The Things We Treasure

How 12 Mismatched Silver Spoons Taught Me the Meaning of Home

Through three homesick years in New York, I learned that the better days always start with coffee and quiet time—and one of Gigi's silver spoons.

January 30, 2020
Photo by Drue Wagner

An object is often worth more than its material form. It can bring with it cultural echoes, family history, and personal memory. In The Things We Treasure, writers tell us about their most priceless possessions—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.


James J. “Jack” Barnes was just Papa to me. To everyone else, he was a legend. When he walked into a room—his barrel-chested physique barely contained by his suspenders—people would all but line up to talk to him. Bigger than life was an understatement.

But this story isn’t about Papa, even though most are. This story is about Gigi.

While I got my entrepreneurial spirit, my bunny cheeks, and my bluntness from my grandfather, it’s Gigi who taught me how to make a home feel like home. And as someone who’s had many, I know now what a gift that is.

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“When I got my first apartment, I bought a set of inexpensive stainless flatware from World Market. My grandmother would have none of that and arrived with a set of Community silverplate that belonged to her and to her mother. I was the only person I knew with silverplate for everyday flatware. I smile every time I use it, even after all these years. I have added to it and treasure all the unique specialty pieces. Thank you for sharing your story.”
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She also gave me a dozen sterling silver spoons.

Doris Ethelene Pleasant, aka Gigi. Photo by Kelsey Burrow

Doris Ethelene Pleasant first fell in love with antiques after graduating college, when she moved in with a woman who owned several of her own, and taught her the joy of seeking out the stories they told. This became Gigi’s lifelong passion, a constant treasure hunt—with Papa as her faithful accomplice, driving her to fairs and auctions up and down the East Coast.

She passed her love on to my mother, and I grew up in a home where we wrestled on Oriental rugs, ate our cereal cross-legged in Chippendale chairs, did our homework on an old kitchen farm table, and quickly learned the Staffordshire dogs were not our pets. It was my normal, but the older I got, the more I realized it was anything but.

When I got my first apartment after college, my mom gave me an English spooner that once belonged to Gigi. A spooner, if you’re not familiar, is a patterned glass vessel that was used in Victorian society to, not surprisingly, hold silver spoons (not to be mistaken for a celery vase, as Gigi warned). They were also a symbol of hospitality: middle-class families didn’t usually have enough silver spoons to go around when setting a table, so they would leave their spooner out with what they had for their guests. There's a timeless lesson in there for me: Don’t let feelings of inadequacy stop you from giving someone your very best.

Naturally, Gigi gave me the spoons to fill it with—a dozen sterling silver spoons she picked from her carefully curated collection. What I loved most was that each spoon was different—some engraved with names and initials (who are you, Nellie Montgomery?); others with floral bouquets tumbling down their necks.

I grew up in a home where we wrestled on Oriental rugs, ate our cereal cross-legged in Chippendale chairs, did our homework on an old kitchen farm table, and quickly learned the Staffordshire dogs were not our pets. It was my normal, but the older I got, the more I realized it was anything but.

Giving spooners and spoons became a family rite of passage. Just last year, Gigi gave me a collection of demi spoons after discovering, and disapproving of, my contraband of mini tasting spoons “borrowed” from an ice cream shop that will not be named. My mom and two older sisters are proud spooner owners too. These sit by the coffeemakers in each of our households—like a little hug from Gigi each morning.

Nobody has taught me how to make a house a home like my mom has, and the invaluable lesson that the better days start with coffee and quiet time. At her house, we swirl our half-and-half in with her sterling spoons—ones just like mine but with stories of their own. We joke that her thick, dark roast makes them stand upright in the cup. She offers to water it down, but the truth is, we wouldn’t have it any other way. We plop down at her round pine table and lose ourselves for hours watching the birds and talking about the stuff of our hearts. Those moments, they always start with Gigi’s spoons.

