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Polishing the Silver

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Monday, February 22, 2021


I've been thinking about many aspects of that Barbara Stegemann book, The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, which I was blogging about as we drove halfway across Canada and hunkered down during a snow storm.

And in particular I've been thinking about her idea of asking ourselves what we gained from every relationship in our lives: even the difficult ones.

Since 1997, I've had all my mother's crystal stemware and bone china and her silver plate too. That was the year she and my father died, within 24 hours of each other.

And I've also had her corner cupboard, in which to store all those things. It was in a corner of my old Ontario house. I've never used any of it. Not once. In all of that time. And when we were moving to PEI, I really thought that I wanted to sell it or give it away and not move it with us.

But: that didn't work out. During a pandemic, it wasn't possible to divest myself of a lot of stuff unless I was prepared to put it into a dumpster -- which we did, with about 3 large dumpster loads of stuff. However, I couldn't put my mum's china and crystal and silver into a dumpster. So: we paid for the movers to pack the crystal and china and we brought it all with us.

When they were unloading the van and we were sitting in the car at the curb to comply with pandemic restrictions (we could not be in the house), the movers were somewhat argumentative about the location of a number of items. And absolutely insisted that the corner cupboard would not fit into the corner in the dining room that I'd stipulated. They said it would cover a light switch. Well, I'd never been in the house . . . but nevertheless I just stuck to my instructions on that one. And it did fit. And it doesn't cover the light switch.

Within a day, I'd unpacked it all: the crystal, the silver, the china. I used the small bracket stands I'd bought to elevate individual plates and I centred the teapot for display. I stowed the silver in the drawers, each piece slotted into the flannelette tarnish-resistant rolls.

Tarnish resistant? Well, not so effective, after 24 years. And so I decided yesterday -- a gloriously sunny day, with light streaming in the windows, and several breaks for long dog walks with Henry -- to polish my mum's silver.

A job I'd often been assigned as a kid, using silver polish. A job which I'd always hated: smelly, leaving my hands covered in grey grunge. My work never quite good enough --- "You'd better redo the forks and pay more attention to the tips of the tines!!" Oh yeah. I HAD silver polish of course -- had had silver polish for all of those 24 years. But: instead I decided to use an aluminum foil and baking soda method I'd read about . . . .


Incredible!! Another version of the "recipe" recommended adding a bit of white vinegar and I tried that on the most heavily tarnished pieces.

And just a little of the silver polish on the very worst bits.

All mum's silver is now brightly shining, including the tips of the tines. It's slotted back into its flannelette rolls and stored in the corner cabinet drawer.

So many memories as I worked. How my mum had collected the china and the crystal and the silver, piece by piece, over many years: for birthday and Mother's Day and Christmas gifts: the teapot, one Christmas, her crowning glory. The very words, "Spode, Fleur de lys" signified sophistication and glamour. The grey version, of course . . . so elegant!! Acquiring the corner cabinet to display it all having also mattered very much to my mother. Who was the tenth child of a disabled railway signalman in northern Ontario where money was always sparse and the niceties of life pretty much entirely absent . . . .

None of these accoutrements of gracious living were used to entertain: my parents almost never had guests and my mother was reluctant even to have family -- her sisters or brothers, my father's sister -- come to visit. Although of course she could not refuse. Apparently her father had made fun of her putting flowers and candles on the table when he visited the young couple in their first home . . . long before she got her precious china and silver and crystal . . . and she never forgot that. Pretentious? Attempting to rise above her station?

So: mostly used for family dinners. And the tension!! The fear of dropping a piece and breaking it!!

Her fury when my dad's sister decided to buy the same silver pattern (Lady Hamilton! quite aristocratic!!). But she bought hers it all at once, including some of the most expensive serving pieces!! My aunt was an English teacher, two university degrees, head of her high school department, single -- glorying in the career and the intellectual stimulation and all the opportunities for travel my own mother (a public school teacher before marriage, teacher's college only) would have loved, and quite bitterly regretted. And yes, I've got my aunt's silver too and polished it at the same time as my mum's.

All of it has survived intact. Some of the platinum bands (platinum!!) on the crystal pieces have oxidized and faded over time: my mother would be so sad about that. But only one tea cup had lost its handle back when I acquired it, and I mended that a few years ago invisibly with some of that Sugru moldable glue: did a terrific job too!! You would not be able to pick out which one was repaired.

