This is no time to chew over the injustice of my inheritance, but I always thought the mint-julep cups were mine. My grandmother promised me they would come my way and, of her three granddaughters, I was the one who regularly transformed them from tarnished amber gold to shiny silver. I knew each cup by heart, the initials, the dates of weddings and anniversaries. My favourites were the two cups with the Cooper crest.
I loved that crest, with its tendrils and knight’s helmet and, almost polished out of existence, the swan feeding her young with drops of blood from nearest her heart. We were told that the swan signified a characteristic of the Cooper family-extreme loyalty and love for their own. Of course, I knew the line of succession: the silver cups would be Mama’s first. She preferred her bourbon with water, not mixed with a minty sugar syrup and poured over shaved ice. She also had little time for anything that required polishing. Under her stewardship, the heirloom mint-julep cups were wrapped in a dove-grey cloth and consigned to drawers that were hard to open.
For the next decade, the only time the silver cups saw the light of day was when I came home. In summer, I’d make a ceremonial round of mint juleps. At Thanks-giving, I served a cranberry cocktail I’d found in Gourmet, and, at Christmas, I used them for eggnog. With each sip, I felt I was confirming my worthiness and future ownership. But the time came for the mint-julep cups to be passed on. I was nestling them in my suitcase when my sister said: ‘Hold on, honey.
Those are mine.’ And I said: ‘Uh-uh. They’re mine. They’ve always been mine.’ At no point did we agree to divide the cups, take six each. It was ‘all or nothing’ and, as she’s two years older and, to be truthful, our grandmother did love her the most, she won. All that prevented a permanent rupture over the 12 mint-julep cups was the discovery that there were only 10. Mama had given a god-daughter two of the cups for a wedding present, an act so out of keeping with Cooper ‘extreme loyalty to family’ that we were briefly united, if only in mutual outrage. Another Cooper trait is an inability to forgive and forget.
I didn’t inherit that either. I forgive mainly because I forget. Years went by without lamentation for my lost inheritance. Then, I saw my cousin Marguerite’s tray of mint-julep cups in her dining room in Washington and a little lump of grief appeared. I became as moody as a mother swan. Google ‘mint-julep cups’ and the world is your oyster. You can find real silver ones (£200-plus each) and silver-plate, ranging from £10 to £25. On eBay, you can find heartbreaking heirlooms, cups with dates and names.
I found no swans, but I saw two with the Cecil family motto-Sero sed serio or ‘Late but in earnest’-and hoped the Cecils hadn’t fallen on hard times. Prudently, I decided that my inheritance wounds weren’t so grave as to require sterling silver. I chose a mixture of silver plate (matching julep cups look too new). After a ceremonial christening-mint juleps in the rocking chairs looking out on a Suffolk sunset-I decided that they would become our dining-room water glasses. Except that water acquired a weird metallic taste in them. And left a rusty residue in the bottom.
Reluctantly, I left them on their tray, untouched except for an occasional dusting with an anti-tarnish cloth from Peter Jones. This morning, I succumbed to another tradition. I put them in a cupboard. Perhaps it’s because I know they aren’t the real thing, that they aren’t even made in the land of bourbon. But it’s may just be that I’ve reached a certain age. I may have mastered Googling and PayPal, but I no longer want to accumulate anything-a sense of injustice, silver plate-that needs polishing. Sero sed serio.
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