I wanted to commemorate Mother’s Day in a personal way. It would be too far to drive to the New Jersey cemetery where my sisters will bring flowers to Mom’s grave. We five sisters reminisce constantly about her, resurrecting memories of vacations and holidays in texted photos. But, instead of flipping through photo albums, I polished my silver.
It’s really our silver, most of it given to me with my mother’s compliment and challenge, “because I know you are the only one who will clean it like me.”
She was right, and I carry out this two-day chore before the major holidays. For us, it was a magical ritual that turned dark gray metal into mostly gleaming silver. Some of these pieces will never be restored to their former glory.
This is not a collection of heirloom sterling, not “the silver” as in place settings. These are quirky hand-me-down objects valued for the memories, not the metal. Many hint of the aspirations of my Italian relatives.
Not everything silver is silver. The frames that celebrate my honeymoon and our son’s school portraits are silver-ish bargains from a familiar home goods store. There’s a fair amount of chrome and pewter in the mix. Brass is banished.
The star of my collection is a heavy rectangular butler’s tray with handles lacking the silverplate. It dominates a narrow table holding a tier of cobalt glass balls. The family’s oral history attributes this find to my Italian great-grandmother, who scoured Depression-era thrift shops in Camden, N.J. A generation closer, my grandmother was the source of the tiniest treasure, a sugar spoon imprinted with the logo of a Caribbean resort. After we returned home from a family vacation, we discovered in horror that Nana had swiped it!
I adore the pieces handed down from “Zizi,” my namesake Aunt Angie. A dented sugar cup monogrammed in script with “De P” (for De Persia) was her wedding gift. We still use a serving tray for holiday dinners, and when not in season, it makes a nifty magazine holder. Although she was the daughter of a sweatshop seamstress and immigrant cabinet maker, she probably displayed them with pride.
From my mother’s own wedding are battered and peeling candlesticks, one repaired at the base with a strip of duct tape. There’s a curvy ice bucket for holiday cards, and a bent candle snuffer. The absolute best item is a funky cocktail shaker with recipes engraved on the top. This quirky design serves me well as a dining room table vase.
I treasure the bud vase (dented, of course) from my husband. There are two tiny baby cups, collectively 130 years old, with handles hanging on with epoxy glue. They remind me of life’s passages. With trinkets handed down through generations, and framed photos going back generations, it’s a mini-family museum.
From my father are two keepsakes: a tiny Paul Revere cup won at a golf tournament and a small tray from a medical colleague in Bombay. Engraved with a hand drill, the script wishes him a happy 60th birthday.
My husband teases me that I talk to myself as I clean. During the most recent silver-a-thon, I rubbed, rinsed, and polished with my inner voice talking to Mom like old times. As I stood by the sink, piling on sheets of newspaper to absorb the mess (her way), she checked on my technique.
“Mom, don’t worry, I have plenty of new rags. I tore up one of Tom’s T-shirts, and have a soft old toothbrush.”
Mom taught me how to gently brush engraved borders. My inner voice is comparing the merits of our silver polish du jour. For decades, we both swore by the pale pink liquid that dried to a haze. That brand was replaced by brief phases of dipping and spraying, finally settling on a non-toxic dark pink cream.
My friend Meg loves old silver, too, and we trade photos at holidays. Not surprisingly, many loathe the time and effort to polish. Our friend Jack confirms that he is the silver polisher in his family, and, “though I can’t say I like doing it, I do like the results.”
This spring, my younger sisters were furiously cleaning one of Mom’s oddest possessions, an ornate centerpiece vase called an “epergne,” for a niece’s wedding. It is more brown than silver, more comical than elegant in design. Where in the world did Mom get this?!
For decades before her death, my mother happily bequeathed her signature possessions. She appointed the papier-maché angels to one sister for holiday wreaths, the farm animal table decorations to the “country” sister, and tablecloths to nieces. The silver was mine (plus a rainbow of turtlenecks). With daughters, granddaughters, and even great-granddaughters, Nonna never doubted finding the right custodian. Having a single millennial son, I doubt my collection will be passed on to him.
Silver-lovers use silver, they don’t store it. During a pandemic dinner last fall, a wobbly candlestick holder graced the backyard table along with hot dogs. From the initial purchase or gifting, to the countless rebirths after polishing, it lives eternal.
Mom and I had some strain in our relationship in her final years. As I rub and brush, I feel like I’m working out the dents and tarnish to restore our love to the better times. I know Mom is nodding, happy in her decision that, “She took care of it.”
Dr. Angela E. Lin is a geneticist in Boston.