Best Family Heirlooms?
July 21, 2006 8:36 AM   Subscribe

What sort of heirlooms have parents passed to children? Which are most thoughtful and well received? Which do you wish your parents would have passed to you?

Not looking for answers of money or property here. What sort of things can a new parent be thinking about doing, or making to pass on to their children when they become adults themselves?
posted by TheFeatheredMullet to Human Relations (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Not so much from parents to children, but I inherited my grandfather's desk and chair just recently (via my aunt). I played at it when I was a child and was ecstatic. And my mom gave me some of his cameras (since I'm a photo nut and he was too).
posted by jdfan at 8:46 AM on July 21, 2006

Not sure if this is along the lines you are seeking, but my folks planted a tree (sapling) in our front yard the weekend I was born so that I could visually relate to growing up. It visually demonstrated putting down roots and surviving good day and bad (sun and rain, floods and drought). It was put in the front yard so that when/as/if my parents sold the house I could still drive by and see it.

I took my kids to see the house I grew up in a few years back and explained the origin of the trees (my brothers too) in front. They loved it!
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:50 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Depending on what your skills are, blankets and quilts are an easy answer.

I have one that my grandmother made for her own children out of old flannel shirts. She also made me one of my own as a present for eighth grade graduation out of hawaiian shirts. I have a blanket that my parents received as a wedding gift.

The great thing about these are how they change with time. The first quilt I mentioned is starting to show wear and tear, and I'm going to wind up adding my own patches to it. Someday when my sister has children I will give it to them.

Another great aspect of this idea is that you get to curl up in them. It is sort of a nice comfort when you are sick, or when winter comes, to get this reminder of a loved one. I didn't care about them at all when I got them as a teenager, but over the years they've become valuable to me.
posted by hermitosis at 8:54 AM on July 21, 2006

My folks gave me my grandmother's engagement ring and my grandfather's wedding band. I gave my wife the former, and I started wearing the latter when I got married. I smile every time I notice them.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:57 AM on July 21, 2006

I have my great-grandmother's second best set of chairs, and also her autograph album (big fad for young girls in the late nineteenth centure - see Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie) because I'm named after her. It does a little to reconcile me to my hideously awful middle name, but not much.

And I had been saving a little silver baby bracelet that was mine from when I was a sprog to give to my own daughter, but last March it was stolen out of my apartment. And the thieves will probably just throw it away because it's not worth anything. I want to hurt them.

Honestly, I think the best things to keep as family heirlooms are things that are both (classically) beautiful and useful. Nobody needs things to dust. And just save what's meaningful to you and that you enjoy. There's no guessing what your kids will want when they're grown.
posted by orange swan at 8:57 AM on July 21, 2006

My mom gave me a telescope of my grandfather when I was a kid, which I promptly broke. More recently my dad gave me his rolex (from back when rolex made watches, not jewelry, as he puts it).

I think the ideal heirloom:

Can be used/worn/brought out for special occassions,
Is well-crafted,
Is attractive,
Has some story or anecdote that made it important to the original ancestor.
posted by justkevin at 8:58 AM on July 21, 2006

Jewelry. At least in my family. We don't have bling, but we have beautiful pieces that have been passed along for a couple of generations now, and it's nice to have those touchstones to the past.

My husband's grandfather bought his grandmother new engagement rings and wedding rings on their milestone anniversaries. They're not big, flashy sets or anything -- total carat weight of each set was probably under a carat -- but they were sweet tokens nonetheless. When his grandmother became ill, she gave my husband one of the sets and said that he could use it for "a special occasion" when he was older. He proposed to me with that set. I wear the engagement ring.

For my parent's 25th anniversary, my father bought my mother a new engagement ring and wedding band. When my brother got engaged, my mother gave him her original engagement ring to give to his girlfriend. When I got married, she gave me her wedding band to use as my band.

I gave my husband my grandfather's wedding band for his band. My brother wears my late father's band as his wedding band.

I have two rings from my great grandmother. One was a big honking Tiffany-cut diamond, which I had made into a pendant. The other is this amazing artdeco designed deal in platinum.

My grandmother collected men's tie tacks. All kinds of stones and designs. After a few years, she took them to a jeweler and had them put onto sliding charms and made it into a bracelet. I have the bracelet now, and I've started collecting tie tacks from the men in my family (uncles, grandfathers) to add to it.

Some day all of these pieces will go on to someone. They're beautiful, they remind me of my family, and I like to know that they'll remind someone of me someday too.
posted by macadamiaranch at 9:05 AM on July 21, 2006

My parents kept track of my childhood drawings and a few examples of my writing. I appreciate having them now.

