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Minding the brass: good enough for the Romans. Good enough for the Munros

A brass christening bowl. - Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo
A brass christening bowl.
— image credit: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo

Champagne may have heralded your 2011, but mine began with Brasso.

As the Keeper of Munro Brass I am plagued with a sacred clan duty. Polish the family brass. Thankfully the breastplates vanished with the ancient Romans. Driven by elbow grease, flannel, and departed Celts, I do my duty.

‘Doing the brasses’ was a weekly ritual at Greengates, my grandmother’s Scottish home. Built in the late 1800s, the old stone house sported endless brass doorknobs, cavernous plant pots, and barleycorn candlesticks sufficient for a state dinner.

My reflection twinkles in the newly polished brass rose bowl. I picture the family gathered before the fireplace in my grandmother’s sitting room. The Rev. Alpine “Alpie” McAlpine, mother’s cousin, ready to christen me realizes there’s no Christening bowl. Mother, too weak to attend, knows the doctor has already advised the Munros I am too ill to survive. Isa, mother’s elder sister, dashes across the snowy February street to return with her brass rose bowl. Alpie now proceeds with the ritual.

Between prayers, blessings, and my infirm grandmother’s unshakable faith and ministrations, the medical prognosis proved wrong. “I’ve raised 11 children and not lost one yet. I don’t intend to lose this one!” she informed the doctors firmly. Three decades later my three Canadian children were christened from the same rose bowl in Alberta and California. The girls wore my tiny lace christening gown. I pause to mop up tears. My beloved younger cousin, Alison, was christened in the same gown, and from the same bowl. Cancer claimed her two years ago.

Next the warming pan with the long turned oak handle, and the engraving of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Maids in the 1800’s filled the pan with hot coals. Sliding it between linen sheets it warmed many household beds. It is awkward to polish, but worth the effort. I return it to its place on the wall.

Among the candlesticks is a lead weighted one mother purchased for five shillings in London in the 1920s. She said it took her hours to clean. It invariably reminds me of the candle stick Wee Willie raced around the city with in the nursery rhyme.

The etched tray I picked up in a Morocco Souk gets a final rub, before I address the toasting fork with Holyrood Palace (the official residence of the monarch in Scotland) on the handle. How often I‘d used it to toast bread over glowing coal fires perched at my grandmother’s feet.

Unlike mother and grandmother, “our’ brasses are now polished when tarnish bothers my conscience…and always at New Year. Aladdin-like the polishing produces an elusive djinni who subliminally returns me to my fellow polishers - mother and the now absent Munro women.

Of course, as a Scottish child who shared a room with an Inverness ghost, I can be persuaded to believe anything.

– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a travel writer, photographer, and editor. She can be reached at utravel@shaw.ca



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