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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Good Silver

When kids get married nowadays, do they still pick out a silverware pattern? The young people I know who have gotten married in the last decade or so are not so interested in owning sterling service for eight, as they were in my parents’ day. Judging from the advice columns, most people getting married these days are asking if it’s too tacky to ask people to give them money to pay off their exhaustive wedding costs, student loans, and therapy tab caused by my generation.

Back in my parents' day, people could afford to give a place setting as a wedding gift, and that's how they came in possession of The Good Silver, as it was called.  Our silver was wrapped up in velvet and hidden in a box and stowed in a built-in cabinet in our dining room. It would be paraded out when it was our turn to host Thanksgiving or the Wiley family reunion. Silverware was very high maintenance and labor intensive. It had to be polished, and after it was used, it had to be hand washed, and my sister and I knew that there would be hell to pay if even one salad fork was discovered in the dishwasher.

The Good Silver, I think now, is a bit of an anachronism. People who grew up in the Depression considered sterling service something regal, something vaguely Downton Abbeyish.  When you really wanted to be the envy of your world, you would trot out the Reed & Barton for a dinner, but  your peers, who probably had a similar set of eating utensils, weren’t that impressed.

The last time I ate from sterling forks was several years ago.  Other Bill’s Aunt Eleanor would frequently make us delicious meals. We would lift our matzo balls, cut our brisket, and stab our kugel with her sterling silverware, which she liked to use even if we were the only two she cooked for. Eleanor was a bang-up cook and frequently entertained, but ever since The Incident In Which A Spoon Came Up Missing (during which, fortunately, neither Other Bill nor I was present), no one left Eleanor’s apartment until the sterling was hand washed, dried, counted, and put away.

People of my mother’s and Eleanor’s generation, probably due to the Depression, held their silver in a somewhat paranoid high regard. It was always hidden somewhere in the house, and it wasn’t used for just anyone.

When I was a young squirt, my mother, in blatant disregard of child labor laws, would, days before a blessed event, sit my sister and me down at our kitchen booth. She passed out strips of ripped up, retired bed sheets and a jar of Wright’s Silver Cream. It was our job to massage all the tarnish out of the service for 9, and we weren’t released from the detail until our hands were black and dried and cracked from the chemical ingredients in the caustic cleaning agent. (Maybe this is an illusion, but I seem to remember running out of the polish, taking the jar up to my mother, who was probably baking bread, and sheepishly muttering, “Please, ma’am. I want some more.”)

Nice of Mr. Wright to call it “Cream”. That sounds so luxurious and harmless. It’s like something Madge would soak her manicure clients’ fingernails in.

(“Silver polish!? Are you fucking kidding me?”
 “Relax, it’s CREAM!”)

In reality, if you had any scratches on your hand, the polish would get in and burn the hell of it, and it also dried your skin out so that when you were done with the cleaning, you walked away with hands that felt like fresh saltines.

Wright’s Silver Cream also stank, and the smell was fortified when it hit the silver and turned black.

The silver pattern we had was very ornate and finely carved, so it took a lot of hand pressure to polish the tarnish out of the tiny crevasses. The more you rubbed it with a rag, the blacker your rag would get. We were instructed to polish the silver until the rags no longer turned black, but even when you thought you were done and the silver looked shiny enough, along came Mr. Bumble, I mean Mom, and she’d dip the rag in the cream and rub the serving spoon and say, “Still black. Do it again.”

And so my sister and I would waste the day away, kneading the damned eating utensils until they were migraine-inducingly bright and would reflect the sun enough to burn holes in your retinas. When we were dismissed, we dejectedly padded toward the bathroom and rubbed A and D Ointment, which also stank, into our cracked fingers and palms. On Thanksgiving or whenever the Blessed Good Silver Event took place, people wondered why our hands smelled so funny and we were bleeding profusely from our soda cracker appendages. I may be wrong, but while others ate turkey, my sister and I had half-filled bowls of gruel.

My mother, mercifully, stopped entertaining around the time that bourbon and amphetamines became more important to her than a nicely set table. Thank god for substance abuse.

So for decades, The Good China and The Good Silver sat unused in the dining room and was packed up and put in storage when Mom sold the house after her offspring moved away from home.

Being The Girl, my sister eventually got possession of The Good China, and the Good Silverware.  I got the antique rosewood needlepoint chairs, which I still trip over to this very day.

The Good China and Silver stayed stowed in my sister’s basement for a decade before she conceded that she wasn’t ever going to use it. Being a sap for nostalgia, I took possession of it and promptly stored it in my attic for another 15 years. Before I moved back to Florida, I sold the Good China, which was also called The Haviland. It was very fragile and prissy and covered in hand-painted, pink primroses. Yet I still held on to The Good Silver, and it has remained for the last 13 years, boxed up and unused.

Other Bill’s and my everyday flatware is a mishmash of silver plate crap I bought at an auction decades ago for ten bucks, and some old stainless that’s been following me around for so long I can no longer remember its origin. Recently I noticed that, in the tradition of Eleanor’s Incident, we were running out of teaspoons before the dishwasher got completely filled up. Being old and losing our attention spans, in the past few years I have found silverware basking in the compost pit in the back yard, so we are clearly the ones guilty of misplacing our own flatware. So I went online to see if I could find some cheap stainless spoons. Everything cheap looked cheesy and so flimsy you could bend it just by blowing on it.

So I thought, why should I buy new spoons, when there are nine spoons hidden in a forgotten location in the house?

I thought about it, but glanced at the jar of Wright’s Silver Cream that has sat under four different kitchen sinks for the last 35 years. No way, I thought.

And so, I figured, it’s long past time to get rid of The Good Silver. I looked on eBay and noticed that people were selling it for about ten cents on the dollar. Nobody wants the stuff anymore. You can’t give it away.

So I wrote to my friend Linden and told her I was thinking of taking it to one of those places that will pay you cash for precious metals that they just melt down and turn into silver brownies.

She wrote back and said, “Why don’t you just use it? Did you know you can clean it by just dropping it in a pan of boiling water that has baking soda and aluminum foil in it?”

I thought she was high. After all, we had baking soda and Reynolds Wrap in our house at the same time we had Wright’s Silver Cream when I was a kid, so why were we forced into indentured silverware servitude when we could have just dunked it into a pan with metallurgical, magical powers? Why didn’t we know this trick then?

So Saturday I decided to give it a shot. After tearing the house apart, I finally found The Good Silver. It was black with tarnish and was taunting me for a good rubbing of Wright’s.  Instead I cooked up a pan of water, baking soda and foil, and sure enough… no fuss, no muss. Instant sparkling silverware. I whispered curse words at my dead mother.

So I decided—screw it—the Gorham Strasbourg pattern is coming out of the closet. We’re here. We’re silver. Get used to it!  So I took the mishmash of silver plate and mixed-up stainless and tossed it in the box where The Good Silver had been stored for most of my life, and I put the sparkling good stuff in the silverware drawer in the kitchen.

And we’ll never run out of teaspoons, because Other Bill and I know that there’ll be hell to pay of a fork is ever found in the dishwasher. The silver is hand washed, dried, and put away after every meal.

So next time you come to our house, be prepared for a little bit of a delay before your departure. No one leaves the house until there we count 9 dinner forks, 9 knives, 9 spoons, 9 salad forks, and a serving spoon.

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