by Susan E. Lindsey
“Your stepmom and I are sorting stuff,” Dad said over the phone. “Is there anything of your mom’s you want? When you come out to Washington, you can take what you want back with you to Kentucky.”
My mom, an educated, well-read, and articulate woman, had been dead nearly twenty years. She died of cancer in her fifties. We had sorted and disposed of most of her belongings shortly after her memorial service, but Dad had kept a few things.
My father and beloved stepmother, Bernice, had been very happy together, but they were getting older and more aware of their mortality. Dad was calling his kids to pass along his possessions, starting with the things of Mom’s that he still had.
I pondered his question for several days. I had loved my mother very much. Shortly after she died, my father gave me her wedding and engagement rings. I had since passed them along to my daughter when she married and she wore them with pride and affection. Nothing of Mom’s would mean as much to me as her rings, but Dad obviously wanted me to have something else of hers. I thought about durable, but sentimental things—things that had meant something to her and would mean something to me, but that were portable enough to survive a trip of more than 2,000 miles. Not the delicate rose-covered china or the beautiful lead crystal—my sister, who lived closer to Dad, could have those. Not furniture or the boxes filled with her many books—too bulky to transport or ship. My brothers could divide them.
I called him back. “If no one else wants it, I’ll take the sterling silver flatware you and Mom got for your wedding.”
“OK. I’ll hold it for you.”
A couple of weeks later, Dad greeted me at the SeaTac Airport baggage claim and wrapped me in a bear hug. Bernice said, “Hi, sweetie,” and kissed me on the cheek. At their house, I dropped my bags in the guest bedroom and wandered into the kitchen. There, spread on the kitchen table, was Mom’s silver service. Knives lay in long, neat rows. Bowls of spoons glimmered. A bottle of silver polish and several cleaning rags lay nearby. A pile of blue flatware storage cloths sat next to the bottle of polish.
“I went to the bank and got it out of the safe deposit box,” Dad said. “I’ve been trying to clean it up for you.” I was oddly touched at the thought of Dad storing Mom’s silver at the bank, making a special trip downtown to pick it up, and polishing it in anticipation of my arrival.
I sat down with him and as we polished the silver, we caught up a little. I told him news of the family in Kentucky. He told me news of the family in Washington. It was an easy conversation. When it lulled a little, Dad stepped into the family room to check on Bernice.
I polished a teaspoon, working the blue liquid into the Damask Rose pattern on the handle. I thought of my parents on their wedding day—Mom, twenty-one, and Dad, twenty-three. They had married in the church her parents attended, the same church where my father’s grandfather had preached. Neither of them came from money, but my grandmother had well-to-do friends, and my mother worked in a jewelry and china shop. The couple registered for china, crystal, and silver, and received enough gifts to set a table for twelve.
They didn’t know on their wedding day that they would have seven children and little need for such elegant tableware. We grew up eating off Melmac plates and drinking from cheap glasses with painted-on daisies. We used everyday stainless steel flatware. We never got out the china and silver, even on holidays. Counting Dad, Mom, and all of us kids, we had a family of nine, and usually Uncle Ed and Aunt Jean and their six kids joined us. Even service for twelve wasn’t adequate.
So the china and crystal sat in the cabinet—lovely and fragile and representing an ideal at odds with reality. Perhaps when my mother was a young bride, she and my father had a few romantic dinners for two on the rose-strewn plates. Maybe she dreamed of someday holding supper parties or inviting the pastor and his wife over for dinner. Somehow, in the process of raising seven kids, she never found time to host formal meals. I wondered if she ever had the urge to tug open the china cabinet doors and set a lovely table.
When I was a child and dusting the dining room, I stared through the cabinet’s glass doors and dreamt of elegant dinner parties. Sharing a table with five brothers and a sister was usually loud and crazy—no formality, no grace, no elegance. I often yearned for something several steps above Melmac and meatloaf.
Dad walked back into the dining room and broke my reverie. He held a sturdy shoebox. “Red Wings: The Fittin’est Shoe for Work” was emblazoned on the side. Dad had worked for the phone company most of his life. He installed and fixed phones, and climbed poles to repair storm damage or string wire. He loved to work outdoors, in the garden, or in his workshop. Red Wing shoes, his first choice in footwear, were a lot like Dad—sturdy, hardworking, dependable, and without pretention.
“I think it will all fit in here,” he said. “This box should hold up well on the plane.”
I had a sudden post-9/11 realization. “Dad, we’ll have to ship it. They aren’t going to let me on the plane with a box of knives—even if they are Damask Rose.”
I researched shipping options. When we finished polishing the silver, we carefully inserted the knives, dinner and salad forks, teaspoons and soupspoons, seafood forks, butter knives, and miscellaneous serving pieces into the pockets of the tarnish-proof cloths, rolled them up, and tied them. We tucked them into the box, alternating the rolls, placing handles to the right and then to the left. It all fit beautifully and Dad taped it up eight ways to Sunday.
We took the heavy box to the Fed-Ex store, bought insurance, and shipped it to my workplace. I flew out of SeaTac that night and the box arrived safely.
To this day, I’m not sure why I chose my mother’s silver. I don’t lead an elegant life or host champagne suppers or dinner parties. A few times, I used the silver for holiday dinners—always with great joy—but most of the time, it remained stored in the Red Wings box.
I recently bought a wooden silver chest at a garage sale. I took it home, retrieved the Red Wings box, and unpacked all the silver. I slipped the knife blades into the velvety slots, stacked the forks and spoons into narrow channels, and found perfect places for every piece. The silver was lovely shining against the dark blue lining.
I picked up the Red Wings box and opened the kitchen trashcan. I hesitated. I thought of my mother and her china cabinet filled with beautiful things she never used. I thought of my father and his work shoes; I thought of him polishing an expensive set of silver and entrusting it to a shoebox. In the end, I could not throw away the Red Wings box.
Years from now, when I’m gone, my daughter and son will sort through my things. My son will kneel to pull things from under the bed, pick up an empty old shoebox, and raise a quizzical eyebrow at his sister.
Susan E. Lindsey fell in love with words in the second grade while reading The Wizard of Oz. After a nearly 20-year career in corporate communication and public relations, she now leads a much happier life as a writer, professional editor, and speaker. Her essays, short stories, and articles have been published in various newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Susan earned a degree in communication at Pacific Lutheran University. A member of three writing groups and numerous historical and genealogical societies, she is completing work on a nonfiction manuscript.