Preferred Citation: Krieger, Susan. The Family Silver: Essays on Relationships among Women. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Three The Family Silver

The Family Silver

I HAVE JUST COME BACK from a trip to Florida to settle the affairs of my lover's aunt, who died suddenly at the age of seventy. She was carrying her groceries up the stairs to her apartment when she dropped dead of a heart attack. A neighbor found her. When we arrived several weeks later, we found her grocery list and the cash register receipt itemizing what she had bought—lettuce, tomatoes, salad dressing, breakfast cereal, milk, tuna fish. It was an otherworldly experience: going to Florida, where I had not been before, to clean out the house of a woman I did not know—sorting through her clothes and jewelry, finding snapshots she recently took, using her bathroom, meeting her friends, literally stepping into her life, not the life of someone still with us, but a vacated life.

We were there for a week, closing out the small business Aunt Maxine ran out of her home, disposing of her possessions, and looking for vital documents, like the title to her car—a long white Cadillac with a red carriage roof and matching deep-red leather seats. Maxine was a short, buxom woman with bleached blond hair. She had dropped ten years from her age when she moved to Florida. Her closest friends knew her as sixty at her death. She dressed dramatically in bright colors and bold


prints and wore her best jewelry daily, her gold chains and diamonds. Her apartment had not been cleaned in five years. The living and dining rooms, full of cartons and paper goods, were devoted to her small business. She sold rubber self-inking stamps of the kind that says "Jane O'Hara, 48 Front Street," or "First Class," or the date. She played golf and was a supporter of the local theater group, and the best way I can put it is that she collected clothes. I emptied her closets, putting her clothes in large plastic bags to give away to charity, counting, as I bagged them, for tax purposes. There were 419 shirts, including gold lamé and sequinned shirts and golf shirts, 275 pairs of pants, 7 leather jackets, 162 pairs of shoes, 16 jumpsuits, 83 handbags. Stacked beside her bathroom sink were hundreds of old lipstick tubes that she never was able to throw out.

Maxine was acquisitive and materialistic. When she felt in need, she bought something, usually clothes, preferably on sale. She liked large earrings and large beaded necklaces and had forty pounds of costume jewelry in, and on, her dresser in the end. She had married three times and received a significant diamond ring from each husband. The husbands, however, did not amount to much and she divorced them, preferring the life of a bachelor girl. She liked going out with others, and having a good time, and making money, although she only began making money on her own after she gave up on husbands and the myth that they would take care of her. She worked long hours, both to have the money to buy things she wanted and because she was constantly afraid her money would run out. When younger, she had gone to art school. The paintings we found in her apartment showed that she had talent. She also could sew and had a fully equipped sewing machine in her bedroom, but she preferred playing golf and being taken to dinner. She did not believe in doctors and saw them as a self-indulgence, which is one reason she had not been aware of her heart condition. She was a big talker and could fill up a room with talk. Her friends said she lit up any room she entered. They also said she was always an "up person," which to me meant she had no tolerance for depression and that she would not have understood or liked me.

She was a woman whose values I have little respect for in the abstract, but there I was sorting through her clothes and the odds and ends on


her bedside table, becoming intimate with her. After a few days of doing this, I knew exactly how she dressed and that her style of dressing was not mine. However, occasionally I would still take a shirt of hers that seemed tailored in cut and large enough to fit me, and carry it over to the bathroom mirror to try it on. One look would reveal it was a shade of pink that she could wear and I could not. She liked gathers in her clothing, bows, bright purple colors, large oval earrings. She liked overstatement as a form of self-expression, while I like understatement. Despite such differences, however, I finally came to think that if I had met her in person, I would have liked her, although only if our meeting was brief and if I had no expectations that she would meet my needs, for responsiveness of a subtle sort was not her style.

