This Victorian silver napkin ring carries a tragic story.
I use this antique napkin ring at every meal I eat at home. If you look closely, you can read the
engraved initials are E.M.L.H. Further examination exposes a couple of repaired holes in the silver cuff. The damage was done in about 1953 by Skippy, our little black Scottish-terrier puppy. The ring must have fallen off our family dining room table in Beaconsfield, Quebec and she enjoyed a quick chew before it was rescued. Its Victorian curly-queue design is not to my taste, but I treasure it anyway.
My two older brothers each had their own silver napkin rings engraved with their initials, probably bestowed on them at the time of their christenings. As a child I envied these personalized gifts and was a little disappointed to have to make do with one reading E.M.L.H. My actual initials were P.B.E.W at the time.
Eventually I learned that it had once belonged to my mother’s little sister Ethel Mary Lorraine Harbert. She died when she was only five years old.
A Terrible Accident
All kids enjoy lollipops, popsicles, and ice cream bars on a stick, sometimes sucking on the stick well after the sugary treat has been eaten. It’s likely that the first time I was given such a treat, my mother insisted that I sit down to eat it. Only years later did I comprehend why she was so adamant about this.
Mum explained, “When my sister Mary was little, she ran with a stick in her mouth, fell, and the stick pierced the back of her throat. The wound became infected and she died!” That’s the version I repeated to my own kids and grandkids, to warn them to be careful sucking on sticks.
I recently came across a history of the Harbert family written by Mum’s older brother Ted in 1993. He described the accident, which occurred when they lived in Redcliff, Alberta. He was 13; Mum was 8.
"The fall of 1914 disaster struck us, in the loss of little Mary. She was playing with Betty and some other girls, in the part of the stable where the carriage was kept. She was chewing on a splinter of wood, and in some way was jostled, running the point into her cheek.
"Mother did her best, swabbing the wound with boracic acid – long since considered ineffective, but at the time the only remedy we had. Infection set in, and in spite of all our local doctor could do, assisted by a surgeon from Medicine Hat, Mary died on November 14, 1914, and was buried in the cemetery at Medicine Hat, Redcliff not having such an amenity. Mother was extremely moved, and although she stuck it out, became so depressed that she had to return to Toronto."
After reading Ted's description, I did on online search of graves in the cemetery of Medecine Hat, Alberta and was astonished to find the name Ethel Mary Lorraine Harbert. The juxtaposition of my aunt's 1914 death with my writing this essay gave me goosebumps.
I am writing this on November 14, 2021 – exactly 107 years after Mary died. Why was I moved to write this account today?
A sepia photograph
Another outcome of this tragedy involved the fact that the girls had shared a bedroom. For months after Mary died, Betty could only fall asleep when lying in the upstairs hallway listening to her parents’ voices downstairs. They’d tuck her back into her bed on the way to bed themselves.
I have only one photograph of little Mary, its sepia tones adding an aura to its extreme age. Clutching her toy dog as she sits front and centre among her siblings, Mary appears to be about 21 months old, so perhaps it was taken in about January 1911. (She was born on April 11, 1909.) The others would have been 12, 10, and 5 if I’ve guessed correctly.
The family lived at 6 Woodlawn Ave West, Toronto, only two city blocks from where I sit today. My mother Betty and Mary were born in that house, now the site of modern townhouses.
The cause of Mary’s childhood death has become a sombre part of our family’s lore. When recently telling my step-daughter about the accident, my granddaughter remarked, “I remember you telling me about that when I was little, too.”
It’s natural that I would warn all children about such a dangerous practice. Hopefully they’ll carry on the warning when they become parents themselves.
So, you can see this old napkin ring is particularly precious to me because it illustrates the fragility of a child's existence. If such a mishap occurred decades later, antibiotics would likely have cured the wound. And Mary's own offspring would have inherited it instead.