The Shining 

Untouched, but not untarnished

Untouched, but not untarnished

I have only one piece of my mother’s wedding silver. It is a sugar shell, monogrammed with her three married initials, MHB. It is, in fact, the only piece of her wedding silver that still exists. The rest of it, a full service for eight, complete with salad forks and long-handled spoons for iced tea, was destroyed in a house fire, along with all my mother’s other wedding gifts. Many of them had not even been unwrapped. My mother had kept them in their boxes, waiting until my father came home from the war, waiting until he could get a job of his own, waiting until they could move out of her own mother and father’s house. My mother had been 36 when she married. She had shared quite enough with her mother. She did not plan to use her wedding silver, her hand-embroidered napkins, or her cut-glass nut dishes in her mother’s house.

But my grandparents’ house caught fire on a Saturday evening, right after my mother had finished the milking. The rumble of a passing train had muffled the explosion of the furnace. My parents, my grandmother, and my grandfather were in the kitchen eating supper. By the time they smelled the scent of burning coal oil and dry crackling poplar and peeling, rat-chewed wallpaper, the house was already in flames. My mother was not even wearing her wedding rings; she had taken them off so that, while she was milking, they would not pinch the cow’s distended teats. She did not notice they were gone until the next morning. She did not think about the silver service for days.

Raking through the ashes of the house where she had been born, the house her father had built with the money he made from his grocery store, she came across what was left of the silver she had planned to use for baby showers and Thanksgiving dinners and suppers served for particularly well-educated visiting preachers. She had thought to keep the silver in its velvet-lined chest, scented with camphor and cedar, hardly even remembering that it existed, except as something to be passed along, untouched and therefore unblemished, to grandchildren. Because she was rapidly approaching 40, she thought only of having children so that, one day, there could be grandchildren to use this silver. Now, in the ashes of the house where she had lived all her life with her parents, she scraped against it as she raked through the charred rafters and the still-smoldering dirt. It was a melted lump of filthy grayness. My mother had a black man pick it up and throw it into an ash can. As far as she knew, she always said, he took it away to the dump.

My mother frequently wept when she told this story, and she told it often, as part of the litany of sadnesses in her life. While my brother and I sat in the living room on a useless Alabama Saturday afternoon, she would remind us that she had gone into the Valley of the Shadow of Death in order to give us life. She would remind us that both of her parents had died of cancer, long before my brother and I could have had any real chance to know them. She would tell us the story of how she and my father had married on a Friday and he had left for the war the next Monday. She would tell us about the baby she lost while he was away in Europe, stanching the bloody wounds of young men whose bellies had been ripped open by gunfire and hand grenades. Then, she would remind us, he had come home, and in months her parents’ house had burned, along with all her wedding linens, her wedding rings, and her monogrammed silver. As if this were not enough, she would remind us, she had been born a woman. Through it all, she would explain as my brother and I listened blankly, she had been forced to suffer the Curse of Eve.

My mother did not use the surviving sugar shell. It had been given to her by a cousin on the Christmas after the house fire. The cousin, who had been married far longer than my mother and who had children whom my mother had already taught in high school, had made my mother open the package while she was there to watch. She had told her, “One piece of silver. It’s a place to start from. Now you can start rebuilding things.”

My mother put the sugar shell away and never used it. No one ever gave her another piece of silver to accompany it. Instead, she collected silverplate on a coupon program at the grocery store. And even that she kept stored away in a fiberboard chest in a cabinet in the kitchen, above the refrigerator, where it was hard to reach. She did not polish it because she had never seen any particular reason for anybody to touch it. She assumed it had never tarnished, since it had never been used.

I found the sugar shell in the silver chest, months after my mother died. I took it, without even asking my father, who had already told me, “Go ahead. Take anything. I don’t know what to do with this stuff.”

I told him, “I think I’m going to take Mama’s silver.”

By that time, I already had a stepmother. She told me, “Go ahead. You know I’ve got things of my own.”

I took my mother’s silver—the silverplate, the spindly compotes, and the cheap engraved trays that had been presented to her for serving as president of the PTA. I took my baby silver, the tiny fork and spoon monogrammed with a lacy “B.” And I took the sugar shell.

I have never used the silverplate knives and forks and soup spoons, but I have discovered that, when I am giving a party, my baby spoon is precisely the size for picking up one martini olive, my baby fork is perfect for spearing a slice of lemon or lime, and the sugar shell is just the thing for scooping caviar onto a sliver of toast.

Just the other night in my living room, a woman was using the sugar shell to spoon tapenade onto a crostini. “This must have belonged to your mother,” she said.

I said, “It was her wedding silver.”

The woman held the sugar shell up in the squinting brightness of the track lighting and said, “It’s very pretty. Do you have all of it?”

I said, “There isn’t any more of it. It got melted down in a house fire. It happened right after my father came back from the war.”

The woman put down the sugar shell and said, “I think that is very, very sad.” She looked up at me and said, “I think I’d like another glass of wine.”

That night, after all the guests were gone, while the dishwasher was running and I was having another glass of whiskey, I began polishing the one piece that is left of my mother’s wedding silver. I rubbed it until it began to gleam, the way silver will gleam if it is used and if it is taken out regularly for parties and celebrations. And I thought that I could not remember ever once seeing my mother polish her silver. I could only remember her saying how pointless it was to polish silverplate that had come from the grocery store. I could only remember her saying how unfair it was that she would not have sterling salad forks and dessert spoons and dinner knives to pass down to her grandchildren.

But, for the life of me, I could not remember what sort of knives and forks my mother laid out before me, my father, and my brother when we ate our own dinners. I do not remember them shining very brightly. I figure they must have been tin


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