Yes. Snow, again, this morning. April 19. Not expected.
First response: a rugged chuckle. Plans foiled. Sweet, trickle-down moisture is always welcome, but what to do?
I know. I’ll clean the silver.
That’s right. Clean the silver. Do not get dressed. Don’t go rifling through “the list.” Turn on the computer, yes, but don’t sit down. Only look up the recipe for cleaning silver in a baking dish. There it is. Aluminum foil. Baking soda. Salt. Boiling water. Rinse water in the sink. A soft rag (old cotton underwear) and more soda to rub off the tough spots. A towel for polishing.
Out of the clunky drawer. It’s my inheritance from Gram and my everyday flatware.
Another dear friend, Jean, now nearly two years gone, started using her good silver for everyday, right about the time I embarked for the tropics from Minnesota. “What’s the point in letting it sit around?” She said with a tea towel in her hands and a wry smile. “If it’s beautiful, then put it to use.” She was just new to her sixties, and entering her most rebellious, wild, and creative years. All the strength she had gained in her monumental effort at being a good wife, mother, and Lutheran was also being put to good use.
The silver in the boiling, salty brew quickly brightens. It’s been thirty years since it came to me. Also on a spring day. Pat, Gram’s daughter and my mother-in-law, offered me the silver when she’d finished clearing out Gram’s house. Gram had two daughters and around a dozen grandkids. Although we were close, I wasn’t at the head of the receiving line. I’d never seen the flatware before. I reckon it was stored away in Gram’s vast array of cupboards. The silver was wrapped in bread bags and stashed in a shoe box, “Old Silver,” in Gram’s script fading on the lid. It was, according to Pat, the silver Gram received when she married.
Tonging the silver from baking pan to rinse water, I calculate its age. Let’s see. Gram was born in 1901 and married after the Great War. This makes the silver nearly 100 years old. All 12 of the soup spoons remain. Most of the knives and dinner forks. The teaspoons are diminished by near half. Only 4 of the salad forks. As I polish their tines I picture them carried off in lunch boxes or picnic baskets. Maybe left on the counter of the store Gram and Pop ran “back in Hutch” and pocketed by a sticky-fingered so-and-so.
Gram was about to turn 75 when we met. I was freshly 23. She’d just had her knees replaced and wasn’t going to tend the vegetable garden in the middle of her back yard. Her grandson, my soon-to-be husband, said we would love each other. That was that.
Over the next 9 years, her garden was mine. There was a reliable show of bachelor buttons and Johnny-jump-ups along the back. A white-flowered potentilla on the west end that my German shepherd favored as a resting spot. Lilacs hedged the east. The Big Lake dazzled or threw storms at us from below.
When I worked, Gram always made lunch, sometimes a little soup, but usually cheese and crackers, lunch meat, bread and margarine, Lipton’s instant tea mixed with Tang and cinnamon. Cookies or bars, too. Sometimes they were store bought.
I never tired of all the oft-repeated stories of draft horses breaking open the prairie (which Gram insisted never should have been done), Germans marrying Germans and Irish marrying Irish but never each other, dark-skinned Native peoples still gentle teachers in their displacement, how the influenza took her husband’s brother even though he survived the war. All these people from a time before my own, from a way of life long vanished, meeting me through this white-haired woman with rounded shoulders and a little scarf around her neck.
Drying the silver and returning it to the drawer, I hear the stories over holiday dinner tables I never visited, the silver clinking against plates of roasted meats, boiled and mashed potatoes, salt pork in canned green beans. There would be pies for dessert.
I once asked Gram, a devout Catholic, if she believed in reincarnation. “Why, yes,” she said, “I do. The good lord doesn’t expect us to get it right in one go.”
You know how when Tibetan monks are searching for their reincarnated masters, and the young boys always recognize their prayer beads? His Holiness the Dali Lama even spied something in a drawer and exclaimed, “Look! My teeth!” as he took out a set of choppers. It would be something, if a young person came to visit me, and, before taking a bite of rhubarb pie, picked up one of the four salad forks and said, “My old silver!”
This evening, friends come to supper. I’ve made a soup with lovage and chives from the garden. The spoons will come in handy, and I’ll be happy that they’re gleaming. Caught up in the joys of hosting and the conversation about gardens and lives, I won’t think about the silver. No one will mention it because it’s what they’ve always used when they come to my table.
When Gram wrote “Old Silver” on a box and put her wedding gift on a shelf, I’m sure she never imagined it coming with me, let alone to a flat corner lot where I live by myself though surrounded by friends. Fact is, none of us knows what lies thirty years hence. But if such things can be intended, I hope the silver can be put to good use, and I can be carried forward in the heart of someone who needed a garden I could no longer tend or a story I never tire of telling. I hope they’ll feel free to ask me anything.