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 dozens of 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 passed away several months prior after a long fight with leukemia.

It was 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 managing the process on the backend after losing her to cancer was an overwhelming experience.

 Now, I had to decipher from thousands of items what was trash, what held value, and what needed to be sold… piecemeal.

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, my wife was there to help but it was up to me to decide what to keep, 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 with 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 bookshelves of recipe books, and three-ring binders stuffed with clipped/taped recipes, 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 toddler, 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.

I continued to return to the collection of the silver items I inherited. Most of them 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 couldn’t part with it or let it fall into the hands of someone outside the family. I brought the whole collection home, a box stuffed with what appeared to be stained and ruined items.

How wrong I was.

Months after her death, while in the throes of managing her estate, I rediscovered my passion for cooking. Having been so preoccupied with caring for my mom, the process of cooking for others was therapeutic. A good meal, cooked for several hours, which filled my home with aromas… it provided comfort while I worked through the grieving process. Having friends and family join us for weekend gatherings lifted my spirits.

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 by how good it turned out and when the sun hit it the next morning. The elbow grease I applied was worth the effort.

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 set? These were used during very formal occasions, seemingly 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 1880s. I joked and noted how these items must have been used during the gilded age!

Why did my mother let these items go black with tarnish? I found the chargers stuffed in the bottom drawer of her dining room console. My hunch tells me that after she divorced my father, she wanted nothing more to do with that chapter in her life.

I was their only child, so for me, I was more than enthused to polish these items to their original luster. Maybe I could find some spark of happiness from the demise of their relationship.

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 in a silver chalice was consequential. The only other time I saw their names side-by-side was when I discovered paperwork relating to their divorce in my mother’s attic. 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 2019, contemplating how meaningful this date was to both of them. It was the start of something. At one point there was hope and both of them shared unbounded love 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 positive to reflect upon when it came to my parents’ marriage. The date featured on the chalice represented their wedding day and future anniversary date.

Until that very moment, my perspective about their union was oriented around its failure, but it once represented something positive and hopeful.

And the net result of their marriage is me, writing this article 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 seven-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 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 to provide as much light and hope as we can to the next generation.

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