Aunt Maxine seemed well suited to Florida. Florida is a peculiar place—home of the sun loving, of those who seek life without winters or who want to start a new life, home of the elderly, the Los Angeles-style glitzy rich, the poor. It is part of the South, yet there in South Florida people spoke like they do in New York City. The people who came in and out of Maxine's apartment while we were working there, and those at the supermarket in the nearby shopping center, were upwards of sixty-five and mostly women. Maxine's closest friend was a gay man, but her other friends were small, square-shaped Jewish women like herself who wore heavy makeup and colored their hair, usually bleaching it blond. These women were eager to clear out Maxine's closets, look around her apartment, see what her niece was doing, and either give an opinion, or announce very clearly that they were keeping their opinions to themselves. They spoke in loud voices and carried out garbage and books and moved furniture. The few men who came, although bigger and taller than the women, were slower, and they looked fearfully at the physical work, as if it might give them a heart attack. The women took charge and got bossy. The men waited to be told what to do. This was reminiscent, for me, of the types of families I have known, where, around a house, women are useful and men are not, unless told by the women what to do.

While clearing out Maxine's apartment, the physical activity of sorting and bagging and carrying out trash occupied me, and the people coming and going and working in the apartment made my life seem


full. At the heart of my experience, however, was an emptiness. My life stopped during that week and for several weeks afterward, because I wished not to feel and because this was a death. Now at home, I keep trying to fill in the empty space. I keep thinking back to Maxine's bedroom, probably because I spent so much time there taking her clothes out of her closets and looking around the room at the dusty empty beds and the closed shades. For entertainment and for a break, I would repeatedly go over to her dresser and sort through her jewelry, looking, each time, for something I could take home and feel was mine. Yet there was nothing there for me. This was jewelry that belonged to a woman who carried her golf clubs in a pink leather golf bag. I have spent much time in the past few weeks seeing, in my mind, images of a woman who played golf, ate out, bought clothes on sale at Marshalls, and worked long hours driving around in a red and white Cadillac selling rubber stamps.

One night as we drove back from Maxine's apartment to our hotel, Judith asked me, "What is family silver," and "Why do people make such a big deal of it?" Her mother had advised her to save any family silver she found at her aunt's home, and she wondered why it mattered. Not knowing, I tried to explain anyway—that it is what women have of material value in a family. Most things women have wear out, like bedsheets, or even beds or furniture, or clothes for themselves or the children. Silver is more like a durable good because of the value of the metal. However, you have to keep it up by polishing it, and eventually it wears out too, or the plate does. All women's things wear out. Silver also has social value. It brings people together for special occasions and dinners. Using it is a way women run things.

As we spoke, I kept thinking back to things my mother has said about her mother's silver. Her mother had two sets—a daily set which got more wear, and a better set for holidays. Often I have been told about my grandmother's silver. A few months ago when speaking with my mother on the phone, I told her I had just polished the two silver candlesticks of my grandmother's that my mother gave me several years ago. I was unable to get all the black out. My mother said that was the way old silver was and then gave me detailed instructions on how to clean a set of silver flatware. She advised immersing it in a solution of Soilax and


warm water, and then adding crumpled up aluminum foil to create an electrolytic process that cleans the flatware but also takes off a little of the plate. She then mentioned some frightful things that eat silver, like vinegar and eggs.

In our conversation, my mother told me again, as she has several times, that she wanted to give her silver, actually my father's mother's silver, to my sister. (My mother's sister has their mother's.) However, she did not want to do this until my sister's children were more grown because, in my sister's house, they threw away silverware. They threw it out with the garbage, either by accident or because they were not paying attention. Better they should throw away stainless steel, my mother said. She then concluded by asking me about my stainless. How many settings did I have? I said six. She said that was not enough, I needed twelve. What pattern did I have? I should check to see if they still made that pattern and get more. You cannot have just six.

My mother had told me previously that I would be getting my father's sister's silver, which is less ornate and desirable than my father's mother's but comes in a special chest. My father's sister's silver, my mother said, has her initials engraved on it, although unfortunately they are her married initials. My father's sister, Aunt Jessie, went into a nursing home earlier this year and so would no longer be needing her silver. My mother said she was keeping it for me in her basement on the condition that I come back East and visit her in order to get it. After all, you can't just send it.

From these conversations with my mother, I learned that, more than for its use in eating, and more than because of its value as a precious metal, family silver is a big deal because it provides lessons in cleaning, sibling rivalry, childrearing, and proper behavior. It links the generations and makes people come home to claim it.

