When my mother gently placed the teaspoon in my palm, her hand covered mine. "I don't know where it came from," she told me, "but I want you to have this. All I know is that it's been in our family for generations." Mother must have just polished the spoon because it sparkled in the afternoon sun.
I'd watched my mother polish the silver hundreds of times, especially before holidays. Wearing lemon yellow rubber gloves, she would massage thick brown polish along the tines of forks and press her thumbs into the bowls of spoons. Her tall, thin frame curved over the kitchen sink as she soaked the silver in hot suds before rinsing fistfuls of forks, knives and spoons under running water and placing them on a kitchen towel to air dry.
The spoon didn't resemble any patterns I knew. Except for a cursive MA on the handle, it was smooth and plain. When I flipped itover, I couldn't read its name or maker. It wasn't made by Towle, Old Master, Gorham or the most famous of American silversmiths, Revere. All I saw were five symbols, so small I could only make out some letters: a TAF and a Z.
It was possible this spoon was very old. After all, my maternal ancestors included Capt. Turner Richardson of Virginia, a doctor and soldier from the Revolutionary War. "That was back in the day when there weren't so many captains," grandmother would boast. Or maybe it came from Papa, my maternal grandfather. Papa's people weren't particularly patriotic. They believed in equality. They sold booze to the British and the colonists.
So I took the spoon to a plating and polishing shop for possible identification. The bell jingled over the door. The proprietor, a tall gray-haired gentleman with glasses perched on his nose, waited for me to dig the spoon out of my pocket. "I need help," I said, handing it to him.
"They're not symbols," he said. "They're hallmarks." He twirled the spoon in his hand. "I think this last hallmark looks like a griffin or lion so it's probably English. This other hallmark could be a holly wreath with a flower," he told me. "Read the hallmarks from left to right. To identify this spoon, you'll need to go to the library and use a magnifying glass." He disappeared into a small room behind the counter and returned holdinga heavy book with a torn paper cover. "You'll need to look in a book like this one, but I can tell you this spoon isn't 18th-century silver; it's from the 19th century."
Could the code be cracked? At the library the next day, I pored over reference books about silver hallmarks. I learned that the spoon's shape indicated that it was a fiddle spoon, which made sense when I saw how the spoon's handle resembled the tailpiece of a stringed instrument. I discovered that it probably had been made between 1800 and 1850.
Peering through a magnifying glass, I read the hallmarks: the letters TAF in capital letters, a castle, a thistle, the letter Z and what the man from the silver shop had taken for a griffin: a man's profile.
The thistle hallmark seemedsignificant. Could this spoon be from Scotland? My curiosity led me to write to a magazine in Scotland and visit a local silver expert. I learned that the TAF indicated the maker of the spoon, Thomas Ashbury Forrest, and the profile is of William IV. The silver expert told me the letter Z indicated the spoon's birth date as 1831 or 1832. Most significantly, the castle indicated the spoon's origin as Edinburgh, the city Mother grew to love like her native Washington, D.C.
When I was a teenager digging for my own roots after Alex Haley's groundbreaking novel, my mother informed me, "You're American." When I pressed her, she said, "English and Irish from your father and from me, you're English, German, a wee bit of French and a smidgen of Scot." I wanted to know more. "So what can I cook to show off my heritage?"
"How about an apple pie or a hot dog?" my mother would retort.
Later in life, Mother made Scottish shortbread and danced to the sounds of Scotland when she fell in love with David, a drummer in a Scottish pipe band. On a summer day in 1996, a decade after her divorce, Mother said "I do" to David in Edinburgh, the city of castles and cathedrals, kings and queens, and tartans and bagpipes. My mother, the all-American woman, reveled in being a smidgen Scot.
Mother hadn't known the spoon was Scottish. She didn't know it came from the city where she married the love of her life. She didn't know the silver teaspoon would be her last tangible gift to me. She didn't know that she would die suddenly the day after Thanksgiving 2001 and a week later the bagpipers would play "Amazing Grace" in her honor.
Now, my Scottish spoon rests on red velvet in a cabinet in the corner of my dining room. Nestled between the other spoons, she deserves special treatment. She passes from generation to generation. Thin with age, she needs to be handled with care. When I polish her worn silver face, I see a reflection of my own, the high forehead, green eyes, and full mouth, a familiar version of my mother.
She stands in silent witness to my mother's sterling love for her heritage and her family.