Now I'm very glad to have my mum's crystal and china and silver, brightly shining and stowed away, in her corner cabinet.

And very glad indeed that thanks to my mother, when I was invited to dinner parties in later life I knew which fork to use when . . . something I most definitely gained from a difficult relationship.

But the biggest takeaway? My mum always had flowers on the table . . . always. They were free from the garden in summer, often dried in winter, or a potted plant . . . although in later years she had a standing order with the local florist. She genuinely loved them. And so do I. That first day while we were unpacking, the children across the street from our new house had looked into our dining room window and remarked to their parents . . . they've got tulips on the table already!!

Sent, of course, by my sister.

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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I have my mom’s silver pattern, and I do use it. It makes me think of her. She and my mother-in-law loved to use their pretty things.
    5 days ago
    My mom has allllll her china, crystal and silver ... which we used twice a year ... Thanksgiving and Christmas. Once my Dad passed 30+ years ago ... it hasn't been out of the cabinet.

    Makes me sad.
    6 days ago
    Hard to read about a father putting a daughter down for liking simple pretty things. So glad you found the easy way to polish silver. We had only a couple of things while I was growing up but it was always fun to watch when they went in the cake pan with the magic powder (soda)!
    7 days ago
  • THINCPL2004
    Awesome story
    7 days ago
    Great story
    7 days ago
    I am not sure what I will do with everything I inherited! My Mom is 90 and the house will be mine (with everything in it) when she passes. I also inherited stuff from my Grandma and my Great Aunt. I have a lot of cups, saucers and matching plates. It's a lot of stuff that we never use.

    Thank you for the beautiful memories! I love your story telling.
    8 days ago
    My mom is still using her china, crystal, and silver. I have my own, but will inherit her crystal and silver - my brother asked for the china and since he so rarely asks for anything, she agreed. I use it because it was made to be used, not just to be looked at in a cabinet.
    8 days ago
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    8 days ago
    Marvelous! I have such treasures, too, and rarely use them. Will try your silver cleaning method. Will try.
    8 days ago
  • no profile photo RACHNACH
    8 days ago
  • no profile photo GRAMPIAN
    Must try the baking soda method for my forks. emoticon
    8 days ago
    Your blog reminds me of my mom's expensive china sitting in my china cabinet. My sister uses hers for holidays but I don't use mine as my home has tile floors and I am so afraid of dropping it. It is fancier than my daughter prefer so they don't want it, It is valuable to me, but although they knew and loved my mom, they are not sentimental about her china. It is too valuable to throw and you can't sell it. So I keep cherishing it and after I am gone I won't have to worry about it. I do cherish the memories it brings,
    8 days ago
  • UPTOIT59
    When we were married in the early 80's I chose not to receive china as gifts - I knew I would never use it. I have regretted it at times- but I remember the huge china cabinet in my house growing up and polishing silver and all that entailed. As lovely as it is, to me it is a burden. I don't entertain and the fear ofpretentiousness isn't part of it - it just is too much for me to consider. emoticon
    8 days ago
  • RHOOK20047
    Isn't it funny how we all have china, crystal and silver? I remember when Margaret's mother insisted that we had to have it. "You never know who you will be entertaining and will need it", she would say. I would always say that we were a melmac type of folks, or Corelle which is what we normally use day-to-day. Margaret takes the stuff out, during spring cleaning. Last Easter we hada couple over for Easter dinner and I talked her into using it. So that we could say it was used once! The table looked beautiful. And I like your mum loved fresh flowers and candles on the table. ( No I didn't use the candleabra that we have) Our guest thought it was beautiful. But it will probably sit until on of our sons say they want it. It is bavarian China - rose pattern, with gold edging, I forget what the Crystal stemware is, but we have all 80 pieces, and same with the silver. You can't expect a guy to know the names of this stuff. Thanks for sharing you blog as it brought warm memories back for me as well.
    8 days ago
    Beautiful story
    8 days ago
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    8 days ago
  • DESIREE672
    It took me down memory lane, too. We were visiting friends of my parents in France. They spent a large part of dinner talking about the precious crystal jug they had got as a wedding present, how rare and valuable it was. I was in my teens. I tried to pass the water jug to someone. My hands shook. I dropped it on the floor. It smashed.

