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first person

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The Globe and Mail

Down I went, down the stairs into an underground cavern, stepping through heavy steel security gates with an armed guard keeping watch. I was entering the London Silver Vaults, a unique shopping mall beneath Chancery Lane, the largest retail offering of old and new silver in the world. Scores of silver dealers in a row, one after the other in their individual “vaults,” shop after small shop filled with glittering treasure, the dealers looking out hungrily at the few shoppers strolling by, including me. At the back of some shops, almost out of sight, were workers busy polishing, polishing, polishing. Mole people, I thought, who rarely see the sun.

I could see myself reflected in platters and bowls, ornate tea sets and silver-framed mirrors as I walked past, looking for the cutlery specialist. Deep in my handbag was my mother’s special antique spoon, wrapped in a soft blue cloth.

My beautiful six-foot-tall mother loved and collected old English silver spoons. She had many collections, including, to name a few, magazines, recipes, clean empty yogurt containers, knee-high stockings, letters, cut-out newspaper articles, dressy white blouses and unopened perfume bottles given to her through the decades as gifts. But her favourite collection was British spoons. In the 24 years between my father’s too-early death at the age of 65 and her own death at 89, she haunted antique stores, thrift stores, estate sales and open-air markets. She bought miniature lead farm animals, pretty ceramic jugs, vases, pots and many other things. But most of all, she hunted spoons.

Mum knew all the hallmarks stamped on the handles, like the “lion passant,” that means genuine British sterling, and the “crowned leopard” made in London before 1820. She carried a large magnifying glass in her purse so she could inspect and check. Size didn’t matter; she bought delicate coffee spoons, slender soup spoons, heavy serving spoons and the occasional ladle. She bought a stuffing spoon with an extra-long handle for shoving into the cavity of a turkey or goose and, in a fanciful moment, she bought some ornate silver fish knives. The collection grew.

Why did my mother nurse this particular fixation? She’d grown up in an English village; her parents, the village schoolmasters, were respectable but poor and the family had little money and no luxuries. They did own a few lovely family heirlooms: a needlepoint sampler from 1846, Nana Bates’s silver-plated teapot. After the war, to the huge disappointment of her parents, my mother immigrated to North America, married my American father and stayed in the New World. But even after a lifetime in Canada, she remained British to her core. Perhaps the hunt for old English spoons was a search for her country and her past, or her acknowledgment of an ease with money and consumption that her parents never had.

In any case, she loved her spoons.

But strangely, she did not use or display these cherished items. Although after Dad’s death she lived on the 12th floor of an Ottawa condo building with a locked main entrance, still, Mum was paranoid. She was afraid thieves would come for her spoons. Wrapping them carefully in cloth or soft bags, she stored them under old winter clothes in a locked trunk in her cleaning-supplies cupboard.

I thought she was crazy. My brother and I had no interest in old British silver of any shape or size, and I couldn’t understand my mother’s passion for cutlery and her other obsessions. I wanted her to stop shopping and to use and enjoy what she already had. Occasionally, when I’d flown in from Toronto to visit, she’d take her treasures out to show me, to polish and to add new ones to the stash. I saw that she’d helpfully attached little labels, I guessed for us when she was no longer there. “1810 soup ladle bought in Victoria, gorgeous Georgian,” said one. “Stuffing spoon, 1812, London, beautiful shaped handle.”

One, in particular, she was especially proud of and liked to show off, the oldest of them all, she explained, probably from the late 1600s. As I felt its smooth weight in my hand, I realized the great diarist Samuel Pepys might have slurped his soup from this very spoon and felt a hint of her excitement.

After she died, my brother and I had the huge job of sorting through her treasures and non-treasures. One day we opened the trunk and hauled out the heavy silver stash. We each chose a bit for ourselves, although mostly, because neither he nor I had much money, we were hoping to sell the bulk of it to an antique dealer. Disappointment was immediate. Nobody, we discovered, wants silver these days, too much work to polish. Dealers will buy even beautiful pieces of antique silver only by weight, to melt them down.

My mother would weep. All those hours of searching and purchasing and polishing and, occasionally, admiring. No, we couldn’t allow her finds to be destroyed. We sold a few clunky pieces neither of us liked and divided the rest to keep.

But we still had hopes for that precious Samuel Pepys spoon and I decided to visit friends in London and see if I could sell it there. Hence, the Silver Vaults. This rare treasure, my mother’s greatest find, would surely excite a dealer. He’d offer a ridiculous amount for it and my brother and I would toast Mum and her magnifying glass with champagne.

“Oh I have loads of those,” said the cutlery man, glancing at the treasure I’d pulled from my purse and unwrapped. “From the mid-1800s. I’ll give you £40.”

Less than Mum paid for it. A reminder that sometimes, about this and other things, my mother could be wrong.

I thanked him, rewrapped the spoon and walked up out of the Silver Vaults into the sun. Wherever I went in my travels that spring, Mum’s spoon came with me. At home, I put the once-special implement with the others in the drawer with cutlery I use every day. Now I don’t even remember which one it is.

But every time I slurp my soup with a newly polished Georgian spoon or stuff our Christmas turkey with the one with the long beautifully shaped handle, every time I dust my own collections, displayed on open shelves – Fiestaware, baskets, folk art, old children’s books, scores of framed family photographs – my mother, with all her brilliance and all her flaws, is with me.

Beth Kaplan lives in Toronto.

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