I really like looking at pictures of my parents in their early twenties before I was born. They were completely different people than they are now. My parents made much more sense and I could relate better to them after seeing them act like themselves for the camera. Because of that I keep photos, journals and sketchbooks partially for my future children. Also, (God forbid) I would like them to be able to know me or my fiance should something happen to one of us.
posted by Alison at 9:07 AM on July 21, 2006

The best heirlooms are the ones with history combined with an intrinsic value. The posters above me have hit on a couple of themes and alot of good ideas.

I'll give you an example. My grandfather gave me an antique hymnal cabinet which was in the church I grew up in from the 1870s to the 1940s when the church was moved across town by being rolled on massive logs. They sold off some of the furniture to finance the move and make the church lighter. He had the cabinet for 60 years before passing it on to me. The point of value with this particular object is the history of the object, combined with the beauty of it as a stand alone piece.

As far as object I'd like to have given to me or inherit... the same grandfather used to smoke pipes. I currently smoke pipes... from what I've gathered in passing conversation with him the pipes he used back in the 40s and 50s were well and fairly expensive for the time. Good briar lasts forever and gets more expensive as time goes on. A well crafted pipe he paid $50 for then would go for 100s+ now.

My other grandfather has a nice gun collection. As someone who studies pistol and riflecraft I'd love to inherit my grandfather's collection. There is something about being able to teach my daughter to shoot with a steady hand on her grandfather's guns.

So I suppose the simple answer is... a good heirloom is beautiful, connects the current owner to the family, and provides some sort of pleasant/rewarding memory.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 9:09 AM on July 21, 2006

Antique living room furniture that we've had (even in the same layout) since I was a baby. It's so burned into my senses and memory that I would hate for it to be given away. Also, weird things like fancy pudding bowls from when I was a kid. From my grandmothers, I have a sewing machine from the 1920's (on which she taught me to sew), and a rough wooden chest that my other grandmother took to boarding school(?), with her name burned onto it.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:17 AM on July 21, 2006

I asked my wife to marry me without having a ring ready to do so. When my wife's mother found out, she gave us her mother's engagement ring.

It was meaningful, appropriate, and welcome.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:20 AM on July 21, 2006

I appreciated receiving my father's Bible. He was a minister, and it included his notes in the margins, underlinings and other numerous signs that it was a well-used and treasured tool of his trade. I enjoy reading it, but the simple feel and smell of it also makes me smile.

My wife has created time capsules for each of our children in which we place items (artwork, favorite toys, schoolwork and other keepsakes). When they fill up, we sort through them to make room for the most important pieces. Our oldest kids now care for their time capsules. If they throw out something that I or my wife want to keep, we make room for it in our time capsules. (Mine also includes all my old concert tickets).
posted by Bitstop at 9:30 AM on July 21, 2006

My dad has his grandfather's watch and I think a pair of his glasses that he keeps in a drawer. My mom has random things, like a serving bowl that was my grandmother's or even recipe cards that were my great aunt's.

My mother recently made a copy of the white pages listing of my grandpa at his lake house and framed it for me. It means a lot now that the house has been sold and my grandfather is suffering from Alzheimers.

One of the best things I have are the marbles my grandfather played with as a child, in a rusty coffee can.

None of what has been handed down is worth much money, but it keeps all of them with us.
posted by jdl at 9:51 AM on July 21, 2006

People like heirlooms that have signifigance to them, not necessarily those with monetary value. I don't even think its important that they be beautiful or well-made.

My grandmother left me a diamond ring that had long been in her safe deposit box, and while its lovely, since I had never seen it before, nor had she ever worn it, or mentioned it to me - its just not a significant thing to me. I've several times considered selling it. It's soulless.

I do however highly value that same grandmother's rolling pins. She'd never imagine I held on to them, but its her pies we all remember so well, and I love to think the spirit and love that went into the pies is now in my kitchen.

So two suggestions.

Watch your children when they are growing up - the item they become attached to is the one that will be a wonderful heirloom to pass on to them. Be sure to hang on to that. They are unlikely to care if the necklace is costume if it was their favorite to play dress-up in when they were a child.

Your children want to have a connection to you in the heirloom. Tell them stories about your life growing up and before they were born and the people that influenced you. They might be thrilled to have something that belonged to your grandmother (even if they've never met) if they understand why it is precious to you.
posted by AuntLisa at 9:53 AM on July 21, 2006

When I turned 13 my mother had all the women in my life write me a letter about "becoming a woman". It was deeply, profoundly mortifying at the time. It still is a little, although I can at least see where she was coming from. I ended up with one letter from my grandmother that I treasure still. She died shortly after she wrote the letter and I never had a chance to know her as an adult. That letter fills in a little of the missing information.
posted by robinpME at 9:55 AM on July 21, 2006

Things that you make always have the most meaning. This presumes a certain level of skill and taste, of course. No one is going to treasure some shitty little paint by numbers opus.

