A guest post by Dee Thompson
Not long ago I opened an old, big cedar chest in my mother’s room and found my dad’s Korean War army uniform, old evening dresses my mom wore, and way in the bottom, a blue velvet dress made for a toddler. There is a photo of me wearing that dress, in my grandfather’s arms, and I cherish the photo and the dress. My mom bought the dress in 1964 while visiting New York City, and it was a very expensive Polly Flinders creation, but I’m sure she bought it after it was marked way, way down. I love these stories from the cedar chest.
I worry for the younger generations who say they don’t want family heirlooms. I know minimalism is fashionable these days, but I’m not sure I can adhere to its strict guidelines. In the Marie Kondo version of the world, we are all supposed to discard items that don't bring us joy and hold onto items that do. I am all for being non-materialistic. However, there are certain things in my house I could never bring myself to part with, because I cherish how their stories connect me to past generations.
Our family histories are told in stories, and the heirlooms remind us of those stories. The chips and tears and scratches in family heirlooms speak to the grit, ingenuity, and perseverance of those who have come before us.
For instance, I have a pink and blue quilt my Memaw made in 1933 with help from my great-grandmother. The fabric likely still holds the oils of the fingertips of Granny Butler, my great-grandmother who was born in 1870 and who birthed 13 children and buried two of them. One day, I would like to tell my future granddaughter about how my mom was born in 1933 during the darkest days of the Great Depression, when a once proud and wealthy family was scraping to get by, and my grandfather couldn’t find work. My grandmother and great-grandmother didn’t know if the new arrival would be a boy or girl, so Memaw and Granny made the quilt in pink and blue.
I write at a desk that my mom found at a garage sale many years ago, when I was tiny. Mom said when she bought it, it was covered in hideous metallic paint. My brother and I, as small children, helped peel off the paint and helped get it stained back to where one can see the beauty of the original wood. The middle leaves fold in so it can be a narrow trestle table or a full-sized table. It shakes like jello when I print something, but I don’t care.
The old wooden table in my kitchen was built by my great-grandfather sometime in the late 19th century. When my parents married, they had no money and no furniture. Papa Hasty traveled to North Georgia, to his sister’s house, and got the table out of the basement and cleaned it up and fixed it to give his only daughter. I have eaten at that old wooden table for most of my life. The legs have small indentations where I gnawed on them when I was a teething baby.
The old iron bed in my son’s room was bought in 1922 when my dad’s parents got married. It was used, and Dad told me that Grandaddy paid $11 for it. My dad and his brothers were likely conceived in that old bed. I have an old white apron that Memaw made from a flour sack during the Depression. Mom said most of her dresses, when she was little, were made out of flour sacks. I have a baby doll that belonged to my mother, and she wears a little sweater and cap made by my grandmother in the early or mid 1930s. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for that dollbaby.
I have a china cabinet full of dishes, but none mean as much to me as the full set of china that belonged to Memaw and Papa Hasty. It’s red Willow china, made in England by the Allerton company. When Memaw and Papa were newlyweds and Papa was playing baseball for the Philadelphia Athletics, they bought that china at Wannamaker’s Department Store. Despite moving many times over the years, Memaw made sure no piece of that china was ever lost or broken. I think there’s service for 10 or 12.
But folks like me in their 50s now face the sad reality is that our children and grandchildren don’t love and cherish family heirlooms as we did. Estate sales are held when a senior family member dies, and everything is sold off or given away. I may need to downsize one of these days, and I dread the thought of having to sell or donate any of my furniture or linens that have been passed down in the family. None are “fine antiques,” as my mom would say, but they all mean so much to me. I lost my mother this year. When I look at my mom’s things now, I want to cry because I see her wearing this scarf, or putting something delicious in that bowl, or telling me that picture was made in 1952 when she had just graduated from college and she went to Florida with her mother. Every object tells a story.
Let me offer this thought to the younger generation. I hope you will look at that old pie plate your mama got in 1979 or that old treadle sewing machine and see more than something that’s dusty and clunky and unfashionable. I hope you will look at these things and listen to the stories they tell about the hands that worked so hard to make your food and wash your clothes and soothe your fevered brow. I hope you see that the 1926 silver dollar your grandfather gave your mama as a good-luck piece should be held onto because … wasn’t it good luck for you that she became your mama?
Try to keep some things. Try to write down the stories. Our society’s past isn’t found only in monuments and museums. Sometimes it’s right there in front of you, handed down by your own family, in old objects that have lessons to teach.