Telling the Story: When “Things” Can’t Talk

When most people think of Heirlooms, they think of “things” – i.e. material objects that get handed down through the generations.

But often, the material objects can’t speak for themselves—can’t convey to their recipients what they mean as Heirlooms. By themselves, that is, what they embody that serves to tie the generations of a family together.

A friend of mine told me, for example, about a “nut spoon” that his grandmother gave him when he got married. It came to my friend on the day he got married, along with the explanation that it had been a gift for her and his grandfather on their wedding day.

Then, this past Easter, while setting up for Easter dinner, my friend came upon that spoon and he was “transported” back to grandma’s house, and to the Easter dinners his extended family had celebrated there when he was a child.

It was the meaningful bonds of love, combined with the richness of the family experiences it recalled — not the little spoon itself — that made that spoon an Heirloom.

But what will the spoon mean to the next generations, who didn’t grow up having Easter dinners at grandma’s house? For them, the spoon will need to be accompanied by a story, or it will cease to be an Heirloom.

This matter of the inability of material objects to speak for themselves came up recently when my best friend from high school, after reading the first few pieces of this Heirloom series, described the legacy he’s been crafting for future generations.

My friend has had a distinguished career as an attorney, but whenever he got the opportunity, he’d be building things with his hands. His home, and those of his children, are filled with fine furniture he’s built in his shop. “I’m that cabinet-maker you mentioned in your essay,” he wrote me.

But even more than the furniture, there’s a multi-acre piece of property up on Lake Superior that he purchased in a somewhat rundown condition, years ago. He’s burnished those acres into a lovely camp with cabins sitting near the rocky shore of that greatest of Great Lakes.

The place now has a name: Sugarloaf. And my friend, the lawyer, has also created a legal framework – a trust – that assures that the place with remain in and for the family into the indefinite future.

Over the years, the building of this place has been a labor of love – not only his love of the work itself, not only his own love of being there. But also – and especially – an expression of love for the generations of his family’s future – starting with his children and grandchildren — as he pictures how this place will provide his descendants with some very special experiences, as families camping in the north country next to the cold and mighty waters of Lake Superior.

Meaningful experiences, fully meeting the criterion of an Heirloom: Something passed on to later generations for them to experience as “something of value.” A gift.

But there’s another dimension of the Heirloom to be considered, because an heirloom isn’t just about whatever material thing might be “experienced as something of value.” It’s also and importantly about a positive bond across the generations.

My friend’s children and grandchildren will doubtless — from having been with him through this process (including the legal framework he’s set up to ensure that it be preserved and passed on through the family), will know – experientially, in their hearts – that this special place was a gift left behind by a valued ancestor.

But after them will come the generations who knew not my friend, and for them the place might become just the place. Just a place, and not an Heirloom that connects people with the Ancestor whose labor of love fashioned the place as a Gift to his Descendants. “Might,” that is, unless along with the material thing, those future generations get the message about what the gift means.

A family might preserve the meaning of the Heirloom through cultivating an oral tradition: each generation can tell the story to the next, so that the mere “material object” continues to point back to the Ancestors, and thus to provide the positive bond between the present generation and its forebears.

But often, the oral tradition proves unreliable. Unless the family purposely instills the ethic of telling the story, by the time the task descends onto the third generation, the story might well peter out, leaving “the thing” stripped of its meaning. Stripped of its meaning, that is, as a Gift. For it is its being a Gift that expresses – and that can continue to foster – a positive bond across the generations of the family.

So I encouraged my friend to supplement his fine (material) legacy with a message conveying what he’s trying to give his Descendants, and what has moved him to do so. A message fashioned in some way that it can continue indefinitely to accompany the place he’s labored so hard to leave to them.

That would complete the Heirloom, perpetuating the meaning just as the legal framework will perpetuate the camp as a special place for the family.

Give voice to the material, and its spirit will live on.

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