    My father had abusive parents and was severely punished if he broke anything, so In reaction, he was always very kind if I or my brother accidentally broke something. We spent days trudging all over Paris trying to find a similar jug to replace it. Very hard to find one. We finally found exactly the same one. It cost the equivalent of about twenty dollars. The couple were very surprised to find out how much the jug was worth.
    8 days ago
    I've used that foil and baking soda method to clean silver - it's amazing!

    And I love using the "good" china or silver, even just for a dinner for two. If it's pretty, we should use it and enjoy it, right?

    8 days ago
    I have silverware that I never use, and I know I should...
    8 days ago
    How lovely :) I have a few things that were my Dad's ... plates he brought to New Zealand from England in 1951, he traveled as a ten pound pom as they were called. The plates are in my cupboard, I look at them and think of the young man who traveled across the world for a new life. When he passed away my brothers got rid of everything so I was happy Mum had given them to me when I left home :)

    Hubby has things from his Mum and Dad and keeps even the broken jewelery :)

    Every person has something to give whether goods or memories :)

    My daughter says that she doesn't want any thing of ours ... maybe that will change when the time comes :)
    9 days ago
  • HOLLYM48
    This blog brought a smile to my lips as I had lunch today! It is funny how we keep some things and they bring us such vibrant memories. My mom has a full cupboard of china that will someday be mine. I am not sure what I will do with it, but because my mom loved it, I am sure I will find a place for it. The funny thing about that fancy china is how infrequent people used it precisely as you said, everyone was afraid they would break it, chip it wreck it, but then why did we want it! I am glad your corner hutch fit and you were able to put all of the china and silver in it! I have heard that about the tin foil and baking soda and someday I might try it on the old silver silverware that I have.
    Thanks for bringing us all down memory lane!
    9 days ago
    Use. The. China!
    Use the silver, too.
    It wasn't meant to be displayed in cabinets. It was created to be used and loved during it's use.
    I learned a bit about china as my neighbor was the GM at the Lenox plant that made some presidential china!

    9 days ago
    I love flowers on the table too and got that from my mother too. I have some of my mum’s China, cutlery and stuff, the most precious to me being the ‘blue knife’ the bread knife that my parents bought themselves when they were first married, the wooden handle no longer blue and the join wobbly and often repaired, but the best bread knife ever, without ever being sharpened since it was new in 1948.....
    9 days ago
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    9 days ago
    Memories! Cleaning the silver certainly brings them out! Flowers do so much for a place.

    9 days ago
    Flowers ...
    9 days ago
  • NANCY-
    So sweet of your sister to send you flowers.
    I did want china until I had children. Then I got Corelle which the kids could unload from the dishwasher. lol I got very practical. I did get a good set of flatware, you know the kind where the spoons do not bend in hard ice cream. Service for 12. I still use the flatware and serving pieces.
    Finding that balance of what serves me best. I think I did that.
    9 days ago
    I love this blog. So many memories. I have my grandmother's Sterling silver, because it "goes with" the dining room table and buffet that I asked for when they took her home apart. At that time, I lived in an older house (circa 1901, Sears Roebuck catalog house, in the Southern Tier of New York). It was a tense time, waiting for that furniture and such to be shipped from Council Bluffs, Iowa!

    That's what came up as you took me on a silver-polishing memory!

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    9 days ago
    What precious memories. Felt so sorry for your being put down by her father. I was so much luckier in so many ways
    9 days ago
    For years I had carried around my grandmothers china plates, 8 dinners, 8 salads and 2 platters; my mother never used them and I didn't either and my kids emphatically said no thanks so last year I packaged them up and donated them to the Grannies of Kikima yard sale. I still use Arabia stoneware and Dansk stainless flatware that we bought with wedding money from my FIL 53 years ago.
    Glad you got your silverware cleaned quickly using the foil method, so much easier!
    9 days ago
    I loved this blog! Thank you so much. It brought back so many memories. Some pleasant some not so. (((HUGS)))
    9 days ago
  • no profile photo INCH_BY_INCH
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    9 days ago
    Memories. I have my Mom's and some of my MIL's silver. Brings back so many nice memories of when we used it together. Glad that corner hutch fit where you wanted it!

    We weren't rich growing up, either. That honestly is a good thing. The lessons learned? When you want something, you work hard for it and you'll get it. A lesson my own kids find hard in this age of instant gratification! Those truly earned are so much more treasured!