Four Thanksgivings ago, mom took my two sisters and me to Northfield, the farm where she grew up. We drove past the familiar old Williamsburg-style house, its patina peeking through the pines, and pulled up to the warehouse where Gigi was waiting for us—Gigi and her life’s collection of antiques. As far as the eye could see, it was a maze of chinoiserie and corner cupboards, milk glass lamps and wall cabinets, stacks of art prints and gilded frames, cherry trunks and pine desks and oak side tables, and...

Gigi handed each of us a different color pad of Post-its and said we were to put them on anything we wanted. “They're yours,” she said.

At the time, I was a newlywed living in a studio in Brooklyn. I walked around in a dream-like state, dizzy from Gigi’s generosity, picking valuable, beautiful things at will, and without a spare square foot to put them. On my return, I put everything in storage. But through those three long, homesick years in New York, there was always room on the counter for Gigi's spoons. They reminded me to give my best, to others and to myself—and when the time came, to find my way back home.

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13 Comments

Matt H. February 6, 2020
This reminds me of my mom. My nephew calls her Gigi, too.
 
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Kelsey B. February 11, 2020
Gigis are the best.
 
Sauertea February 4, 2020
I loved this piece. Reminded me of my grandmother. When I got my first apartment, I bought a set of inexpensive stainless flatware from World Market. My grandmother would have none of that and arrived with a set of Community silverplate that belonged to her and to her mother. I was the only person I knew with silverplate for everyday flatware. I smile every time I use it, even after all these years. I have added to it and treasure all the unique specialty pieces. Thank you for sharing your story.
 
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Kelsey B. February 11, 2020
Ah, yes! Why not use our finest, our best, every single day? Such an important life lesson we learned from our grandmothers...
 
Eric K. January 30, 2020
Really lovely piece, Kelsey. Thank you for sharing it with us.
 
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Kelsey B. January 31, 2020
Thanks Eric - was cathartic to write.
 
M January 30, 2020
Collecting another's memories, and adding your own, is such a nice way to merge the old and new. Hope things like this become more commonplace.

Can't help but think of a cookbook I had to buy, not because I wanted the recipes, but because the inside had a series of dated inscriptions. The final was a note from grandmother to grandchild. Within a year of that note, it was mine. I had bought it in a used book shop because someone had to appreciate the history and gesture.
 
Gammy January 30, 2020
M, your second paragraph brought tears to my eyes. How could anyone be so thoughtless to giveaway such a special heirloom. Thank you from every grandmother who has ever passed along her treasures for rescuing this piece of family history.
 
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Kelsey B. January 31, 2020
M — Can't say I've always appreciated my Gigi's treasures. But I certainly have learned to love old things (especially things with her handwriting!) as I've grown up in this Ikea generation. Can't imagine my life without their warmth now. Very grateful.
 
M January 31, 2020
I think we're caught in extremes. Decades of world war and scarcity led to a focus on saving and heirlooms, and now a reaction against that to chosen minimalism and newness. I understand some of it. I've got a bunch of ephemera bought to be heirlooms, that hold no particular sentimentality beyond the thought, that I have no room for and feel terrible about the thought of selling. It feels like a burden. But a small book with history literally written right inside? Something that was used or created and cherished and can fit on a shelf? I can't fathom parting with that.
 
Amy January 30, 2020
Thank you for sharing this beautiful story! My grandparents were antique dealers. I was also lucky enough to grow up surrounded by beautiful reminders of the past, and now I love to decorate my home with them. I love how specialized some of the flatware pieces from the Victorian era are. My favorite find has been a set of ice cream forks (a three tine scoop, used to break up and eat ice cream).
 
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Kelsey B. January 31, 2020
Amy! I'll have to ask Gigi about ice cream forks -- I'm sure she has some somewhere... We're so lucky to have grown up around antiques. Would love to see your home!
 
Arati M. February 2, 2020
I'm willing to bet Gigi has some ice cream forks lying around ;)