My grandmother has a large, blue ceramic jug decorated with the face of a pirate coming out of the mouth of a lion, among other various characters you would not expect to find peering out from the side of a jug. In other words, it is very ugly. We don’t know how my great-great-grandparents came into possession of this monstrosity but it has been passed down for generations and now sits proudly in my mother’s living room. My brother and I have a running joke about which one of us has to take it and when we get fresh, my grandmother occasionally threatens to leave it to one of us in her will. I am trying to keep on her good side. What I have claimed as mine is an equally gaudy gold and green jar that has a music box in the lid. My great-grandmother kept dried ginger in it and my brother and I learned how to get the lid off without triggering the music box and we would sneak a piece, lick all the sugar off and then throw the spicy ginger away. It is a worthless jar that she probably won in a raffle at her lawn bowling club, but I love it and have cherished it for as long as I can remember.
My grandmother was recently in the hospital with heart failure so the family gathered together for some quality time. Naturally with a scare like that she was thinking about what she was going to leave to us, and the subject of inheritance and the importance of family heirlooms was on all of our minds. Grandma had just shipped her personal belongings from Australia to California when she moved in with my parents, so the house was overflowing with memories. I wandered from room to room remembering childhood visits with my grandparents: the silver hairbrush that always sat on her dresser, the painting of a tree that I always thought looked like a fat lady posing for a photo, the horse statue that I played with when she wasn’t looking.
Sitting in my grandmother’s hospital room in a moment of quiet, I asked her why it was so important to her to pass these things down. She said that what mattered to her was to be able to pass down an appreciation of the things of beauty and quality that she had valued enough to work for, to care for and to carry across several continents and back. The monetary value of her worldly possessions was meaningless; but they represented her life and her parents before her and their parents before them. Passing down the art and objects of beauty (blue jugs aside) was very important to her. She wanted me to learn that this life is not about acquiring as much stuff as you can. You should have things around you that matter, not just things that you have because that’s what Charlie Farnsbarns has. I didn’t ask but I think Charlie Farnsbarns is her version of keeping up with the Joneses. It’s been a while since I was fully fluent in Aussie slang but I’m pretty sure she made that up.
After contemplating this ritual that my grandmother was going through as she assigned her precious treasures to her descendants, I was lying in bed one morning listening to my mother making pancakes with her own grandchildren. My eight-year-old nephew was looking at a cabinet of knick-knacks and said to his little brother, “See that glass ship in a bottle? I would like to inherit that one day.” I lay in bed smiling. He wasn’t wishing he had a ship like that. He wasn’t asking for it. It was his ginger jar.
As the only member in my generation of the family without children of my own, I won’t be the one who is charged with keeping the treasures—and the memories that go with them—in the family. So I have been thinking about what I can do as an aunt to keep our family history alive for my brother’s and cousin’s kids, and here is what I have come up with. I would like to preface this list by saying that I am not necessarily talking about money and things of value here. Although my grandmother has some pieces of art that are beautiful, my family also has a set of multi-colored tin cups that we treat as family heirlooms because of the memories that they bring up. Family possessions do not have to have monetary value to make them important.
Tell kids the history behind family heirlooms and where they came from.
I would love to know how my great-grandmother came into possession of my ginger jar. I took the opportunity at the hospital to ask my grandmother about some of the decorations I had seen in her house for decades but had never taken the time to ask about. I listed many of the things I remembered as a child and she gave me the story behind how each of them came into her possession. I was shocked to realize that some of her things went back five generations. We don’t like to talk about having stuff because it sounds materialistic and crass. But as my grandparents get older I have noticed more and more that their stuff, the little knick-knacks and furniture that have survived through the years, really matters to them. These possessions represent a lifetime of memories. By learning the stories behind them, we are more likely to care too and treat their things with respect. I have personally observed how hurt an elderly person can be when their family shows no interest in the things they have loved and treasured. I am going to find more opportunities to tell my nieces and nephews about our family gems so that when it is their turn to take care of them, they will appreciate their significance and honor the memory of our ancestors.
Tell kids stories that connect them to the family history.
When we visited my grandparents as little kids, my brother and I would jump into bed with them in the morning. We thought it was great fun to wake them up but now that I am an aunt who loves my morning snuggles, I realize they were probably lying there waiting for us. We would beg my grandfather to tell us stories about when he was young and it didn’t take much coaxing. We learned the stories by heart and would make requests such as, “Tell us about the time your dog got attacked by a kangaroo while you were mustering cattle and how you saved his life,” or, “Tell us the one about when Mummy got in trouble for riding her big sister’s horse and fell off.” My favorites were actually about World War II because it was a time we could not relate to and even the stories he could share with children were fascinating. He had a great tale about how he and his mates distracted a truck driver and relieved the Americans of their supply of socks and underwear from the back of the truck. He had a good laugh every time he told that one. As kids growing up in the city in America, those stories connected us to farm life, our Australian culture, and the history of the war, all at the same time. My father’s father had a similar morning story-time ritual and I have never forgotten the stories of how he survived the war as an Air Force bomb aimer and how our family came to be who we are now. They are both gone and my paternal grandfather’s military cap sits on my brother’s mantel piece and my maternal grandfather’s hat is on my shelf. Those hats represent every one of those stories for us.
Stories about the family can connect children to family heirlooms and give young ones a tangible connection to the past. Children understand things they can touch and feel. My great-grandfather was a jockey, and tales about my great-grandparents living in Hong Kong to help start the horse racing industry there give meaning to the Asian sculptures and furniture that my grandmother has saved. I don’t consider myself a good storyteller and I have never taken the time to tell the kids about what life was like for their dad and me growing up in Australia, or adjusting to our new life in America. Maybe instead of letting them fight over the games on my iPad when they get into bed with me, I should try starting my own morning story time.
Let kids grow into an appreciation of things
If my parents gave my nephew that ship in a bottle now, it would instantly lose its meaning for him. My ginger jar means so much to me because I have spent thirty-something years looking at it, playing with it and admiring it. My mother has had it for a while and she could have given it to me when I was younger but if she had, I wouldn’t appreciate it as much. Give children something to look forward to inheriting and they will value it more.
Why should little trinkets like a ginger jar and an Air Force hat matter? Throughout much of human history, families were connected by land. Land gave the family roots and great care was taken to keep it in the family generation after generation. The land was not yours but something you were charged with taking care of until it was time to pass it on. Now that so many of us live in cities, we have lost that connection. When we die, we pass down whatever financial assets we have, but money dissipates. With no emotional association or family ties, it is likely to be spent or devalued by the economy. Families benefit from financial inheritance and that is a good thing. However it cannot replace the role that living on the land played in keeping loved ones together and preserving family history. This makes preserving items of family significance all the more important. It is not about materialism or accumulating wealth. It is about connecting to where we came from and keeping the legacy alive.
One day my brother will display the ugly blue jug and visitors will have to think of kind things to say about it. “Wow, isn’t that . . . interesting?” I will be very proud of him for caring enough about our family heirloom to ensure that it is safe and still around to be inflicted upon the next generation. I too am going to help keep our family history alive for my nieces and nephews so that when it is their turn, they understand and appreciate the things that represent their amazing and colorful family.