I have honored Santa Argenta, the patron saint of gleaming metal, and polished silver twinkles on the table I have set for the first of our pair of Thanksgiving dinners, the modest meal I share with my Dear One and my Tattooed Boy on Thursday evening that precedes the far more ambitious spread on Saturday. I pile bowls and flatware and serving pieces, candle holders, baby mugs, trays, and wine saucers on one side of the sink, lay clean soft towels on the other side, and start scrubbing at a year’s worth of tarnish.
When I was a child, polishing silver was a weekly event in Nannie’s kitchen. In that dim and distant past, Nannie and Pop had a live-in couple, Linda and Yama. (Actually I have no idea how to spell Yama. It’s a Finnish name and I doubt I that I ever saw it in writing. but that’s how it sounds.) Once a week they emptied the cupboards and laughed and chatted as pieces went from leaden to luminous. Silver was in constant use in Nannie’s dining room. Ordinary dinners were occasion enough to bring out lovely things. Salt was always spooned from silver cellars lined with cobalt glass. Silver candelabra held tapers carefully snuffed so that wax was not splattered on the mahogany dinner table.
I don’t remember my mother polishing silver. In all fairness, I don’t remember Nannie polishing silver either. How exactly I came to be a person who polishes silver is beyond me.
When autumn wanes and winter looms, and lavish meals beg for elegant service, I polish silver. I rub and buff and rinse and dry and buff some more.
The task is also an act of communion with my mother. Ma claimed she loved having me home for the holidays because her silver shone by the time I left. My Dear One points out that I always reorganized her kitchen, too. I definitely cleaned her refrigerator, tossing gardens of greenish molds, squishy produce, and things I was loath to identify. I think she enjoyed my company generally; my compulsion to clean silver was really just a bonus.
A few weeks ago, there was an article in the Baltimore Sun about a joint effort between the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the University of Maryland to develop a coating that would prevent silver from ever tarnishing. Actually this microscopic coating would only last a few decades, but it sounds like forever to me. Apparently this process—“atomic layer deposition”—would keep my flatware and handcrafted jewelry alike sparkling more or less indefinitely.
I think it’s a great idea. I’d love to wear my silver jewelry more often and have it look brighter. I could only dream of a house filled with reflections from gleaming silver heirlooms.
My devotion to Santa Argenta, however, is a way of spending time with Ma and Nannie, my great-aunt Helen and Granny. The reflections off bright silver surfaces carry images of my past and their pasts.
The sets of serving forks and spoons monogrammed “C” were wedding gifts to my mother and father and saw heavy use at dinner parties. “MES” was Martha Elizabeth Sanford, great-great-grandfather’s second wife and former sister-in-law whom my great-grandfather Lyman despised. Helen gave me so many of her things, including a small weighty bowl I use for candy and condiments. She mothered her dead sister’s brood and had two children of her own, neither of whom survived her. Nannie’s napkin ring encircles my serviette; my Tattooed Boy has one that was a christening gift from Sami, his English godmother. My baby cup is battered—apparently I used and abused it for a couple of years. The cup belonging to my Tattooed Boy once belonged to Helen and their birthdays, eighty-nine years apart, are engraved on its side; it, however, is in perfect condition. I have a lovely serving plate with cutwork around the rim. It was a gift from one of Nannie’s chums. She always intended that it would be a wedding gift and she was worried that she would die before I got married. She was right. Nannie gave it to me and I feel the affection this friend had for my grandmother, and my grandmother’s grandchildren, every time I use it.
I have sets of matching teaspoons and as many more unmatched ones. I have tongs, ladles, tiny forks intended for a purpose I cannot divine, carving sets of different sizes, a small creamer and clapper-less bell that, I believe, once summoned the butler. I even have a cover for my box of wooden kitchen matches.
All of them keep me faithful to Santa Argenta.