Tuesday, April 5, 2011

ella's silver

ella's silver arrived at her parent's home more than a year before the ceremony was to take place. her sterling silver flatware was given to her as a wedding gift by her parents and her married sisters, in 1925 near lubeck, germany. many other items to help insure domestic bliss were purchased in the months before the wedding. at that time in germany it was required of betrothed couples to show proof before the wedding that they had the basic furniture and housewares to furnish the domicile they intended to inhabit. instead of today's online wedding registries, they personally kept notebooks with detailed lists and receipts of what was purchased or received as gifts, and what was still needed. in addition to filling up their future residence, the bride-and-groom-to-be also had to prove that they had, in fact, found a residence in which to begin married life together before the proper wedding documents could be procured.

all of this crazy bureaucratic red tape was to insure that the engaged couple were not some sort of gypsies, or bohemians, or hippies (perish the mere thought!), the idea being that one would be and should be responsible and establish a respectable home. of course, back then the word hippie had not come into the lexicon yet, but it gives those of us living in the u.s. today a frame of reference for how people who deviated from the norm, who did not measure up to the government's notion of "respectable", were treated (rather shabbily, i'm afraid) in a different time and place. no proof of respectability, no marriage license. tough luck. ella and wilhelm, i am happy to say, passed the test, got married, and fruitfully, dutifully, produced children who in turn produced grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

ella was my grandmother. a few years ago, my father and mother gave me his mother's beautiful silver flatware. the silver is heavy and the lustre is warm. originally there were twelve soup spoons, dinner forks and knives. today there are only eleven of each . (i suspect a relative in germany pinched one place setting as a keepsake before it was packed up and sent across the ocean by container ship after my grandmother's death.) there were never any teaspoons or dessert forks. those were collected separately, in another pattern, for use as part of a porcelain dessert, tea and coffee set. how complicated. how old world. i have no idea what happened to all of that.

i like to imagine the many special occasion dinners - birthdays, christmases, christenings, easters, anniversaries, new year's eves, or just meals with friends - those pieces of silver participated in. who was there? what did they talk about? one thing is for sure, ella used her silver. it did not lie unnoticed, in a state of delicate and careful preservation in a drawer in the china cabinet. far from it. my grandmother would never have used her ordinary everyday flatware for a special occasion, and she never had the notion that her silver had to be protected, and remain forever completely unblemished, without a single nick or scratch. (or even without a splatter of pockmarks or a shortened fork tine. more on that in a second, i promise.)

and so ella really used her silver - she got it out of the drawer and set it down beside the plates. that is not to say she was careless with her exquisite forks, knives, and spoons. quite the contrary, ella was such a careful person she never broke or damaged anything. (well, ok, almost never.) the idea was that the silver was meant to be used, to be eaten with, and that's what they did. they put the silver up to their mouths and ATE with it. and eat they did, with gusto! that's why the silver was made.

back to the story of the pockmarks and the dwarf fork tine. i keep my promises. somewhere along the way in the silver's eighty-five year history it looks like a child secretly took one fork and one soup spoon and did some serious scooping and shoveling in gravelly dirt. what fun! such a fancy toy! there are pits and pocks embedded in them. perhaps the same child also poked and stabbed at rocks with the fork, breaking off the tiniest bit of the top of one tine. who knows. what really happened remains undocumented. my own fictionalized account of what might have happened fills in the gaps somewhat satisfyingly, i think.

owning silver can be a pain in the neck because taking care of silver, especially old silver, is hard work. i used to think polishing silver was a hell of a job. my attitude has changed somewhat since ella's came into my possession. i don't use that nasty dipping stuff that is supposed to make your life easier. why would i want to do that? why would i want to make polishing easier? it is a labor of love, pure love. besides, the dipping stuff doesn't clean really well. real polish and a soft cloth work best, and polishing is the key word.

as i begin to clean the silver, slathering on the polish, you know the kind you actually polish with, and getting it all over a fork, i start to feel the heaviness of the metal. as i rub along the surface, lifting off the black tarnish, i am happy knowing other people have polished like this, the good old-fashioned way, before me. i start to get lulled into a daydream by the repetitive motion. i caress the old metal gently, over and over and over again, until i am satisfied with the gleam. each piece takes a long time. but i am not in a rush. i am proud of how good it looks.

the silver, without anybody really realizing it, has been loved. imagine, some hunks of silver metal, loved. it was not, is not, loved because it was costly, because of its value. the silver and its beautiful rich patina, only seen on old silver which has been handled and cleaned hundreds of times, has been loved because it has been out on the table, marking the passage of time, marking family togetherness. it has been witness to so much life, so much living, to good times and bad times, to births and deaths. and not to forget, witness to so much damn good food!

the silver was loved and cherished by my grandmother. now it continues to be loved by me, and because of that love it will be used often to celebrate all kinds of occasions, adding to the fine lines on its surface and increasing its sheen, reflecting the life of the family.


flying around said...

I love this story, Mignon. Thanks for sharing it.

m said...

I appreciate your comment! Thanks for reading my little stories....