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Family Heirlooms and Relics: Holding on to the Past

by Leslie McManus


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Hard as it may be for folks like you and me to believe, there are people for whom family heirlooms hold no meaning. For some, an old family relic is at best an item to be converted into cash and at worst one with virtually no value, best hauled to the landfill.

Those who have no truck with family relics may be on to something. I would guess that when a death occurs in such families, the estate is settled quickly and amicably. Their garages, attics and barns are neat and orderly. Their homes are tastefully decorated and clutter-free.

The rest of us, though, can always make room for one more treasure. That is how a post vise has come to reside in my husband’s shop. It has virtually no aesthetic appeal and about that much practical value. It will rest in a dark corner until the property’s next owner tosses it on to the junk pile. But in the meantime, it is a tangible reminder of a dear friend now gone.

Then there is my sister’s old cook pan. “Gnarly” is not a word typically used to describe cookware, but it is a good fit for a pan long used by my sister’s mother-in-law to fry chicken. The pan’s handle broke off perhaps 50 years ago. The underside is encrusted with a coarse, unidentifiable substance that can only charitably be described as patina. It is a homely, crude thing — but it saw active duty as recently as Easter Sunday.

I don’t know how one comes to be a member of the other camp, those who cherish some ratty old thing because it was Dad’s or Granddad’s. Is it a case of genetic predisposition? Is it carefully drilled into a child’s consciousness? Is it a physical manifestation of a bond that transcends death? Is it an appreciation for clan history?

Questions like those drifted through my mind as I read responses to the June 2012 issue’s What Is It items. One piece — a soap shaker — struck a nerve among readers, several remembering the piece from childhood. Melinda Trout captured the essence of the appreciation of heirlooms. “Mom died last year in 2011 at age 95 and the soap shaker was still under the sink with soap in it,” she says. “It now hangs by my kitchen sink.”

Nostalgia? Tradition? Plain old practical? Your guess is as good as mine. After all is said and done, beauty remains in the eye of the beholder. FC 

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