On our last full day in Florida, I found Maxine's silver flatware in a back corner of one of her high kitchen cabinets behind a box of recipes. I had gone into the kitchen to inventory the contents to decide what we were giving away. The kitchen was so greasy that none of us had used it during the week. When I reached back in the cabinet, I found an accordion case with felt linings and, within it, a full set of National Sterling flatware. The imprint "sterling" on the flatware, I was later to learn,


meant each piece was made of solid silver (92.5 percent pure), as distinguished from being silver plate upon a baser metal. Maxine's silver was untarnished and seemed never used. The pieces had a plain pattern around their edges, with space left for initials, but no initials were engraved on them. Because of its plainness and lack of use, Maxine's silver seemed to me not really valuable, not really "family silver." The family silver we might have found was Maxine's mother's set, but that, along with her mother's china, had been stolen from the storage room of Maxine's apartment complex years ago. To replace it, Maxine had bought this silver and a set of china with a floral pattern on it. She kept the china, a Japanese copy of an old English style, in a living room cabinet next to her television, where we also found several pieces of tarnished silver holloware (bowls and salt and pepper shakers) that may have belonged to Maxine's mother. Before we left, we mailed Maxine's silver home to us, probably to sell it, and we gave away most of her other things.

That week we spent in Florida was very much about material things for me, which is often, I suppose, how people deal with death and with the questions it raises about living, questions such as, Why golf? Why rubber stamps? Why take home the silver? Some of the answers are obvious—because that is the business her third husband got into after they were divorced, and she learned about it from him; because that is what people do, you don't just leave the silver. Yet the harder questions to answer, for me, concern value: what value playing golf or selling stamps? What determines this value? Is the value different if one is a woman? How separate the person from what she does, or sells, from the clothes she wears, the things she keeps, the friends she does or does not have?

My Aunt Jessie

My aunt Jessie sold ladies' underwear for a long time at a department store in New York City. She is eighty-three now, and since she has moved into the nursing home, she is walking again and is less depressed than when she was living alone. Jessie is more direct in her statements than other members of my family. "I love you," she says to me frequently


on the phone, even when I cannot say it back. I spoke with her on the Fourth of July, and after telling me that the weather was disgusting, meaning hot, she said, "You know, after the Fourth of July, you think Christmas. I guess that comes from twenty years in a department store." I remembered back to when I worked in a bookstore, in order to grasp the truth of her statement, but mostly I liked the implication. It was, to me, a statement about a world of artificiality, a constructed world, a commercial season, about a logic that ran contrary to what is viewed as natural (in nature, Christmas does not begin in July), yet it is how we live. I also felt my aunt was saying to me, "It's a long way to Christmas. It's a long way to anywhere from here. When are you coming to visit?"

Perhaps she was only talking about the store. I easily feel guilt with my relatives. Thus, I try to avoid saying anything that will provoke them to ask me when I am coming to see them, for the chief thing I need in relation to them is distance. Since emotionally, I have none, I have put much physical distance between us. I live on the West Coast, my family lives in the East. I visit them as infrequently as possible. My most immediate relatives are Jessie, my mother, and my sister and her family. Recently, Jessie and my mother have been talking about my coming back to visit them. My mother says, "I'm retiring." Jessie says, "Are you coming in July?" Both mean, as I hear it, "I'm going to die soon. I am elderly. I'm frail. Why aren't you here?"

Although I knew in advance I was going to Florida, I was reluctant to tell either Jessie or my mother about it. I did not want to tell Jessie because of certain parallels—Jessie is my father's sister and Maxine was my lover's father's sister, and Jessie often wishes to be dead. When I thought of telling Jessie about the trip, in my mind I saw her threatening a funeral, standing by her grave, pointing at the tombstone, and looking over at me. I heard my mother asking, "Do I have to die? What about the living? You can go there to clear out someone else's, but you can't come here to help me." My mother, only months ago, cleaned out Jessie's apartment and settled her affairs when Jessie went into the nursing home.

