Grandma Collects Pewter
Grandma collects pewter items – molded like saltine crackers, a pair of palms sans fingers, pawns for a game of chess, anything that catches her eye. When she travels, she searches the dusty corners of every tourist shop she can find, says that’s where all the good treasures are hidden. She’s not interested in the pieces near the register, the clean ones that shine and are adorned with colored crystals. The ones she wants, the ones she can’t help but buy in a fit of consumer impulse, are dirty and misshapen. Perhaps they’ve been poorly sculpted, or thrown from the sweaty fingers of a restless toddler, the metal too weak to protect itself from such a traumatizing blow, or maybe they’ve simply been forgotten, banished to the clearance section due to low sales. The reason isn’t of prime importance to her. It only matters that she can leave the shop believing she’s saved an otherwise useless item. Beauty, she says, real beauty, is always where you’ll never expect it.
Back at her house, the misfit shards of alloy are added to her semi-private collection, placed in an all-glass curio cabinet in the living room. The cabinet is the first thing you see when entering through the front door. A pewter cross hangs above it, a blessing for her treasures, camouflaged by the pale grey wallpaper. Tarnished oil lamps – one of them, she says, was used by her father in the coal mines of Eastern Ohio, but she doesn’t tell me which one – line the bottom two shelves. The pieces on the upper shelves are organized in a pattern I can’t decipher: one spoon, two thimbles, one candlestick, two crackers, five spoons, one fingerless palm, two candlesticks, one thimble. And yet, this pattern appears to make perfect sense to her. Pewter, she says, is a miracle alloy; it’s made of 85 to 99 percent tin and the rest with whatever other metal is handy. Like memory, the tin binds to the other material – bismuth or antimony, copper or silver – absorbs the disparate features, becomes malleable at temperatures under 300 degrees, like a metal clay. The resulting alloy can then be molded into any item needed or desired. Cups, letter openers, souls, necklaces, humpback whales.
At night, when she’s turned off all the lights except the fluorescent bulbs in the cabinet, she likes to sit in a recliner facing her adoptions. She holds one of the metal thimbles, rolls it around in her palm like she’s studying a washed-up seashell in low tide. The Romans mixed tin with lead to make pewter, she says, as did the Ancient Egyptians 1500 years before Christ, but now nearly all pewters are lead-free. She stares at the rows of pewter, how they seem to suck in the light like tiny black holes. How items crafted as mementos were also poisonous, sometimes like the memories.
About the Author: Ryan Kauffman is a teacher and writer in Richmond, Indiana. His previous work has appeared or is forthcoming in Still: The Journal, BOAAT, Hippocampus Magazine, and Appalachian Heritage, among others. He teaches composition and creative writing at Ivy Tech Community College.