My Mother’s Mysterious Chalice – A Story About Family Legacies

Pure curiosity evolved into something else while polishing an inherited silver chalice: I rediscovered my parents’ marriage and the value it once held.

There were many of them – unpolished pieces of silver that littered the dining room console. Not including silverware, there were two dozen items ranging from butter dishes to serving trays to a notable chalice.

A chalice, of all things. Dear God.

These, and thousands of others, represented my mother’s possessions – a lifetime’s worth. She had passed several weeks prior from leukemia.

It was all so overwhelming; emotionally of course, but materially as well. Six months after her demise, I was still dealing with the fallout of managing her home and the contents within it. There was so much to go through. It seemed like every nook and cranny on three floors was filled from floor to ceiling. She was not a hoarder, but losing her to cancer was troubling enough. Now, I had to decipher from thousands of items what was trash, what held value, and what needed to be sold…. piecemeal.

I will state that, on some level, this represented a first-world problem. When an only child is managing this kind of circumstance, he/she does not have to contend with siblings vying for particular items. On the flip side, an only child is on their own to manage everything. Thankfully, I had my wife to help but ultimately I had to make final decisions – what to keep and what to discard and sell.

The silver items were tabled for the moment while I worked through the rest of her house. In total, I dragged out 100 stuffed bags of garbage and brought it curbside for removal. This was not trash per se, but what is one to do when they come across 300 pens and 1,000 empty envelopes?

If this sounds ungrateful on some level, forgive me, but when you have four book shelves of recipe books, and three-ring bingers stuffed with clipped/taped recipes (each one two-inches thick), it wears you down. When you have to manage this in a 3-bedroom house several evenings a week, manage a nine-to-five job and a four-year-old boy, it is excruciating.

Throughout it, I felt like I was always letting someone down – either my boss, my family, or myself.

That’s what cancer does to those who are caregivers, the children of the deceased whose parents were expected to live decades longer. My grandmother, on my mother’s side, lived until she was 94. My mother passed away twenty years younger.

The silver I inherited remained unpolished for 20-plus years. We used the silverware occasionally but had not done so since I married my wife in 2004. At the tail end of the process, I took it all home with me, a box stuffed with what appeared to be stained and ruined items.

How wrong I was.

Months after her death, I rediscovered my passion for cooking. Having been so preoccupied with caring for my mom, and representing her only caregiver, the process of cooking for others was therapeutic. A good meal, cooked for several hours, filling the house with aromas… it helped me during the grieving process, especially so with the presence of friends and family.

I looked for other outlets and a bottle of silver polish did the trick. The first piece of silver took nearly an hour to remove all the tarnish, darkened from years of neglect. I was shocked how good it turned out and when the sun hit it the next morning, it glistened brilliantly.

My wife watched TV while I took out another piece from the cardboard box the following evening. The process did not get easier—some items took over an hour to complete. One of the most amazing finds was a set of silver chargers, which are used beneath a served plate of food at formal occasions. This piece required me to use Q-Tips to get into the intricate parts of the dish.

You can see for yourself how they turned out, but the chargers themselves begged the question, how did my mother come into possession of this particular set? These were used for hard-core formal settings, seemingly more fit for dignitaries and heads of state. I concluded the chargers must have been handed down by my father’s side of the family, as their lineage dated back to the 1880’s. Perhaps these were long-lost items from the gilded age!

My parents’ divorce ended any hope of uncovering a family treasure. In hindsight, these pieces of silver were stuffed in a lower drawer that rarely saw the light of day. I believe my mom dismissed them after her divorce.

Now, I was enthused to polished these pieces to see what else I could discover.

This led to a chalice, one blackened from what could have been 50+ years of tarnishing. The oxidization process was brutal, I could barely understand what I was looking at because… who owns a chalice? Did this item get handed down over the centuries? Did Charlemagne drink from this? Was it a prop in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Seriously, where the hell did this piece come from and why did my mother have it?

The polishing stopped me dead in my tracks. I could not believe my eyes when I read the inscription.

The polished silver revealed two names – my mother and father. It also revealed a date: Jan-27-1968.

First, to find my mother’s and father’s name etched on an item that looked like it dated back to the middle ages… was consequential. I had not seen their two names, side by side, outside of the 40-year-old divorce paperwork I found elsewhere in my mother’s house. Here, their names are etched in a beautiful piece of silverware.

The date represented the union of their marriage: January 27th, 1968.

I’m sitting in my kitchen, sometime in the winter of 2018, contemplating how meaningful this date was to both of them. It was the start of something. There was once hope, joy and unbounded love that each of them shared when they exchanged wedding vows. Regardless of their divorce, this date meant something.

My spirits continue to rise to this day when I give thought to that moment of ‘eureka.’ I had something to look back on, to respect about my parents’ marriage. It represented a starting point. This was their anivesery date.

Until this very moment , my perspective about their union was oriented around its failure, but it once represented something positive and hopeful. Without both of those elements, why would a couple ever marry?

And the net result of their marriage is me, writing today at 6:12 am on a cold November morning and feeling grateful for having the chance to do so. The marriage I share with my wife is my treasure and one that has outlasted the timeframe of my parents’ union (by twice the number of years). And upstairs, tucked in his warm and cozy bed, is my six-year-old son whom I adore.

When children of divorce can find something that provides hope to future generations, items passed down that represent a loving and positive moment in family history, do not let it go. Use it as an example for future generations. Sometimes, you have to search, but light can be found in the darkest of corners.

Those of us who come from divorced families should make it our mission is to provide as much light and hope as we can to the next generation.

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