Why I ever mentioned to my mother that I was going to Florida makes only a demented sense. It comes, I think, from my not wanting


my mother to feel I am where I am not, and from a wish that she would decide I had done my part by cleaning the apartment of another aunt. That, however, is not the kind of logic that holds much sway with my mother. I had thought, too, that going to Florida to settle an in-law's affairs was a family matter and something one ought to tell one's mother about. The trip, and the unsettling event of Maxine's death, were a secret I had been keeping for over a month and I was eager to tell it. So just before I left, I told my mother I was going. She swore she would not tell Jessie. "Why tell her? She never needs to know," she said. But then, of course, "It slipped. I didn't know what I was saying."

My mother told me she had slipped and told Jessie when I called her one night from the hotel in Florida. I had, again, an inexcusable urge to be in touch with her. Specifically, I wanted to ask her what to do with Maxine's costume jewelry. "How do I tell the better from the worse? Who buys this?" I wanted to know. I thought she would know and that would help me decide what to give away and what to keep. My mother was of little help. She claimed to know nothing about costume jewelry, but she actually knew something. My mother, I have found, knows something about everything, although she claims not to—"You want to know where the scissors are? I have no idea, but you might look in the top left drawer of my desk." She said of the jewelry that unless it had a designer's name on it, it was worthless, but it might be interesting for me to look at. I told her about Maxine's apartment and about going to the lawyer and the sheriff, who gave us, in a brown paper shopping bag, Maxine's wallet and jewelry and the shoes she died in. The trip was like that, best discussed in terms of concrete, physical facts.

When I got back home, after putting it off for a week, I called Jessie to explain why I had gone to Florida and why I had not told her. She took it silently. Mostly, we discussed the tall buildings in Florida that were built right up to the beach and the mess Maxine's apartment was in. "My apartment was a mess too, you know. Your mother cleaned it," Jessie said. "Not as bad a mess as this." I told Jessie that my lover had not been close with her aunt, seeking to make the situation seem unemotional and not like the relationship between Jessie and me. "It was an obligation," she said, as if helping me out. We discussed the disposition of the Cadillac. "You should get what it's worth. Put an ad in the paper.


But if you can't, you can sell it to a dealer." I never mentioned Maxine's silver to Jessie. I felt it would hurt her feelings to know we had brought this silver back with us, even if I felt her set was better and I would prize it.

Soon after I got back, I received in the mail from my mother a letter in which she criticized Judith's Aunt Maxine for not cleaning her apartment, for playing golf, and generally for living the life she did. It felt like an attempt to destroy Maxine's character and meant, to me, that my mother was feeling jealous of my visit. In her letter, she also discussed her retirement, hinted at being at death's door, and suggested that perhaps she was losing her mind—how else explain that slip to Aunt Jessie? Finally, she announced a time the next month that I would have to come back to see her since she was going to have a retirement party and had suddenly set a date. I wrote her back telling her to stop threatening me with parties, or the loss of possessions from relatives, or I would not visit her at all. Along with the note, I sent selected pieces from Maxine's jewelry collection that I thought were in my mother's taste—a light green jade necklace, a silver Mexican ring, and a silver scarf holder.

There is something soothing about the luster of sterling silver, that metal that is not as valuable as gold. It has always seemed to me a second-class metal, so that what you do with it is what counts, the crafting of it into shapes and designs. Silver is the people's jewelry. It shines despite grim circumstance. It is soft for a metal and has, for me, a feeling of inevitability about it—you can always fall back on silver. Members of my family have favored silver, even when wearing gold. We tend to identify ourselves with silver, with being second best, not fitting in (like silver in a world of gold), and with liking handmade and imperfect arts. Silver is a private curiosity with us, something we look at on the sly and admire and gauge ourselves in relation to. We wonder, Do we look like this silver? Does it look like us? Are we brave enough to wear it? My sister and my mother and I each has a small collection of silver jewelry that we like.

I wish I could say that my family has the qualities of such well-wrought silver, but I cannot. I basically do not like families. I feel they are constraining. My family is something I have inherited, but that I wish I did not have, which is to say I wish to be free of my past.

