About ten years ago, while visiting my grandmother in Pennsylvania, she gave me some photographs from an album I was studying in her parlor. The photos were of my mother as an infant and of my grandmother and grandfather as young parents. They are small, brown and rectangular with those scalloped edges that pictures taken so many years ago frequently have. Since history in my family is a little hard to come by, I was floored by her gift. What may no longer have mattered to her was of tremendous importance to me.
I spent what seemed like a small fortune at the time to have a professional restore the images. He preserved the photographs and arranged all five of them in a reprint that I was able to reproduce and gift to my parents, brother and sisters. I framed the originals and so, every day, I get to pass by my grandfather, whom I never knew, smoking a pipe; my mother, as an infant, perched in a laundry basket; my grandmother, standing in front of an old car somewhere I’m sure I’ve never been.
Those pictures tell a story. A story that I know very little about. And, since I don’t know the stories, I cling to the objects that represent them.
If I can trace the beginning of my family-heirloom-hoarding to a specific time period, ten years ago would be about right. I had met my husband and we were busy setting up house. My parents had given me a few items over the years; items that they were done with or significant pieces that they felt ready to pass down. Somehow, having a home of my own in which to place them made all of these things more precious than they were before.
In the years since, I’ve accepted items as they’ve been offered. Those offers have become more frequent as my parents approach the age where one starts to think about clearing out this spot or decluttering that area. I’ve eagerly gathered up decorative plates that belonged to distant relatives, punch bowls that sit dusty and unused, old baskets beginning to unravel.
A few times, I’ve just outright asked for special pieces. I returned from my most recent trip to Louisville with two quilts that belonged to my father as a youth. They are paper thin in places and it was all I could do, while choking back tears, to reassure my mom I would take great care with them.
My husband’s father is a skilled woodworker and while my husband likes to protest that very few of his personal effects survived our household merger, the truth is, many of the pieces handcrafted by his father are some of our most treasured belongings. A mirror in our foyer still bears the typed label explaining it was made by my father-in-law to celebrate his marriage to my mother-in-law in 1951. A trunk in our family room, crafted by hand from oak, is the perfect spot to hold super-sized toy trucks. A framed print my husband returned from New York with is hung in our dining room next to a beloved figurine.
I don’t value one particular item over another – I just simply value them all.
Some keepsakes are decidedly more useful than others. I’ve been clinging to a blender that once belonged to my father’s father even though I haven’t used it in years. It is ancient and has a motor so powerful, I believe we could use it as a back-up generator if we were to lose power. And, when we were expecting Henry, my grandmother kindly sent down a crib that had been used by generations of her family, once housing my mother as an infant. The fear of lead paint kept it out of our nursery but still, I cart it, unassembled, from house to house. I don’t know if it will ever be reassembled but I know I will never get rid of it.
Our house has become a sort of carefully curated collection of items that once belonged to other people. There are plenty of my present-day additions in the mix but everywhere you turn, within every room are pieces of the past. And, even though I may never know the whole story, I can try my best to preserve that which is tangible.