Usually you think of heirlooms as things, valued either intrinsically or as inspiration of generational family lore. One lady changed my concept of family heirlooms when I delivered Meals-on-Wheels as a Rotarian.
Mrs. K, a lady with too-black hair, greeted me from a wheelchair, her footman a remarkably fat and contented gray cat. She stayed by the door while I walked through her tiny house to place the meal on the kitchen table, small objects obscuring every surface, including the refrigerator door.
Most were red.
I assumed the treasured trinkets reflected her taste and life experience, simple and with little obvious value. Returning to the tiny, dark entry hall, I commented on the vast collection of red items.
Keeper of the Home
Laughing, Mrs. K told me she would love to clear out the clutter, except each red knickknack was a gift from grandchildren and great-grandchildren. During sixty-eight years in this house she lost the love of her life and buried two children. As keeper of the home, Mrs. K presides over an ever-expanding collection of red curios.
“The parents of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren keep moving round from one house to another. Everyone tells me that Maw-Maw’s house is the only real home they have.”
Mrs. K shared family memories etched into every crevice. Refrigerator magnets launch her crew into joyful spasms of remembrance as they’re sorted; glass magnets on the top door for protection, plastic ones moved to the bottom for younger children, creating another generation of memories.
Every family member entering the house scans shelves, cupboards, windowsills, and refrigerator door to be sure their gifts to Maw-Maw are still there, preserving their own role in family history. The young and not-so-young seek continuity and security among the memories displayed in Maw-Maw’s house.
Prisms of Family Light
Traditions kept alive in Mrs. K’s cluttered house are prisms of family light.
An old plastic owl monitored the front door, so obviously there that it was equally obvious when it wasn’t. One visit I asked Mrs. K where it went. Never her favorite companion, Mrs. K said she didn’t care when the dusty old bird finally fell off the wall and broke, but every family member who came in the door did.
“Where did Grandpa’s owl go?”
The ancient plastic owl represented something important and was genuinely mourned. Mrs. K accepted her role as keeper of the home, a physical embodiment of love, security, and belonging, when she understood how the owl kept Grandpa’s memory alive years after he was gone.
Added together, the red trinkets make up the heart of a family. The real family heirloom is Maw-Maw. Mrs. K’s décor doesn’t reflect her personal taste, unless it’s the love she has for her precious family.
“It comes every year and will go on forever. And along with Christmas belong the keepsakes and the customs. Those humble, everyday things a mother clings to, and ponders, like Mary in the secret spaces of her heart.” – Marjorie Holmes
May your family discover new family heirlooms this Christmas.
Originally published as the December 2018 newsletter for LynnBaber.com subscribers.