    9 days ago
    Such lovely and bittersweet memories. Stegman definitely speaks to me.

    Never had anything to polish in our house, only stainless steel utensils and some "cut glass" from the 5 &10 cent stores. No stemware either. Although I do have several sets of glasses gotten free from gas stations whenever "filling up"

    Then after Mom died in a drawer I found some pieces of Limoges china that I do remember using daily as a child. Nowhere near a complete set but DD & DGD have what's left now. They use them as a "tea service" when watching Downton Abbey and other period drama marathons.
    Must have been a wedding present.
    9 days ago
    Wonderful! I use the pretty table linens, that my mother had, to enjoy day in and out, instead of always saving them for “when”! “When” never comes. I use Christmas dishes when I feel like it, too. Too bad if someone does not like it. I’m in my 70’s. Why wait?
    9 days ago
  • BJAEGER307
    I also have inherited my mother's bone china. It sits all packed up because I do not have anywhere to display it. I am sad to say I'm going to try this year and get rid of it. It was my mother's treasure not mine. Same goes for the sterling silverware from my godmother. It was her treasure but not mine. I did use it for years, and got some use out of it, but it's now time to get rid of it. My son who is 35 doesn't want any of this stuff and there is no one in the family who would.

    Our children don't want our stuff, and I won't saddle my son with mine.

    I think we all have something that we treasure and I'm with you and your Mom, I love flowers, cut or in the garden, so that will be the treasure I leave my son.

    I don't save anything anymore and anything that I did, I use what I can.
    9 days ago
    Family heirlooms are important. I have my Great Aunt's silver. She nearly died in childbirth with her first which didn't survive. She treated me and my sister as though we were her own. Her sister left me a mahogany sewing chest that I just treasure as I use it often. They still live on in my life through their treasures. Do use your Mom's treasures as often as you can. It will be honoring her as you do.
    9 days ago
    Lovely blog.
    9 days ago
    Sorry to hear you had to throw so much out of your possessions, such a waste :-( Wonderful you kept your Mum's china and silverware. Glad you have a faster way of cleaning it! A permanent memory of her. I think that is a great tradition of having flowers on the table! I read an article somewhere I can't remember that you shouldn't pack away the finery, but use it everyday to enjoy it. Make each day a special one.
    9 days ago
    What a lovely story in memory of your mother.
    Thank you for sharing.
    9 days ago
    I decided to save the recipe. I have used something like that in the past but long ago forgotten. I would be wise to do some polishing myself, especially the beautiful and large silver tray! Some came from my mother's side, but the dishes were all fro husband's grandmother. Apparently, he was a farmer who supplied the local stores with mush of their fresh produce. He was looked down on by most as he walked into places overalls and dirty fingernails, until he presented cash for a full set of crystal goblets, dishes, or a new car! Never judge a book by its cover!!
    9 days ago
  • MARTHA324
    What a wonderful story and now I can see why polishing the silver was a good thing to do. And very happy for you that you have these memories.

    We too grew up using the good silver, china & crystal and helping my Mom with her dinner parties gave me the training to so the same. When we sold our lake house I ended up moving Mom's china and we have it in Florida and plan to use it when we can entertain again.

    9 days ago
    I have my grandmother's china cabinet along with several teacups and plates. I also have mother's cups. I do use some of the pieces on occasion but like you, I would have a hard time getting rid of them. I also have some silverware. It was the same grandmother who started me off with a new spoon for Christmas when I was a baby. I have read about the aluminum foil method for cleaning but I have never tried it.

    How nice that your sister sent tulips to your new home.
    9 days ago
    Oh my. I'm sorry that things were difficult with your mother but my heart ached to hear about her own father putting her down for wanting something lovely. Families can be so hard. Don't you wish your mama could have spent some time with the three principles. Sigh.

    Your post reminded me of similar reviews. It was while tracing my daddy's emotional background that I was so lucky as to come back to love for what was, undoubtedly, a scary guy. Wonderful guy, but scary. From a scary family. I did this while doing the mundane household tasks. How they trigger memories and the opportunity to view them from different ages, different times, even different houses!

    Glad you got those tulips for the first day. Your sister is A-OK

    I hope you use that stuff. I decided to use all the inherited odds and ends I got from my mother-in-law and her cousin. I've broken plenty of it but I've loved it as I used it and the pieces did not die in vain.
    9 days ago
    9 days ago
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