It’s that time again, when certain things need to be cleaned in preparation for upcoming gatherings. These “things” have special significance as beautiful objects. But for me, they’re really metaphors. What is it, exactly, that needs to be polished?
Both my grandmothers had beautiful silver. The tea pots and creamers, sugar bowls and serving platters were mostly legacy pieces, even then. That means that both families somehow managed to hold onto these treasures through the Great Depression, though whether any pieces spent time hidden in basements or lurking in pawnshops, I’ll never know.
Mamaw, as we called my mother’s mother, was one of several sisters, so I have no doubt she and Granddaddy added to their store, probably beginning with gifts they received on their wedding day in 18__. She kept a spotless home on the farm in Harrisville, West Virginia, a town high atop a winding highway through the mountains. When I stayed with her at ages 3, 4, and 5, I was awakened each morning by the aroma of freshly baking biscuits, and by the time I bounded down the stairs, Mamaw was fully dressed, diamond studs at her ears, starched apron covering her skirt, breakfast well under way. Laundry was done by hand in the cool basement, then pressed through a ringer before being hung to dry on backyard lines. Shelves were filled with jars of her homemade applesauce, which my cousin and I used to raid. The silver was on display in the dining room, and never showed even the tineist spot of tarnish. I remember thinking the giant silver teapot was much too large for my dolls’ teacups.
Grandma Dorothy, my father’s step-mother, became a beloved member of the family after my dad was married and had two small daughters. It wasn’t until I was attending boarding school in the town where she and Daddy Bob (my dad’s step-father) resided, that I really got to know her. Her tray of silver treasures gleamed from the magagony sideboard in her small but elegantly appointed living room. By now, I was curious how she kept it so shiny, and she took me right to the special under-sink cupboard where she kept her polish, showing me the pink paste with the sweet smell, and the special soft cloths used to apply the goop, then rub it off, and how miraculously it left behind the perfect shine.
Mother inherited some pieces from each of these grand women, who knew their daughter/ daughter-in-law would care for them well. Not only did Mom care for the pieces just as carefully as her elders had; she used them regularly. Not a believer in “saving the good stuff,” Mom used her sterling flatware, her best china, and her silver for special parties, but also for every day use. “No one is more important than your own husband,” she would say, while scooping something delicious onto a plate for our dad. “Remember that, girls.”
These days, I have special cupboards where the silver pieces I inherited stay. Honestly, I don’t get them out every evening to pour my husband’s coffee. But I do get them out for many special occasions. I’ve created special storage in every available nook and cranny for precious inheritances. The holidays are almost upon us now, and the cupboard doors are flung wide to reveal the treasures, clad in their cloth and plastic. As the wraps come off and the silver gets lined up by the sink, the rubber gloves go one and the polishing ritual begins.
I enjoy the work as a meditation of gratitude—which often begins around Thanksgiving week. It’s a reminder that our gifts—and talents—need to be polished so they shine brightly enough to be shared.
We’ll have a gleaming table through the holidays this year. And every moment spent preparing is worth every moment spent sharing these treasures with friends and family who admire the craftsmanship and the legacy. For the little ones, the table just looks “fancy” and they’re not sure why. But years from now they’ll remember the shine. And someday, they’ll be polishing the silver.