Polishing the Past
by Julia Sneden
In this age of plastic and stainless steel, I sometimes wonder what will become of the bits and pieces of my possessions that need - horrors! - polishing. Will my grandchildren, who will someday inherit them, shine them up a couple of times and then, annoyed by the effort they demand, take them to the nearest consignment store?
We're not talking fancy stuff, here, just a few brass and silver bits and bobs that no one else in the family wanted. But I am very attached to them, and actually enjoy the process of polishing, even the brass which demands real persistence and muscle.
When I first tried to polish the brass candlesticks that came from my great grandmother's family, I made little headway until my brother, recently discharged from the army, clued me in on how to polish brass. "Stay in one place, and rub it until the metal warms up," he said, "and when the metal turns black, keep at it because that's when the tarnish is really coming up. Then switch to a clean place on the cloth, and voila! Perfect, shiny brass." I believe that this knowledge represents the single positive result of his draft call-up, but I'm grateful for it.
Those candlesticks once stood at the foot of the stairs in Great Grandmother's Vermont home. Their design was calculated to fit the human hand, and the grooved lip at the top was meant to keep hot wax off the bearer who picked up a candle and lit the way to bed as he or she climbed the stairs. Great Grandmother was born in 1833, and the candlesticks were old when she was first given the chore of cleaning and polishing them at the age of 8. So when I polish them, I feel a deep sense of connection to other women in my family who over the years have held the candlesticks in their hands, scrubbing like crazy and then smiling to see the bright results.
Somewhere along the way I've picked up several other brass candlesticks from my husband's family and other assorted donors, but Great Grandmother's are always the ones I polish first.
I polish the brass only a couple of times a year, if that, but the silver needs more frequent attention. Since it's 'way easier to polish, I don't really mind tending to it. On the counter by my bathroom sink, I have a small collection of old perfume bottles and frames. My favorite object is a tiny porcelain bottle, about an inch high. It's pale yellow with a spray of flowers on a gold stem, and the design continues down the side and onto the bottom. A hinged silver cap opens to reveal a small glass stopper. The silver top is so thin and fragile that it dents easily, and when I polish it, I first stuff it with cotton so that I don't break through or make more dents.
There is also a glass bottle with a floral, silver overlay and "Julia" engraved on a central leaf. It came to me from the estate of my mother's beloved Aunt Julia, whom I met only once. She lived in New York State and we lived in California, and during World War II, people didn't travel across country much. Aunt Julia died at the age of 98, reportedly still quite lucid and energetic, and her housekeeper sent the little bottle to me. Now there is another Julia in the family, my five-year-old granddaughter, and the bottle that bears our name will someday be hers. I look forward to showing her how to polish it.
Of course these days it's nearly impossible to find a perfume that comes in a container you can open in order to transfer it to one of these beautiful little bottles. Everything seems to have sealed, dispenser tops. But even if they don't serve their intended function, my little bottles are bright, dainty accents, and since my life is often neither bright nor dainty, I quite enjoy their presence.
There's another little silver piece on my vanity tray, the lid of a small, cut-glass jar that once belonged to my Aunt Martha. It, too, is fairly fragile, a thin silver top with a floral bas relief. Frequent lifting and replacing have split the edges in several places, but the little top still holds pretty tightly. Aunt Martha was my grandmother's widowed older sister who lived with her. Although they both moved in with us when I was four, early-on in my life they lived about 400 miles away from us in Southern California. Sometimes my parents used to make the long drive down the state to visit them, and a visit always included a trip to the beach at Oceanside. I well remember my two grandmothers and Aunt Martha, ensconced beneath a huge beach umbrella, fully clothed and with large sun hats on, watching eagle-eyed as my brother and I frolicked in the surf and my parents swam far out beyond the breaking waves.
Aunt Martha always carried a jar of Merle Norman Sun Cream, which she offered to anyone who ventured near her. It smelled salty and tangy and was the consistency of light cream cheese. The grownups politely refused to put it on, but I was made to stand still while my nose and ears and forehead were rubbed with it. By the time I had made my little sand castles, my Merle Norman mask included a good bit of scratchy sand, and I would head for the water to wash it off. Aunt Martha usually managed to corral and re-cream me. She was far ahead of her time in her belief that the sun was the enemy of good skin.
The little cut glass jar that I have kept all these years still holds a smear of Merle Norman Sun Cream. Its scent is faint now, but a good sniff of it brings me back to the beach at Oceanside, and the cry of gulls and the swirl of foam at the edge of the sea, the crack of huge waves farther out, and the reassuring sight of those three stalwarts in their sensible lace-up shoes, silk stockings, cotton frocks and sun hats, clustered under the shade of the old, striped beach umbrella.
There's another little silver piece on my tray, but this one isn't old. It's a small silver apple, the gift from parents of a kindergartener I once taught. He was a most unusual little boy, a child of wealth and privilege who was even at five very much his own man. He was what I used to call "a divergent thinker," though I abandoned the term when I found out some parents didn't regard it as the compliment it was meant to be. The little apple is engraved with my initials, "JBS" and a mid-'80's date, and his initials, "PGH." If he ever becomes president, as well he may, I'll have something to brag about. Until then, it is the reminder of a most remarkable little person.
My grandmother's clothes brush with a chased silver handle; another of Aunt Martha's cut glass, silver-topped jars; a silver-framed photo of my first born; a funny little silver egg that hides a pincushion; a baby cup which seems to collect all sorts of odds and ends; all are part of the small collection I must polish every few weeks. They have, by now, become old friends, reassuring in their presence and changelessness.
Aside from the intensely personal items on my vanity, there are a few pieces of old family silver that I also must polish. I must admit that I don't feel quite as much connection to flatware and pitchers and teapots, but I work to keep them gleaming just because they're there to do. No doubt they'll be valued, down the line, by someone who inherits or purchases them. By then it certainly won't matter to me! In the meantime, I'll continue to haul out the good old Wright's Silver Cream and a soft rag and feel accomplished as I admire my handiwork. It's a pleasant reward for very little effort.