Yet I know that to speak about family silver is to speak about connections


within families and across generations, especially among women. In Florida, for example, a couple of Maxine's friends, two seventy-year-old women, tried to get me to carry several cartons of books down the stairs of Maxine's apartment building by doing it their way—using a shopping cart. I refused, wanting to carry the books in my arms, my way. They proceeded to use the shopping cart, and as we passed each other on the stairs, they would not let me hear the end of it. Like silver, this was a low level, low luster argument, not apparently about anything important, yet Maxine's friends had to insist that their way was best and I had to refuse, each of us with a passion. What gets passed down through the generations, I think, is this desire to do things one's own way. Thus one daughter no longer engraves her initials on a set of sterling, another does not have a set at all. Silver seems not functional, it takes so much cleaning, it is expensive. Then a relative dies or passes her silver on and there is a decision to be made: Do I use it, or sell it, or put it in the basement? Which generation am I?[1]

As I wrote this chapter, I thought of Joan Didion's essay, "On Going Home," in which she speaks of returning to a family house "filled with mementos quite without value" to her husband: "what could the Canton dessert plates mean to him?" she asks. Didion speaks of wishing to give her daughter "a sense of her cousins and of rivers and of her great-grandmother's teacups," in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Delta, 1968), pp. 164 and 167-68.

In Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), anthropologist Annette B. Weiner speaks of possessions imbued with the identities of their owners that are "not easy to give away," and that are given as part of "an effort to make memory persist" and to reproduce the kin group or family (pp. 6-13). Weiner quotes Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath: "When everything that could be sold was sold ... still there were piles of possessions. ... The women sat among the doomed things, turning them over and looking past them and back. ... How can we live without our lives? How will we know it's us without our past?" (p. 1). Weiner, interested in women's wealth, especially "cloth wealth," re-examines classical anthropological exchange theories, which assume that giving is done for reciprocity, and suggests instead a "gender-based power constituted through keeping-while-giving" (p. 17).

Anthropologist Jane Schneider writes of a more egalitarian women's wealth than silver that is nonetheless similar, "embroidered whitewear" in nineteenth-century Italy, a wealth requiring much female labor that women brought to a family. Like family silver, the whitewear (embroidered sheets and bedcovers) was largely produced "for use within the home" and "was also potentially exchangeable for cash or food" and could be pawned (p. 344). Schneider refers to whitewear and other trousseau goods as "prestige goods," "valuables," "precious things." She seeks to distinguish a "pattern of creating value" by women's labor in embroidering cloth from the "make-work" it was sometimes claimed to be: "If the wealth thus created was inferior to more liquid forms such as gold, this is somewhat beside the point" (p. 350), in "Trousseau as Treasure: Some Contradictions of Late Nineteenth-Century Change in Sicily," in Eric B. Ross, ed., Beyond the Myths of Culture: Essays in Cultural Materialism (New York: Academic Press, 1980), pp. 323-56. See also Annette B. Weiner and Jane Schneider, eds., Cloth and Human Experience (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989).

Discussions of the history, production, and art of silver tableware can be found in Herbert Brunner, Old Table Silver: A Handbook for Collectors and Amateurs, translated by Janet Seligman (New York: Taplinger, 1967); Philippa Glanville and Jennifer Faulds Goldsborough, Women Silversmiths, 1685-1845: Works from the Collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (London: Thames and Hudson, and Washington, D.C.: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1990); Jessie McNab, Silver (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design, 1981); Dorothy T. and H. Ivan Rainwater, American Silverplate (West Chester, Pa.: Schiffer, 1988); Charles L. Venable, Silver in America, 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995); and Peri Wolfman and Charles Gold, Forks, Knives, and Spoons (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1994). Traditionally, men have made silverware and women have used it. Discussions of American Indian silvercraft emphasize themes of ornamentation, use, symbolic meanings, and the craft of production: for example, John Adair, The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1944), an anthropological classic; and Larry Frank, with the assistance of Millard J. Holbrook II, Indian Silver Jewelry of the Southwest, 1868-1930 (West Chester, Pa.: Schiffer, 1990).

Margaret Visser comments on the class difference between buying the family silver and inheriting it, in The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners (New York: Penguin, 1991), p. 185. For a discussion of family stories, see Elizabeth Stone, Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us (New York: Penguin, 1988).