It's nice to establish a tradition of giving a certain gift at certain times, because it makes the recipients feel connected to a larger family tradition. My dad, for instance, gave each of his children a gold signet ring on his or her sixteenth birthday, and has made/is making each daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, and granddaughter-in-law a cedar chest. I have a special lace afghan pattern I only use for wedding gifts.

Also it can be really neat to use special materials to make things. My dad made my niece's wedding chest out of wood taken from a tree on her father's farm. When my sister-in-law got married 21 years ago, I made her a pincushion out of scraps from her wedding dress and my mother's mother of the groom dress.
posted by orange swan at 9:56 AM on July 21, 2006

Memories! Work on happy memories -- fun days together, trips to see Granma even if she is half a continent away, family rituals like bedtime stories.

The best gift you can give is a happy secure childhood, and no burglar can steal it. You can even do a darn good job of giving it even if you know things are not nearly as secure as the child thinks.
posted by Idcoytco at 10:13 AM on July 21, 2006

One of the best things you can do, I think, is take plenty of pictures, keep the good ones, and label them.

If you have old hard copies, write the names on the back -- you don't have to sort them or put them into albums if you can't cope with that much organization, but just write down the names in order and maybe a stab at the event and a rough date.

If you have digital files, even better. Fill CDs or DVDs with pictures, label them with metadata or in txt files, and recopy the media every few years.

Eventually someone's going to want to see Great-Aunt Norma's wedding photo, or Grandma as a child. When that day comes, the people who can identify the pictures may not still be alive.

I'm not really into genealogy -- I don't do family trees, for example -- but it's very interesting to me to see how relatives used to look. I'm working on scanning and Photoshopping my maternal grandmother's collection of pictures, and whenever I come out with an update, everyone's interested. The next generation will be, too.
posted by booksandlibretti at 10:21 AM on July 21, 2006

Photographs and videos, without a doubt. Things that will increase in value with age indubitably. Unique, family things that meet both of the two previously mentioned criteria: priceless.
That said, my sister has a print of Van Gogh's canal that hung on my grandmothers entrance wall since the year dot. It's completly worthless, but I love it to bits, simply because it evokes so many memories. I saw it every time I entered through the front door.
I will be visiting my parents this month and they are moving into a managed apartment. Part of the process is getting rid of the stuff that doesn't fit into the new space. I'm not so interested in the things that don't have a shared rememberance but I am open to things that they can't keep but find it hard to junk. Photos, some furniture, lamps and some other small items seem to cover it. In years to come I will treasure them.
posted by tellurian at 11:05 AM on July 21, 2006

I've got a side door truck identification placard that adorned one of my great uncles farm trucks. All the letters are cut out of a piece of wood and then attached to large flat piece of wood. The base has been painted several times in different colours; I've assumed to match the truck(s) everytime it was painted.
posted by Mitheral at 11:36 AM on July 21, 2006

My father gave me his wedding ring when he was still alive (he and my mother had long since divorced) and I wear it to this day. In his will he left me his metronome, which he used almost every day of his working life as a film composer. As a musician myself this was the most meaningful and profound gift he left to me. He also left me his edition of the music encyclopedia "Groves Music & Musicians" which I treasure even though it is way out of date.
posted by persona non grata at 12:21 PM on July 21, 2006

My mother has her mother's cameo, a tea set that was broken a few times when she was young, but looks good in spite of it (my grandmother brought it over from Scotland), a fish knife and fork with real whale bone handles (again from Scotland). Of all those things, my perception is that she values the cameo most, and I beleive I will as well when I inherit those things. She also has her dad's WWII army uniform (which is crazy awesome) and some photos -- the photos are really the best. My grandmother and grandfather on vacation in Miami when that was the tres coolest thing you could do (in the mid 50's . .).

I have a pinky ring of my grandmother's and a star-sapphire ring of hers, and even though she died when I was three, I still think of her every time I see or wear those items. It's all about what is evocative for a particular person or family -- for some reason, my mother and I really have a thing about personal jewelry -- not for its value, but because of the piece's owner. If I ended up with little more than the jewelry and the photographs, I'd be happy.
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:27 PM on July 21, 2006

My grandfather's WWII compass - solidly made, and is real-world useful.

Check out the kitchen as well - you may find some unique and faithful implements that you've had since forever because they're better/sturdier than the plastic craptastic ones you can buy today (vintage egg-beaters, some toasters), or because they never wear out (rolling pins).

If you bake cakes or cookies or treats, most kids will have a lasting affection/affinity for those impliments that in their childhood meant only one thing: if they're out of the drawers and cupboards, then treats are on the way!

