So today I spent several hours polishing silver. You might ask,"why in the world did you do that?" Believe me, I was asking myself that same question about two hours in.
Here's the scoop...Sunday evening we're hosting a fundraiser at our home benefiting ABF – one of the excellent local organizations providing support services and support to the members of the community who have contracted and are living with HIV/AIDS. For the last several years, Hubby and I – along with a great group of co-hosts – have participated in the Annual Dining with Friends Event which benefits the organization. Some years we've thrown a party. Other years, we've taken over a local theater and served light nibbles before the show. This year, we all decided to have an evening garden party, since May in this area can be hot and humid. When we were sitting around the dining room table in cold, dismal February, it seemed like a good idea. Hence the need to polish silver.
I've heard many people describe silver as a cold, hard metal with very little warmth. There are a lot of people who don't really care for it much. Others bemoan the need to polish the stuff to keep it looking its best and will go out of their way to banish it from the house. Not me. I like it. I even kind of like polishing it. The whole process of wiping away the tarnish is almost relaxing. But not when I spend most of a day doing it.
I didn't intend for this chore to turn into such a long project. I thought I'd pull out a few trays and serving pieces and give them a quick shine and be on to something else. I lowered myself to the floor to dig out the pieces I planned to use from underneath the buffet and pretty soon several pretty substantial piles were calling out for me to give them a little attention. As I looked at the collection around me, I realized it had been a while since I last polished silver.
We have a lot of the stuff stashed away – in whatever place we can find in this old Victorian home. Some people may have commented that I have to much of it...along with too many sets of antique and vintage china, an overabundance of crystal, and whatnot. I'll admit I might have a bit of an obsession, although maybe not for the reasons you think. I do like nice things, but I also sometimes feel...sorry for things. When I see a beautiful old spoon or serving piece sitting by itself at a flea market, antique store or rummage sale, I worry it won't find a home. I fret that it won't have a chance to shine anymore. I lament that the care and workmanship that went into its creation won't be appreciated. I do that with old chairs too, but exploring THAT theme would take at least a whole separate blog. To add to the problem, through a variety of circumstances several old family pieces have found their way into our house – from both sides of the blanket. We've been appointed caretakers of a sort. And then there are those pieces that have been given to us over the years as a special gift.
As I began carrying the pieces into the kitchen to start the cleaning and polishing, I realized that – in some ways – it was a motley collection. Although some of the pieces are solid sterling, complete with desirable hallmarks, others are plate. Now before you assume that all of the family pieces are the sterling and the flea market finds are are the silver plate, I'll correct you: both collections are comprised of a combination. There are cherished family pieces that proudly announce that they are the finest of prizes, and some that speak to the years when money was tight, or when the world was in the middle of the Great Depression. Some items carry a provenance from the early 1800's and there are even two pieces of old Georgian silver. Some of the flea market finds are equally illustrious, and some might be a little questionable if you picked them up and looked at the markings on the bottom. As I dipped my cleaning sponge into the polish, I realized that each piece had something in common with the others: they all were a symbol of something special and perhaps, forgotten. A couple of the pieces show obvious wear. I wiped away the tarnish on one item and noticed there were little hints of bright brass peeking out from a swirled corner, or on the foot of a tray or bowl. The particular tray I was working on was a prized possession of my grandmother, even though it was plated and not the 'real deal'. A wedding gift before WWII, it had been used for every special occasion in her life, and for many in mine. To me, it's no less precious for being plated. Instead, in many ways it's infinitely more valued. Precious and wonderful things wear down over time, but can still shine.
Have you ever noticed that an old piece of silver plate feels different than the new stuff? It's not light and flimsy. It doesn't feel like a bargain just good enough for whatever the need was at the time of purchase. It's heavier. It has a lot of heft. It defies anyone to take it for granted or dismiss it as not being worthy. It feels no embarrassment of its humbler origins. To the contrary; often it perches proudly on the table or sideboard, scoffing at the better pedigreed companions next to it. "I'm still here," it announces. "I may be showing my age, but I'm beautiful. I was loved. I was cherished. I still matter." After so many years, it has learned to fool the eye with its shine, distracting from its imperfections. It's interesting that the wear shows only on the working parts: the feet and handles of a tray; the hinges of a coffee pot; the center of a bowl where wonderful food was presented and served.
The sterling pieces tell a different story – often unique to the piece. A lovely Belle Epoch sugar spoon might be embossed with a message in the language of flowers: a rose for love: an aster for contentment; an orange blossom for fertility: a pansy for loving thoughts. A lemon fork with bold Art Deco lines announces, " the modern age is here, baby!" A cheese knife from the early fifties – its engraving marrying jazz to the Eisenhower years – confirms we've survived the worst and assures us better things are ahead.
I cleaned and polished some more, discovering – as I always do –those few places where the tarnish stubbornly refuses to be removed. I work a little harder, because sometimes you have to be firm with silver. Determined, but gentle. No abrasion. Just elbow grease and patience. I wonder about the history of this piece. Is that little, difficult blemish a reminder that even though the compote it's clinging to was present at countless celebrations, it also witnessed tears of a grieving widow or a mother who had lost a child? Did it hold a mound of soft, pastel wedding mints at the beginning of a relationship that ended? Did a reflection of that sadness become captured forever – part and parcel now with the festive shine? I work a little more to remove the dark blemish, reminding myself that silver plating doesn't peel away in sheets. Rather, it wears away slowly with the passing of years. It erodes from countless hands and moments of touching and polishing each curved and winding surface. It's the price of time. The only other alternative is to remain locked away in the dark of a cabinet, swathed in soft gray flannel, unused, forgotten or ignored.
This Sunday evening, as these pieces sit on my dining room table, I think they'll be content. They'll each be shiny and bright and look their best. If they have memories, perhaps they'll recall other occasions. A few will shimmer with echos of garden parties past, where women in lovely dresses listened to the sound of crickets and bullfrogs in the languid evening air. Maybe they'll recall a moment when the scent of summer jasmine was heavy in the twilight while new layers of memory were laid down.
Our guests will listen to the wonderful performers who have given their time and talents for this event, then they'll take a break to grab a bite to eat and refresh their drinks. The silver on the table will reflect the colors and texture of the flowers and the party clothing worn by the caring folks gathered to raise money for a good cause. The bright bounce of light from the polished surfaces will add a festive touch, and the patina of years long past will soften the glow into a lovely haze. I can almost see it if I close my eyes. And you know...on that night, I really don't think anyone will think of silver as a cold, hard metal, with very little warmth.