Cherishing Family Heirlooms at Christmas

781015_88072625Most families have a way of recycling around family artifacts. These heirlooms probably wouldn’t fetch a huge sum from ‘Cash in the Attic’ or ‘Antiques Road Show’ but they are precious beyond monetary terms.

Family bereavements tend to spur the handing on of these historical objects. Over the past couple of years I’ve had some windfalls as well as been a partner in a trade-off.

My mother had a beautiful mahogany sewing box that had originally belonged to her maternal grandmother. My grandmother had loved sewing but no one in my family seemed to have inherited the interest. Before my mother died she had expressed her wish that someone in the family have it. My cousin Mary Anne who was a sewer expressed a wish to be the keeper of this ancestral artifact. She has both a daughter and a granddaughter who are keen needlewomen. I love the idea that we know that this sewing box will remain in the family for at least six generations, being handed down the maternal line. For at least one of those generations it was considered an item of aesthetic value even if it was missing its practical use. I’m pleased that it will get to fulfill its mission in being both beautiful and useful as William Morris encouraged.

My cousin had a lap desk alleged belonging to our great uncle Charles. Since I am a writer, who also has been known to do a lot of first drafts propped up in bed, a lap desk was very appealing. Shortly after my mother’s funeral Mary Anne packed up the lap desk and shipped it from Virginia to Ireland.

The lap desk was badly in need of TLC. There was a crack in the top where the wood had dried out. Some of the gold embellishment was faded.  But I was excited to find a comp slip from my uncle’s commercial art studio in Philadelphia.

With a friend who is far handier than I am, we carefully opened out the lap desk.  Helga, a gifted furniture restorer and French polisher, was going able to give the box the needed TLC. But we made an even more exciting discovery.  In the lid we found that wonderful Victorian era copperplate writing indicating that this had been a Christmas gift from my great-great grandmother Mary Ella Van Sciver to her thirteen year old daughter in Christ 1875.

Helga’s exert eye told me many interesting facts. She could tell that it had not been mass produced and the gold leaf was hand painted free hand. The inside had been left quite roughly unfinished.  This was, she felt, personally made by a relative or family friend. Given that the inside had been left unfinished we hypothesized that a perhaps her father, in the rush to make the Christmas deadline, had been forced to cut some corners when it came to crafting the little writing desk.

I am fortunate to have photographs of my maternal great-great grandparents. The one of my man who may well have made this Christmas gift is seated on a fishing jetty beside a little terrier dog who is very similar in appearance to my own beloved pet terrier cross, Obe. It’s doubtful that whomever was making that gift could have imagined that it would be cherished back to glossy good looks again in 21st century Ireland by a woman born in Grenada, Spain.

We are so busy these days that it is rare for people to take time to make Christmas gifts. Yet, I also cherish an apron made by my keen seamstress grandmother that is brought out when friends’ children come to help me bake. We all have creative skills. You may not sew or do woodwork but you might paint or write poems. A collection of photos with little vignettes about their subjects might be a project that would be appreciated by both friends and family members.

What we cherish most of all is the personal time and energy that has been expended in creating a present.  As I smooth my hand over the newly French polished lap desk I have a sense of presence of my great-great grandparents who lovingly conspired to create a gift for their daughter in 1875. That is a Christmas present bonus it is unlikely that they would have imagined.

About BeeSmith

I was born in Queens, N.Y, reared in Pennsylvania, did university in Washington, D.C. Then I moved to England for nineteen years. I lived first in London and then in Leeds. After my partner's sister died of cancer in 2000, we decided to take the leap of faith and move to Ireland to be nearer his family. Despite our friends thinking we were mad and feckless, it has worked out. The angels really do look after fools! We have a cottage on an acre and a quarter three miles from where the River Shannon rises. We have a polytunnel to grow vegetables and fruit organically, a small orchard of apple trees and plans to create a sacred space on the land over the rest of our lifetimes. We share our home with two tortoiseshell cats, Zelda and her daughter Zymina, and three dogs, Murphy, Pippin and Cara.