver box

Candles were a scarce, valuable resource in the not-so-distant past, needing protection from nibbling* by mice or rats. It’s not ridiculous to guard them with the mightiest of cats. They deserve to reside in a finely decorated coffer.

Though my children had managed, somehow, to not even notice my box’s presence, it has become an integral part of my celebration of the weekly joy that is Shabbat.

The idea of a holiday, every seven days, given to us to break up the monotony of a lifetime of work? I find the very notion miraculous. I’m eternally grateful for it.

During a pandemic, the relief of such a holiday is even more wonderful. Where one day piles up upon the next in a potentially never-ending heap, a simple break is a gift in a web of byzantine complexity!

Jewish menorah and hanukkiah candelabrae

Coming up soon, of course, for some of us, is another very light-specific and candle-involved holiday: Hanukkah. My photo here shows a Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, next to a standard Jewish menorah with only seven branches.

While the pandemic pounds the normalcy out of so many of our experiences in 2020, it has little influence on the celebration of a small band of guerilla fighters against the greatest army in the world during the second century BCE.

When I take a candle from my coffer to kindle against the darkness on 25 Kislev (10 December, 2020), I will commemorate and publicize a miracle. I will battle darkness with my own small light. I am good, and I will defeat that which is wicked.

May humanity deal COVID-19 a similarly devastating blow in 2021, offering us a future of uncovered faces and robust health for the multitudes.

EPBM stands for “Electro-Plated Britannia Metal,” which is a cheaper version of the electroplated nickel silver that was, itself, a cheaper imitation of sterling silver goods.

*Remember that early candles were made of tallow, or beef fat. For a rodent, that stuff is like caviar or manna from heaven.