Curly Hair

Something else passed down through the generations in my family is curly hair, and, much like family silver, it is both gift and burden. My sister has curly hair, her three daughters do, and so do I. When my sister and I were growing up, having naturally curly hair was a chief fact of our lives. It was not the right kind of hair, not the desirable kind, not the hair most other people we knew had. It was not gold hair. It was the silver of hair and it was something we felt we alone had inherited, and that we constantly had to correct for. We had to overcome our hair—tie it down, grow into it, be better than it. It made us feel we stood out like sore thumbs. Much inner personal misery was tied to our hair, an outward manifestation that was easier to talk about than other difficulties, such as being a big child, in my case. I felt like a rounded mass of flesh with curls on top when I walked across the street to visit a neighbor, a small, thin girl with straight hair. She was Catholic and had told me that the Jews killed Christ. I assumed I did it. How could she like me, given how I looked, given who I was?

If only my hair would be straight, I used to feel, I would be like everyone


else, I would be happy. I think people often have a feature, a skin color, a cultural heritage, a personal characteristic that makes them feel they stand out and for which they will be rejected, an outward sign that sums up all the inner pain and that they wish to hide or change. Women, who are so dependent on appearances, feel especially in these ways.

To the outer world, one's sensitive feature might seem no more than a curiosity. On one occasion when I was in high school, I went into a bathroom where a group of tough girls were smoking. One came over and asked to touch my hair and then said, startled, "Oh, it's soft. I thought it would feel like Brillo." I felt good that she thought that my hair was soft. I also felt let in on a reality—to the world, my hair looked like a steel soap pad. Once, growing up, my sister applied hair straightener to her hair, and the house smelled foul. My mother and I were horrified, feeling there were some ends to which one did not go. My sister's hair did not get altogether straight, but she was satisfied with the result, as if proud of having had the nerve to try. I remember, too, the nightly physical pain of wearing curlers and the trouble of turning my head on the pillow, the quest for the softest curlers (so they would not hurt) and the largest (so they would straighten as much as possible). I stopped using such curlers only when I began living with another woman for the first time, at age twenty-nine. The point here for me is that physical self-acceptance is not natural so much as learned. It takes a long time to come by even a small amount of it, and for a woman, self-acceptance may depend a great deal on intimate acceptance by other women.

My mother, much earlier, may have had the best idea about what to do with curly hair—cut the hair short so the curl will seem to go with the head. However, on the subject of hair, daughters tend not to listen to their mothers. In the process of growing up, I learned that hair is not a matter of appearance in an abstract aesthetic sense. Rather, it was about fitting in, being one of the people who counted for me, one of a majority. It was about being current and beautiful, like movie stars and others I wanted to escape from myself by being like. When I tried to change my hair, I was trying to be the more valuable metal, the more valuable person.

When I look back on pictures of my sister and myself as young girls, it is clear to me that, in some, my mother has wet our hair and then


pinned it down with a barrette to make it look straight for the photograph. Thus we learned about how it was fit to be seen—in public, one's hair does not curl. Much later, I see my sister's daughters in photographs and notice their hair. My sister says it is a major preoccupation for them. I am aware that although in a photograph, my sister's girls look very cute—the three of them, since small, topped by furry-looking thick brown curls—in person, this mess of curls is a tangle for each of them. My sister says her oldest has told her next oldest that some people simply do not like you if you are Jewish and left-handed and have curly hair. I had not expected such things to be passed down.

My sister's two older girls have temporarily solved the problem of their hair by letting it grow long, and, as it grows, pulling it down to make it seem straight. The hair is still frizzy and it bushes out, but it looks as if it is flowing downward, and that general impression is important; the attempt to straighten their hair shows they are trying to blend in. My sister's youngest child, Annie, has not yet adopted this longer style, however. As if reacting to the anguish the other two express about their hair and to the attention they give it, beginning very young, she refused to brush her hair, or to have it combed or brushed by anyone else. She said brushing hurt her, which sometimes it did, although there may be more to it. Beyond physical pulling, I would guess, to comb or brush her hair was to pull her out of her childhood, and out of her self, out of her own world and into a world where hair, like the rest of the person, conforms; where, although harboring silver, one claims to value gold; where one passes for someone one is not—a straight woman, a Christian woman, a younger woman, a man—as women often do.

