Heirlooms: connecting the past to the present

As what’s old becomes new, and the nostalgic becomes hip, it seems like everyone is taking another look at cherished heirlooms and items passed down through the generations. Shows like American Pickers and American Restoration is today’s cooler version of Antiques Roadshow, and people are signing up to take calligraphy lessons and buy vintage typewriters just as more and more schools are taking cursive out of their curriculum.

Perhaps people aren’t rushing out in droves to antique stores, but sites like Etsy and Pinterest have given way to the shabby chic trend, and suddenly grandma’s old lace doilies and your great-uncle’s pocket watch are fair game for decorating your home, or your body.

The photos above are some “heirlooms” of our own: Mom has a wicker chest in my room filled with old tablecloths, carefully embroidered napkins, and fine lace handkerchiefs. Some belonged to her mother, and some belonged to her father’s mother, two women that I loved so much as a child, and left us before I had a chance to know them better. I handle these items with care, imagining my grandmother and great-grandmother’s hands caressing them, too, and wrapping them up so tenderly for the next woman in the family to enjoy. I immediately remember sitting in rocking chairs drinking Barq’s root beer with MawMaw Chicken, as we called my great-grandmother Denise Roussel, even though she had stopped raising chickens well before I came around. I think with longing of the days I would sit in the “blue” room at my MawMaw Vickie’s house, watching her and her sister sew quilt after quilt, or apply delicate beading to a wedding dress for one of my cousins. And later, when she showed me how to work her sewing machines, so that I could quilt, too, and make special crafts for my mom after a summer spent in Louisiana.

Just yesterday, I came across a website from a British photographer called The Heirloom Project, for which he takes pictures of people’s treasured items in his studio, and they share the story behind it. The pictures tell a story all by themselves, but when you read the words from the items’ owners, you get a sense of their emotions, who they are, and where they come from. Some descriptions are just a few sentences, some are longer, but all are authentic, simple, and raw.

When items from our parents and grandparents and other relatives are passed on to us, we may not often take the time to really see and absorb the stories behind it. Perhaps we are grieving, and it’s just a part of the ritual of cleaning out a home. Perhaps it was discovered years later in a pile of items to be tossed out or donated, and we have to do a little research. Or perhaps you had your eye on something since you were a child, not quite knowing the significance, but knowing that it stood for something you had yet to uncover.

Today, the former owner of my parents’ house came by to pick up a couple of pieces of mail, and we gave her a gift. Years ago, she had painted a scene on some tiles for the kitchen; a cute image of her and her husband, now passed, in front of a flower shop, in farmers’ outfits. When my parents redid the kitchen upon moving in, they saved the tiles as best as they could, and we pieced back together the broken ones with glue. Today, when we gave the tiles back to her, she cried — with memories, with happiness, with grief still there years later. But it made us emotional, too, to think that we could provide a little piece of history and love back to this woman who had spent so many years of joy here with the love of her life. Someday, she may pass those tiles on to her children, and them to her grandchildren. There’s a story behind it, and I was glad to be just a tiny piece of it.

What heirlooms do you have that tell a story?

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