So I would suggest a general policy of when buying practical stuff, if it's something that will likely be associated with positive things or special occaisions, then spend a bitlot extra to get stuff that will last a lifetime. Eg, perhaps a seriously nice/sturdy picnic set (but not too modern or stylish, since styles change, and much of what was stylish in the 70's is shamefully hidden at the back of closets today :)

I say "when buying", but don't forget "when making". In many cases, there is no reason you can't make, say, the picnic set to higher standards than the best on the market. (though if aiming high, you might not save money, and you definitely won't save time). Additionally, if a plate gets broken or missing, the picnic set is not somehow degraded by replacing or fixing it, since there never was an "official" new / pure state to move away from.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:34 PM on July 21, 2006

Recipes. Holiday decorations. Photos. Childhood writings. Letters. Furniture.

I have the mirror that hung in my great-grandparent's bathroom for 100 years and every time I look in its imperfect glass I connect to a lovely past.

Wedding bands.

China, silver, treasures.

Sometimes the tackiest trash is the most beloved. My grandmother had a collection of porcelain ladies in hoop skirts that are absolutely camp. I treasure them cause they say Granny and no one else.
posted by wordswinker at 12:56 PM on July 21, 2006

It's mostly stuff that people used constantly or that they valued themselves. Very few of the keepsakes or heirlooms could have been predicted by the people who were the sources.

What I have: My mother's favorite books, and the letter she wrote to me when she knew she was dying. My father's wedding ring. One grandfather's army footlocker, and a collection of paper money and coins he gathered in WWII (India, Burma, China, and the occupation of Japan). The other grandfather's straight razor, and his little mechanical device that rolled his cigarettes for him (he had rheumatoid arthritis and couldn't do it by hand). From my grandmother: an old fashioned iron, handmade quilts, and a cedar chest. Turkey platters from two great-grandmothers.

I wish they'd given me my grandmother's gun, though.
posted by dilettante at 1:56 PM on July 21, 2006

Most recently I inherited my great-grandmother's hope chest. It has lots of various linen-type things in it: a quilt top she made, another quilt she made that my mum remembers using as a kid, handkerchiefs, table linens, lace, clothing my grandmother wore as a young girl, a doll. My great-grandmother died 10 years before I was born. I'm not sure how it came into her hands, but I received from my mum's younger sister (she's still alive, by the way, but has no children and I guess I seemed to be the niece with the most interest in stuff like that).

When my grandmother died I inherited a silver and turquoise baby ring and her watch I can't remember her ever not wearing (also silver and turquoise with jet and coral as well), her cameras and a chair.

I will be inheriting a lot of stuff when my mother dies (kilims, furniture, tchotchkes, linens, kitchen/dining stuff, art, photograph albums, books, etc. - most of it antiques). Since I won't have any children and the next generation doesn't seem interested, I'm not sure what I'll do with it all. Some of it is, or will be, museum quality and I'll pursue that route, but what of the rest?
posted by deborah at 4:20 PM on July 21, 2006

My personal favorite in my family is an old wooden secretary that's been in our family for probably 150 years. What makes it really special (beyond its beauty and the memories I have of it in my grandparent's house) is the bits of paper the various people who have owned it pasted into one drawer. They basically say "I, XXX, would like my (daughter, niece, etc) to inherit this secretary when I die." It's nice to know where it came from. Jewelry is also good. I have a necklace of my grandmother's that I wear nearly every day. Most of her jewelry (and the jewelry of my great grandmother) is costume stuff, but its age makes it special.
posted by MadamM at 4:37 PM on July 21, 2006

My grandmother gave me the spinning wheel that her grandmother used to spin cotton into thread to make their clothes. It's very cool to turn that wheel and think about my ancestors using it every day to survive and thrive.
posted by killy willy at 4:51 PM on July 21, 2006

I have my grandfather's Elgin pocket watch... made in 1905. Picture and story here.
posted by pjern at 8:47 PM on July 21, 2006

Along the quilt lines, my mother has been saving old t-shirts of my brother's to make into a quilt for him. Any time she can sneak away one of his favorites - his middle school band shirt, his Clash t-shirt - she does, and eventually she will sew them (in squares) together for him.
posted by anjamu at 8:49 PM on July 21, 2006

When my grandmother died, I didn't really care about any of her clothes or expensive jewelry or anything like that (although my cousins had a distasteful field day in her closet). What I wanted was a few things that reminded me of her. I asked my grandfather for her teddy bear pin (which she wore often and I always loved as a kid) and this little box that she had that read "you are witty and pretty." Neither were "heirlooms" so to speak but were inifinitely more meaningful that a piece of furniture or expensive jewelrey.
posted by radioamy at 11:22 PM on July 22, 2006

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