#78 Polished Silver

We grew up at the gasping end of the era of calling cards left on a small silver dish. That dish stayed out even though the custom ceased, so it became a mint dish.

One of the chores on my list as a girl was to polish silver. Flatware was in the wooden box packed away in felt. It was trotted out of the box on special occasions. The daily silver was used so much it didn’t need polishing. But the gigantic silver coffee service that was inscribed as a retirement present for my father required regular cleaning. In a big elegant house with pantries, a service that size would be kept behind glass doors. And no one could possibly carry it. In our little house, it sat out bombarded by oxygen on the dining room hutch. It was used only for parties to keep coffee hot with the Sterno heater. Otherwise days of receiving guests and bringing out the silver service were over. I think I used a few pieces for a friend’s wedding shower, but that was it.

Every month or two the service needed polishing. I didn’t use simple elbow grease the way they do in portrayals of English manor houses. I used a polish paste, which had to be washed off. The only place to wash that huge heavy tray was in the bathtub. Then I’d have to scrub the scratches from the ornate feet off the white tub. Did it occur to me to put a towel under the tray? It did not. That process began around 1960 and lasted about eight or nine years. When my mother moved into her new house she put clear plastic over the silver. I wondered why she didn’t do that before, but did not ask, or knew not to ask.

Around 1980 I received a notice that there was a package for me at what I think was the early days of UPS, the less expensive way to send boxes then. Unaware of what was sent, I’d leave work early, take the train to Connecticut and find the UPS center, which was always on the outer edge of any town.

What was waiting for me was a huge brown beaten up box the size of a filing cabinet from my mother. The corners were no longer corners and unfortunately it made noise. I had no idea what it was and knew not to expect an actual gift. But something was rolling around and banging inside. Someone helped me get the box into the hatchback of my car.

When I wrangled it into the side door of my house, I found the old silver service with no note or explanation. I learned later that my mother’s husband, the engineer packed it. All he had done was wrap a single sheet of newspaper around each piece, the finger bowl, the cream pitcher, sugar bowls, tray, holder, heater, hot water, coffee, and teapots. There was nothing cushioning them in loads of empty space. I removed the pieces, tarnished and badly dented from the journey to Connecticut. The handle had violently broken off the coffee service that rested in an ornate holder. Was I to thank her for this? I probably reservedly did. I knew she hated it and was getting rid of it. Possibly she hated it because it was my father’s. This way it would appear like an heirloom from her to me, and her problem was solved.

I kept my father’s broken retirement gift shiny. My neighbor who was a retired metallurgist offered to repair what he could in his basement laboratory. I never took him up on his offer. There’s a sweet story there for another time. Maybe the banged up silver represented my family.

I took it with me when I moved to Pennsylvania where there was plenty of room in that house to keep it out, but it’s never been repaired. Now it’s stored in the basement of a kind friend. I told my nephew that I’d like him to have it and he smiled. But it wouldn’t be a gift, unless I have it repaired and if they live in such a big place one day, that they could have something of his grandfather’s on display.

Today I was polishing some silver jewelry and thought of that silver service and how inelegantly but effectively the plastic had kept it from tarnishing. I put those necklaces back into the jewelry box, neatly and newly zipped inside a plastic sandwich bag.

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