‘Doing the brasses’ was a weekly ritual at Greengates, my grandmother’s home in Scotland. Built in the late 1800s, the old stone house sported endless brass doorknobs, cavernous plant pots, and enough barleycorn candlesticks for a state dinner. Welcoming the New Year in style required increased elbow grease from the adults. As a child, I was relegated to dusting table and chair legs.
When midnight rang in the New Year brasses positively glittered and the old oak dining room table groaned with an impressive array of home baking. If cleanliness was next to Godliness, Gran was determined the Munro home would head the list – especially at Hogmanay, the last day of the year. When the ‘first footer’ (the first person to step over the threshold after the stroke of midnight – preferably tall and dark, and absolutely required to bring a small token gift to set the good luck for the new year), the home was invariably welcoming and immaculate.
In other countries in other years my mother carried on the Munro tradition. There were fewer brasses, but the table was always set and ready to give the old year a good send-off and set a positive tone for the new one. Unlike my grandmother’s home, liquor was allowed in ours, but with, or without, ‘the drink’ a steady stream of well-wishers paraded through both houses while the piano and organ got good workouts. A willing musician was always on hand, all the Munros (except me!) could sing, and Aunt Isa’s talent with a tambourine was legendary, even in the Salvation Army where she was an officer. Optimism was a prerequisite for welcoming the new year, And, with each departing guest I can still hear my grandmother call, “Haste ye back!.”
Tonight, polishing my brasses to welcome 2012, the houses, the people, the music, and the years, come into sharp focus. Aladdin and his magic lamp come to mind.
My reflection shimmers 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 family I am too ill to survive. Isa, mother’s elder sister, dashes across the snowy street and returns with her rose bowl. Alpie now proceeds with the ritual.
Between the prayers, blessings, and my grandmother’s faith and nursing, the doctors are proven wrong.
“I’ve raised 11 children and not lost one yet. I don’t intend to lose this one!” She informed him tartly. Three decades later my three children were christened from the same rose bowl in Alberta and California, with the girls wearing my tiny christening gown.
Next the warming pan with the long turned oak handle and the engraving of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Maids in the 1800s filled the pan with hot coals. Sliding between the sheets it warmed household beds. It’s awkward to polish, but worth the effort. I return it to its place on the wall.
Among the candlesticks is the weighted one mother purchased for five shillings in London in the 1920s. She said it took her hours to get it clean. It always reminded me of the candle stick Wee Willie raced around the city with in the nursery rhyme.
The etched tray I picked up in 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.
Unlike my mother and grandmother, the brasses are now polished when their tarnish bothers my conscience… or when a new year dawns demanding adherence to family tradition. Aladdin-like, the polishing produces an elusive djinni which also returns me to my mother.
Of course, as a Scottish child who shared a room with an Inverness ghost, I can be persuaded to believe anything. Particularly at New Year, especially since it is also my grandmother’s birthday.
May magic make your New Year shine, too.
–Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is former editor and publisher of the Cloverdale Reporter.