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Nadja Maril

Admiration for my Grandmother’s Pitcher

Still Life with Silver Jug and Cake by Willem Claeszoon Heda

Blooming flowers and interlocking leaves encircle the belly of my grandmother’s silver pitcher. The French word for this hammering technique which creates a textural surface, repousse, literally translates as pushback.

Repousse. Pushback, I like the concept of pushing outwards to stand one’s ground. I think of push-ups. Opposing gravity. The act of asserting one’s self to create something new. The garden shapes on the pitcher’s midsection are yielding yet firm.

I look at the pitcher and recall Sunday dinners: chicken fricassee, green beans, grandmother’s special noodles—wide ones on the bottom and crisp fried skinny noodles on top —plus coleslaw. Traveling back in time to when I was eight years old, I tread down the long dark hallway lined with odd chairs to the pantry where I’d watch my grandmother add a large spoonful of mayonnaise, a small spoonful of sour cream and a few drops of French dressing to the grated cabbage and carrot. In the kitchen, she’d prepare the chicken, fresh from the farmer’s market. Generously sprinkle salt and pepper and Kitchen Bouquet to turn the skin a warm brown in the oven.

The front room of the Baltimore row house where my mother grew up was referred to as “the parlor.” The formality of the word matched its contents, upholstered chairs protected by dustcovers I watched being made from scraps of floral fabric on the treadle sewing machine. Carpets with bright geometric patterns covered the dark wood floors where I’d line up my dominoes to strategically fall, while my mother and grandmother sat on the stiff couch, their reedy voices rising and falling.

At dinnertime the round table in the center of the house was laden with dishes: warm dinner rolls, stewed fruit, green beans flavored with bacon, and the silver pitcher. I remember the time my grandmother made potato kugel in a cast iron corn stick pan, because my dad’s favorite part of the kugel were the crispy brown edges. Dad laughed at the tiny helpings of kugel shaped like miniature ears of corn. We’d eat until we were more than full, and Grandmother would insist on making chicken sandwiches for me and my brother’s school lunches.

I was taught to appreciate fine things at a young age. Small transportable items, things of value you can take when you’re on the run. My great-grandfather, who repaired watches and jewelry, fled a Russian shtetl with his wife and two babies to escape anti-Semitic persecution. Gold and silver trinkets probably helped pay their passage.

I like to think this pitcher is a family heirloom. Owned by one of my great-grandmothers Bertha or Sadie, but it could have just as easily been someone else’s cast-off. Grandmother sometimes had an entire rack of coats, clothes she’d collect to re-distribute to the needy. Stacks of chocolate bars, playing cards and dominoes awaited shipment to military bases overseas in the spare room, while shirt boxes filled with odd pieces of jewelry became craft projects for bedridden patients. One friend, the widow of a sea captain, gave grandmother most of her belongings, because her second husband wanted nothing of the first husband in the house. Nothing to remember him by, but perhaps when she visited my grandmother she could see them still. Very fine things, Chinese cloisonné and an ebony table with elephant tusks.

After she inherited the silver pitcher, my mother continued to prefer her pottery one for serving guests. It was more her style. She worried about the valuables in our house and when we left for long trips, she used to hide the silver pitcher in the clothes hamper underneath dirty towels.

Acquiring quality used items is a skill I mastered. Buying and selling antiques helped pay the bills. I took pride in setting up beautiful displays and learning the provenance of each piece. Packing and unpacking each item carefully, so nothing would break. I toted heavy boxes. Conveying history.

Possession or admiration of artistry? I‘ve broken the habit. How much does one person or one family need and use? It’s what the objects cause me to think about, that draws me to them. The stories they tell me the longer I gaze.

Some items I craved in my twenties, the ornate set of silver my mother refused to relinquish, no longer seems attractive to me decades later. Owning things that are valuable, easily stolen and pawned, requires care and responsibility. I can find simpler things that are easier to throw away.

Pushback, a refusal to follow in the footsteps of my predecessors. Do without something long enough and you realize you never needed it. The status items important to someone else are not necessarily important to you.

I keep the silver pitcher inside the corner cupboard, behind glass doors. In places where the plating has grown thin, glints of copper warm the patina. My grandmother filled this pitcher with iced tea for company. She brewed the black tea extra strong and added water and ice. We added lemon and sugar.


About the writer:
Nadja Maril is a former magazine editor and journalist living in Annapolis, Maryland, who loves long walks and dancing. Creating new recipes with homegrown ingredients soothes her when the day gets tough. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at USM, and her short stories and essays have been published in dozens of publications including Change Seven, Lunch Ticket, Defunkt Magazine and Invisible City Literary Review. She is currently working on a novel.

Image: Still Life with Silver Ewer and Cake by Willem Claeszoon Heda (1594-1680). Oil on oak wood. No size specified. 1645. Public domain.

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