If you watch the Antiques Roadshow on PBS, you see individuals who are keenly aware of the emotional value of objects, trying to ascertain the financial value.
Family heirlooms, however, aren’t just objects with significant monetary value. In fact, the objects we cherish often have less fiscal value than emotional significance. When we write about these physical treasures lurking around our households, the fiscal value isn’t what matters. Leave a record of the object’s story so family members can more deeply appreciate them.
It’s always interesting to see an family heirloom mentioned in a written family story. It’s almost as if owning an object passed on by ancestor gives a more tangible connection to that person.
Identifying Emotional Family Heirlooms
Heirlooms can be a bit like flowers. One person’s flowers are another person’s weeds. So how do you figure what you want to pull and what you want to fertilize?
Look around and start asking relatives…
Objects You’ve Always Taken for Granted
Are there objects that you have had in your home all your life? Look around as if you’re a visitor. What looks old or unique? What doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the decor? Ask relatives if they remember them, their origins, and their stories. Even if they’ve only been kept around for their aesthetic of financial value, it might be interesting to know what other homes they’ve graced and if they were purchased (or better yet, made) for some special occasion.
Ask about any objects brought back from military or business travel overseas. See if you can find out when they were purchased and for whom? Why was the purchaser traveling? Many stories accompany keepsakes on their travels, and one story can easily lead to another.
Is there any hand-made furniture in the family? Ask about its origins. Look at old photographs and pay special attention to the backgrounds. Do you recognize any of the objects? Don’t forget textiles—especially quilts. These were often handed down from generation to generation. Once you know the maker of the object, it becomes easier to write about that heirloom and its place in your family history.
Tools of the Trade
Explore the attic, basement, or garage for long-sealed boxes. You might find:
Uniforms, helmets, or medals. These give clues to ancestors’ military service, rank, deployment, and timing of discharge.
Professional tools or equipment:
An old sewing machine from a seamstress or tailor, furniture from a carpenter, etc., might reveal what a family member’s life was like in the “olden days.” Exploring the tools and asking questions about them will certainly lead to stories of one sort or another.
Personal or hobby mementos:
Artwork, travel souvenirs, or items purchased far away can reveal information about travels, income, and personal taste. Of course, the fact that the relic has been relegated to the attic or garage might be part of that story as well.
Last, but certainly not least—anything with only emotional value that your relative or ancestor cherished enough to keep can be a family heirloom.
The fact that these items are still around might simply be indicative of someone’s inability to part with things. On the other hand, each of these items might lead to a story. Simply examining the objects often gives you a closer connection to their owners. If you can, ask questions. Even if the relatives aren’t around or up to interviews, with a little research, you might find some great stories.
© Laura Hedgecock 2013