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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Gerety

Put your heirlooms to work!

We’re all going a little bananas right now in week infinity of the coronavirus lockdown. My kids get excited about anything remotely new or different, so yesterday I asked my husband to take down the heavy box full of silverware for us to polish (last week we explored toilet bowl cleaning and indoor tent pitching!). I inherited the set from my paternal grandmother, my namesake. While simply designed, it had always felt too fancy for me, certainly not something I would use outside the occasional dinner party (that I never threw). Polishing it all was a great way to kill 30 minutes. As the silverware sat drying by the sink, I was reminded of how many spoons and forks my family goes through now that we eat every meal at home. So I did what I previously thought unthinkable: I took the now shiny silverware and put it directly into our flatware tray. Turns out, a fork is a fork, a spoon a spoon. It felt great to incorporate them so seamlessly into our daily routine of eating and cleaning, to not have them tucked away, out of sight. So here is my challenge to you: find your heirlooms and put them to use!

Your possessions shouldn’t be too precious to enjoy. 

I think the main reason we hide away our heirlooms is that we’re afraid. Maybe we feel like they’re too valuable to use, that they may get damaged, misplaced, or stolen. Obviously, if something is of significant value, you should appraise and insure it. If it’s delicate and needs special handling, invest in acid free paper and UV-protecting glass, whatever it takes to get it out in the open and into your life. I’d argue that something stashed away in an old box, gathering dust, getting damaged by moths and time, holds very little meaning. If you can't bear to release it from this sad fate, think seriously about selling it or giving it to someone who will enjoy it.

I recently found an old tee shirt that my parents had given me on the day my brother was born. It is oversized and as thin as tissue paper. I had long taken it out of the rotation and stuffed it away in one of those aforementioned boxes of things you don’t use but can’t part with. My oldest daughter was with me when I found the shirt and I suddenly remembered her saying she didn't have enough comfy sleeping tees. She tried it on and, while it was far too big, it was the perfect, cozy nightshirt. Will this be the last stop for my shirt? Given how threadbare it is, it’s unlikely to live through a dozen more washes. But I’m not sure it would have lasted much longer inside a box at the bottom of my closet.

Add a little legacy to your day.

my 33 year old tee shirt

The tee shirt gave me an opportunity to tell my daughter one little (but big!) episode in my life. I explained to her how her uncle was supposed to be born on my 7th birthday, how my mother (her grandmother, whom she is named after but has never met) had a c-section the day before because he was so big and suddenly breach, and that me and my two sisters had spent a fun overnight at our dear friend’s house. “What hospital was he born at?” she asked, “and where were you born?” I had not only given an old object new life by passing it on to my daughter, but I had created an opportunity to talk to her about my family. It wasn’t a long moment, but it was a natural and substantive one. And it was especially meaningful for me because my parents aren’t around to tell her these stories.

Even if you don’t have children to pass down memories to, bringing these objects into the open adds a little legacy to your own daily routine. I see my daughter in that shirt, gobbling up cheerios with her great grandmother’s spoon, and I’m reminded of my family. The little movie reel of my life switches on, and for the briefest of moments I am reminded of the stories that make me who I am, my legacy. A lot of people think that "legacy" is something to save for Thanksgiving dinners or estate planning, but I believe it's something that should be threaded through every day of our lives.

It’s your legacy, so it’s necessarily “you.” 

I think about this point a lot, and have written (and will write more!) about why you shouldn’t accept heirlooms that you can’t use or don't fit your style or life. There is a real tension between sentiment and functionality when it comes to family objects. And I don’t want to suggest here that every piece of furniture or knick-knack from your family should be heirlooms to incorporate into your daily life. There is hard, emotional work to be done before you agree to keep or take items from your childhood, from your parent's childhood, from their parents' childhoods. But once you do, try to remember that they are a part of who you are. Embrace your legacy where you can and bring it out into the open!

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