Twelfth Night Tales, 8: family silver – fables, fakes … and foil

In the economically uncertain 1930s it seemed that if you were blessed with a little extra money you might begin collecting modest pieces of silver-plated tableware. Both my grandfathers (unknown to each other at this stage) had started their working lives (one aged 14) as lowly clerks prior to the First World War but after they were demobbed they resumed their occupations and worked their ways up to management roles by the mid 30s. My Mum and Dad both remembered their parents starting to buy a few silver pieces now and then; presumably it was thought to be a shrewd investment as well as reflecting their achievements and expressing their aspirations.

My Dad’s Yorkshire parents had the plainer Sheffield silver-plated oval dishes, while my maternal grandmother went for a beaded-edge on her, also oval, dishes as she was rather smitten with the Georgian style which experienced a popular revival in the 1930s  – think of all those mock Georgian Post Offices and brick Water Works buildings of that era. When I was a child she had a memorably odd, bulbous, octagonal silver teapot that always dribbled; then there was the dented sugar-shaker, a sauce boat thing and, a source of great pride, a set of Georgian silver teaspoons with fluted bowls.

Grandma’s “Georgian” silver sugar-shaker (actually 1930s repro)

With these my two boy cousins and I would make ploughed-field patterns in the Christmas Day brandy butter (until we were told not to play with our food) but the spoon would (well, could if you tried hard) emit a rude sucking noise as you took it out of your mouth after licking off the contents, further cause for scolding, though that was rare with these kindly grandparents. I don’t know where the teapot went, I think it was probably a 30s reproduction, not original and my Mum thought it was ugly so may have sold it, but I do have the novel spoons, although they turn out to be Victorian fakes.

Half a dozen of these currently unfashionable items – with less silver-plate on them than they had eight decades ago, and now worth very little – were passed on to me some time ago; I wasn’t too keen to have them but it would have been hard to not accept the gift. Most of the pieces only comes out at Christmas because they’re a bit pompous, they need to be polished, and, using serving dishes just makes more washing-up (*see below); the dish that gets used for the Brussels sprouts is left with hard-to-remove blue circles of tarnish where the sulphurous toxins in the sprouts leach out onto the silver.

But they accumulate some kind of presence over the years and the lure of tradition is strong, so we get the damned things out on Christmas Day, unwrap them from their special green-baize swaddling and shine them up with Duraglit, like some implements from a domestic Grail legend. They reflect the lights of the Christmas Tree and the candles that someone’s remembered to light at the last minute, so they do bring a sparkle to the table, and, I admit, add to the little rituals that mark the Christmas meal as a cherished family occasion.

But last Christmas Day had a different flavour; as outlined in the preview post, we (husband and self) spent Christmas with my suddenly bed-bound and discontented mother-in-law at her bleak bungalow. We’d arrived earlier than planned and stayed longer than we expected; it was a difficult time. Between multiple visits from care and medical professionals there were moments of tenderness between her and us, and when our sons came to visit it revived happy memories for all of us of some fun Christmases there when they were children.

On the 25th we did our best to make a Christmas Dinner in the challenging oven and the awkward kitchen, but because of the circumstances we’d not been able to prepare for the meal – or Christmas in general – as much as we would have liked; no candles or Christmas tree or fairy-lights, and we had to make a last minute raid on Sainsbury’s for a turkey crown and frozen roast potatoes; everything seemed a bit makeshift.

As the meal cooked on Christmas morning one of the carers, J, a friendly, hijab-clad Muslim woman in her 30s who we’d met several times, arrived late morning at the end of her shift. After attending to her noisily resistant ‘client’, my mother-in-law, J told us she was really looking forward to getting back home for Christmas dinner with seven other family members and showed us a photo on her phone of the rosemary and garlic-studded lamb joint going into the oven that morning (later joined by two chickens). She’d already spoken to us a few days previously of her plans for her first Hajj pilgrimage in 2017, so we expressed our confusion about her ‘Christmas’ dinner; she said it just seemed nice to join in the festivities that were going on, wished us a Happy Christmas and left with a cheery smile.

After this touching interlude our roast was ready; we persuaded mother-in-law to have a cheese sandwich (all she would agree to) from her bed tray, then the two of us sat, a bit wrung-out, at the Formica table in the kitchen. Beneath the unforgiving overhead fluorescent lights, we served up our meagre fowl, straight out of the functional silver-foil tin it had been packed and cooked in. We wouldn’t have brought the showy silver dishes with us anyway but until just a few years ago there had been some nice little ceremonies in this home around Christmas dinner, and some good laughs; but this forlorn meal and what was going on immediately around us made for such a glum occasion, a poignant contrast to the past and the opposite of what we‘d have liked Christmas Day to have been, for all of us. It was my mother-in-law’s last Christmas.

The silver-foil dish, somehow came back home with us (“too useful for the recycling bin” one of us must have said!) and despite looking like some kind of surgical tray was very recently used for cooking a nut roast. As I’d just begun writing this ‘silver story’ I was reminded with a slight chill to the heart, of its first outing at last year’s Christmas table, so this flimsy utensil has become a tailpiece to this tale. Maybe there’s a moral in here somewhere – a fable about hubris and vessels (more Grail stories anyone?), but I’ll just leave things here – the foil dish a silly reminder of the haunting impact of age and infirmity.

Turkey crown dish, Sainsbury’s: second decade 21stC.

*Tea Towels – As part of her sense of engaging fully with Christmas, and just for a bit of fun, my Mum used to buy Christmas themed tea-towels (depicting the 12 Days of Christmas, snowmen, skating santas etc), which were used by ‘The Men’ who traditionally did the washing up after Christms Dinner. Being a dishwasher-free household we still use the remainder of these faded and thinning cloths, although our boys would comment wryly that it doesn’t make the task any faster or more fun!

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