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.