Although my sister's girls have many years of pulling down their hair to look forward to, for me, having curly hair is no longer a misery. I have grown up into an era where adults, at least, do not stigmatize curly hair. In fact, many women have permanents, which, at first, seemed backward to me. Why curl your hair when it is already straight, when it is already the way it is supposed to be? Straightening curly hair, on the other hand, has seemed not backward so much as necessary, perhaps because I am more familiar with the motivation for it. To see someone with a permanent feels disconcerting to me. This woman pulls her hair


up to make it look right; I push mine down. She seems to get the benefit of curly hair without having gone through the suffering of it, although I know little of her suffering—much as a lesbian born after liberation knows little of the anguish of a lesbian born before, or a woman born after the washing machine knows little of the trials of a woman who lived earlier. A straight-haired woman's curled hair seems to me like new silver, acquired wealth, like getting to pick your pattern instead of inheriting your grandmother's, which is fine except that it does not answer the question that is so central to me—how can I feel good about, and value, what is mine? How can I accept what I have been given?

Hair, a woman's pride, like those other possessions that belong, if only momentarily, to us—those things by which we are marked, and that feel part of who we are—what do we do when these are lost? Such possessions are our wealth, our family silver. My aunt Jessie wore a wig for twenty-five years because her hair had thinned. She liked her wigs and felt unpresentable without them. When she moved into the nursing home, she stopped wearing a wig, and when my sister's girls first came to visit her, she was extremely worried they would be afraid when they saw her, as she put it, "with no hair." After their visit, my sister told me they had not been afraid. What they noticed and cared about was how Jessie acted toward them. She had not acted in a way that scared them. My sister felt Jessie looked fine without her wig. She looked like all the other women did in the nursing home, with thin gray hair. This was a world of silver. It did not have the same pretenses as elsewhere.

When I visited Jessie in the nursing home later, I noticed that all the women in the dining room had perfectly done white or gray hair, in sharp contrast to physical problems in their bodies. The room seemed beautifully aglow with their hair, and I wondered again about the relationship between a woman's appearance and her reality, her sense of self and her dignity. I wondered about what really matters in one's life and about my own concern with my appearance. I vowed never again to care about looking perfect, a hard promise to keep. But which of our promises are easy? Especially hard, I think, are those promises aimed at transcending the ways of one's gender, the old self-protections, the passed-on gifts.

Some gifts are subtle. When Judith and I went back to visit Jessie six


years ago, while she was still living in her apartment, Jessie slipped onto Judith's finger a handsome, Indian-made silver ring. jessie had gotten the ring many years before, when she used to take vacations in Arizona. I think she wanted to give her new in-law something and had decided on this ring. She found a finger where it fit and slipped it on. Judith liked the ring and decided to wear it all the time. She felt married into our family, or accepted in, by virtue of this gift. She made clear to me, too, that she liked silver and preferred it over gold. I knew that my parents' first wedding rings were silver bands, so I soon put on a silver ring myself, feeling that it was a fitting act. We never, of course, traded rings. That would be too heterosexual, too married, too coupled. We simply finished off something Jessie started with her gift.

Women's Wealth

This discussion of gifts, family relationships, and family silver illustrates, for me, some characteristics of social patterns among women, at least among a few I know, with special attention to the concrete physical facts, and the details of information and concern, around which our lives sometimes interconnect. The circle of relationships between myself and the other women I speak of here opens outward and turns in on itself again. Before leaving for Florida, for instance, I called my sister to ask her husband, a lawyer whose mother lives in Florida, for the recommendation of a local lawyer to help settle Aunt Maxine's affairs. There is something here about a habit of turning first to one's women relatives, and about the probability of finding that one of them lives in Florida. But the main thing for me was that getting that lawyer's name required that I call my sister back, after I first talked with her, in order to say to her, "Don't tell mother." I explained that I feared she would tell Jessie. My sister greeted my request with a significant silence in which I heard, whether intended or not, my mother's refrain, "You can go there, but you can't come to see me."

Who said what? Who felt what? That the line between my sister and myself, and my sister and my mother, is blurred for me is significant, but no more so than the line from an old song—it is a song about who does right by who, whose suffering should not be in vain, who should be recognized,


who should be heard, about attentions due one woman by another. It is about my needs of my mother, my mother's needs of me, my needs of my sister, and hers of me.

