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Silver Lining

February 11, 2016 | by

From Early Silver of Connecticut and Its Makers, 1913.

It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about Florence King after reading her famous memoir, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady (1985). She’s … idiosyncratic, certainly. Brave, in certain respects. Independent-minded, yes, and not afraid of being disliked. But King, a notorious crank, was hard to pigeonhole: Where do you fit an openly gay writer who wrote a famously cantankerous and conservative National Review column for decades? Or a feminist who hated the women’s movement and an outspoken agnostic who regularly attended church? 

Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady is as singular as its author. King is at her best when she talks about the South in broad, acid terms. She offers a particularly adept explanation of the Southerner’s relationship to silver—one that I read with relish, as I come from a family that fetishizes silver. 

We haven’t inherited silver so much as accumulated it, usually on the cheap at garage sales. We bear it triumphantly home, where we shine it to a dazzling polish with Goddard’s and strips of old sheets. Long after silver began to lose its cultural currency—to say nothing of its value against actual currency—it was still king in our family, and as an adult I’ve continued the tradition. From a young age, I learned to hold an ice cube to a silver tumbler to test its authenticity. (Real silver is an excellent conductor, so it cools quickly.) Soon after, I learned the basics of polishing—to let that pink cream dry to a dull finish, magically dissolving tarnish in ugly black streaks. It’s something that gives instant results, one of the few cases where beauty can be uncovered in literal seconds. This kind of care and attention—our household lavished on nothing else. It was hard to say why—whether we wanted a silver cache to sell or melt or hand down or just to eat off of. We didn’t ask; we don’t ask.

The other day, to my horror, I found a neighbor’s daughter throwing out a great quantity of silver. Black with tarnish, yes, but even so. “I think it’s silver,” she said, “but I don’t want to polish it. Take it if you want.” I did want. I looked at her in blank incomprehension before scooping up the large box of plates and cups and scurrying home to administer the ice-cube test. 

I had work to do. And though arguably I should have turned first to the dishes piled up in the sink or the dust layering the furniture, instead I reached for the silver polish and rubbed at those platters diligently for more than two hours.

Florence King is the only writer I’ve ever seen capture this silver mania as a kind of religion. Here she is on her own family’s proclivities: 

A marriage can fall apart if a bride does not choose her silver carefully. A good pattern is known as “They’ve been making that one forever.” A bad pattern is known as “They don’t make silver the way they used to.” Bad patterns are the stark modern designs that are easy to keep clean; a good pattern is as busy as a Grecian frieze and manifests what silver company brochures call “the elegant and highly-prized glow of deep patina,” i.e. those black lines made by ground-in dirt you can’t get out no matter how many gauze-wrapped toothpicks you use. 

My first household chore was wrapping gauze around toothpicks so Granny and Jensy could polish silver. They polished it while it was still shining from its last polishing; they polished it while a mouse named happily through a soggy bag of garbage; they polished it while a flapping window shade gave off a dust storm under their noses. Our silver was the only thing in our house that was ever really clean, which is the sure sign of a southern home. Granny’s pattern was the goodest of the good, as furrowed as a damaged brain and so full of acorns and rosebuds that our palms ached after ever meal. 

So I polished, hoping to discover that “goodest of the good.” Most of this silver, it must be said, was very ugly. But I knew I couldn’t have just left it there, unpolished and unloved. It would have been a mortal sin, something like killing God and my parents and grandparents all at once. What was wrong with these people, I thought, as I caked my fingers in filth and the dust swirled. I polished and polished, and then I put them back in their box and replaced them by the garbage chute, confident that now passersby would at least know exactly what they were passing up.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.