Family heirlooms: one person’s treasure is another person’s …

An illustration from House Beautiful

I grew up during the time in which House Beautiful and then Good Housekeeping defined home decoration.  My mother enjoyed these magazines for the features on New England antiques.  My parents spent time antiquing during our summer holidays and cherished every piece they found.  They never quite got into the art of restoration, so we sat on prized ladder-back chairs with rungs held together with string, replacement bureau drawer knobs that were still waiting to be stained, and old drawer knobs that would come out in your hand when you tried to open a drawer to find some socks.  Even with two functioning knobs, more often than not the drawer would stick so that you’d have to pull and pull to get it open, working it back and forth so it would come out evenly and not jam.  As well, we knew better than to leave a glass on top of any of these special pieces for fear of leaving a dreaded “ring”.  But, you know, we learned to see those antiques through our parents eyes.  We learned to appreciate the simple yet elegant lines, the beauty and richness of the wood, and the history that each piece represented.  Each piece had a story related to its age and how it was acquired, especially valued when passed on by previous generation.

One shining example for me sits in our dining room, an American empire chest of drawers from the mid-1800s.  It has been used as an unconventional sideboard in a family dining room since my grandfather first discovered it when my mother was a girl.  It is a tall gracious piece of furniture, with two columns climbing each side to provide support for the two upper, overhanging drawers.  The exterior of its solid cherry wood construction glows a warm mellow gold.  Its top proudly displays a collection of family heirlooms that have graced its presence for generations, supplemented by newer pieces: my grandfather’s matching brass candlestick lamps, my grandmother’s cut glass gladiola vase, my mother’s Wedgewood blue soup tureen, and my personal contribution of a cow pitcher.  Its drawers have variously sheltered my grandmother’s silverware, my parents’ love letters and old pictures, and the tablecloths I still use from all three generations.

In the 30s, 40s and 50s, my grandfather’s chest watched over Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts in upstate New York, which eventually included my brothers and me.  In the 60s it journeyed to Long Island to join my mother, helping her establish a new home at a time of great need, having lost both her parents and my father in rapid succession.  It made its way to our farm in Canada in the 70s, the first of several homes with us, gaining a place of honour with each move.  It now has pride of place at holiday gatherings that include my own grandchildren, bringing its impact on my family to five generations.  The beauty of this item can be experienced visually, but its greater beauty lies in the many memories of love it holds within.

My brothers and I each have antiques from childhood and, although we are very different people with disparate lives, we all share an appreciation of these pieces.  As Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Or is it? Apparently, it may be more the case that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”.  More often than not, when any of us have offered our children one of our precious heirlooms for their own first places, the reply has been something like, “No thanks. I don’t want that dresser; the drawers always stick.  I’d rather buy something at IKEA.”  So much for the elegant lines and sense of family history!

What do your kids cherish in your home?  Is there a special reason?

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5 Responses to Family heirlooms: one person’s treasure is another person’s …

  1. sometimes i can just sit and hold an ‘old thing’ or watch a cupboard…. for ever…call me weird….

  2. Emilia says:

    I must say that antiques never meant much to me, maybe because my parents were never into it due perhaps to the fact that my paternal grandfather made fine furniture and so everything was always new….unfortunately I do not have any piece he ever made including the beautiful dolls furniture that he used to make for my sister and I when we were children!
    On the other hand my maternal grandfather only made two pieces of furniture in his life, 2 single beds for his 2 granddaughters and those are still the beds we sleep in when you go to Ericeira, my parents beach place in Portugal. If my sister and I ever decide to sell that place, I will make sure those beds will cross “the pond”….maybe one day I will have grandchildren!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      What a wonderful story. So your grandfather didn’t buy antiques, he made them. Wow. I hope someday there are little ones sitting by your side hearing all about the furniture made by their great great grandfather. But make sure you manage your expectations of their reaction; it could be anything!

  3. Helene says:

    Early in our marriage, 1980 to be specific, we bought a kitchen table and 6 chairs made of ash. The salesman told us with pride ‘that will last you 25 years’. I clearly remember thinking that I hoped that I wouldn’t have to have the same kitchen set for 25 years! Over the years that followed, that table gathered us for most meals together, we always sat in the kitchen for dinner with the exception of an odd treat of pizza and a movie in the family room on a Friday evening. We prided ourselves of sharing at dinner time, always telling each other the highlight and lowlight of our day. It was a great way to generate conversation and also to know the joys and difficulties our children were encountering. Over the years the chairs loosened and the table showed signs of wear and tear…a little imprint from the spine of a coil–bound notebook, the small spill of nail polish remover, to mention a couple. 30 years went by, and I thought it was time to update the kitchen. I bought a new, modern kitchen set. For some strange reason, I thought it was just what we needed. The children have grown, bought their own homes and live successful lives. Our tradition is that we sill have Sunday dinner together each week. I did not expect to see the horror and disappointment on their faces when they saw the new furniture. Really, I should say, they saw the missing family table and chairs. The new set was returned the next day, the old set refurbished and it sits proudly in our kitchen ready for another 30 or more years of family gatherings.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Helene, what a wonderful story. You should start a blog, it’s lots of fun! You were buying a family heirloom all those years ago and didn’t even know it. The kitchen set became a symbol of your family and the history you’ve made together. When we replaced our antique drop-leaf maple table and ladderback chairs a few years ago – the ones that my grandparents had always used with the chest near at hand – and our sons were first home to try them out, they both marveled that (1) their knees no longer banged into the underside of the table and (2) the chairs were stable and comfortable. I have to admit that they had a point!

      Thanks for sharing. Jane

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