Women are said to be open, soft, expressive. Silver is known for its white color and said, because of its softness, to be fairly useless structurally, so ornamentation was made with it. Social patterns among women are, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder—my world of women is soft; it is also frightening and full of invaders. Yet, to some extent, each woman's mind's eye grasps outer realities. The outer world of women is soft, I think, because it is an underworld that yields to dominance, that provides indirect routes to get things done (a web of telephone connections, for example), and that takes very seriously the appearances of things (for instance, clothes, those signs of social place, and hair). This is a world that relies on ephemeral strategies, of being here one minute and gone the next, and of shifting one's position. Direct routes, anything very visible, would be interrupted, or the resources would not be available to women.

A world of women is frightening, I think, because it is unfamiliar—without power, without hierarchy, without order as order is normally understood, not described well by the words we know. Further, such a world is different for different women. Not every woman has relatives in Florida, not every woman's family has silver tableware. In fact, few do, but what counts is the idea of a woman having something of value—inner lasting value even when a thing wears out—the idea of use, of crafting, of making it your own, of not fitting in, not being what is valued most, not being gold.

In a world of gold, the silver is kept secret, locked in a box and wrapped in silvercloth to keep it from tarnishing. It is taken out for family and social use—to celebrate an occasion or keep the children in line. Silver tableware was once a possibility for only the wealthy, but aspired to by the middle classes. Acquired by them when production processes changed, and considered wealth, it was passed down in families, among women, and it fell to collectors—men appropriating women's wealth. Now, when most tableware is stainless steel, silver is largely unnecessary, archaic, mostly nostalgic. Initially silver had a functional advantage in that it did not interact with foods as much as prior metals—iron or


pewter, for instance. But silver was never very practical. Its uses were more ornamental, ceremonial, social, and to do with status. Further, it could be sold for money. It had that larger material value.

The questions silver raises concern value, and I am saying that I think the value problem is central to understanding relationships among women. To know these relationships one must, first, think it worthwhile to see that they exist. Relationships among women are often hard to see because they are camouflaged and devalued; they look like something else and fade into the background and are characterized by invisibility. Had I not pointed it out, for instance, no one but those close to me would know about my female relatives or about the particular web I make of them. Our relationships are interstitial, unremarkable on the surface. They are like Maxine's empty apartment, one among many that look like it. In my mind, there is an image of a woman on a phone in a nursing home in Connecticut talking with her niece in California about her woman lover's father's sister who died two months ago in Florida. The niece is seeking to repair damage done when her mother, somewhat vengefully, spilled the beans and told her aunt about it. Meanwhile, in another state, three curly-haired nieces of the niece are considered by their grandmother to be not yet ready for her husband's mother's silver flatware. She fears they will, by accident, throw it out. Suggestive, interconnected, understated, loaded with emotion, and with a rushed sense about it, plotless, fading away just beyond reach, this is a woman's world.

When women hold on to silver in their worlds—their mother's, or their mother's mother's, somebody else's, or their own—when they pass it on, whether the silver is used or kept in a bottom drawer, whether it is a single piece or a set, something is being said. When the silver must be sold for money because the woman is poor, or needs the money, or no longer wants or can keep it, when a woman takes out her silver and asks her daughter, "Do you like my pattern? Would you like to have it?" and the daughter, uncomprehending, tries to tell her, "I don't know how to answer your question," something more than silver is in the air. Sometimes the silver is not silver at all. It is a piece of cloth, an old dress, a head of curly hair, a memory, a belief, a sense conveyed that we are this kind of people. What will the next generation make of the wealth of the


generation before? What is one woman to make of her own wealth? Why is it so easy to lose family silver? It can be stolen, melted down, destroyed by fire, misplaced, thrown out. When the silver is lost, what else is lost? What does this silver represent—the kept female past, the precariousness of the female present, the need to guard what is women's? In some sense, this silver is an inner core, something too good to discard. "I keep my grandmother's family silver in a bottom drawer," says one woman. "Of course, I don't use it. There are not enough settings, and, anyway, it's too good."


Three The Family Silver

Preferred Citation: Krieger, Susan. The Family Silver: Essays on Relationships among Women. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.