“Where did you get that beautiful old quilt? It looks hand-made,” said the silver-haired woman, as she paused in front of the glass doors of the old cherry wood bookcase that stands in the entry hall of our home. “And look at those lovely serving spoons and the Fostoria serving set. My grandmother had one just like it. And that old Bible. And the Shirley Temple drinking cup,” she added. “What treasures!”
The guest in our home was referring to the heirlooms my husband Charles and I had on display in what has come to be known as The Family Museum. Some years ago as we were packing and unpacking boxes during a move, we paused to look at all the items that had come down through the generations of our families: real china play dishes that were nearly a century old, my husband’s first metronome from his childhood piano-playing days, his father’s railroad pocket watch, a dictionary my grandfather had given me on my eighth birthday––and many more items of great personal value.
Charles suggested we select as many as our bookcase could artfully hold, clean them up, and put them on display. The books could go on a shelf in the den. But our heirlooms, many of them priceless to us, should be set out for friends and family to enjoy.
Today our collection of treasures is also a living museum as we periodically add small, special things that represent our ongoing lives: a yarn doll we bought in Mexico, a creche set made in Germany, an old-fashioned Connemara candy tin from our trip to Ireland. Most important, however, our museum serves as an anchor to the past, as it reminds us of people and events that cannot be replaced or duplicated–especially in the lives of our sons and daughters and grandchildren.
If such a custom interests you, it is easy to get started.
• Ask your parents or other living relatives for photos, shoes, trinkets, coins, spoons, cups, old books, a glass water pitcher, or other items that have special meaning to your family. Such things may already be in your possession or in an attic, basement, or closet of a family member. My mother was so flattered when I asked her to save me one of my grandmother’s hand-painted ice cream dishes, she gave me the entire set on the spot! I kept one for myself and passed on the others to each of my grown daughters, my sister, and my niece.
• Place items on a shelf where they will be easily seen, or like us, buy or make a cabinet with glass doors for a permanent and safe display.
• Make your collection as personal as you wish. It can be a tribute to the past, a living memory of current times, or a blend of the two––a testimony to your individual and family connections across the generations.
Tip: Put a sticker on the bottom of each treasure or heirloom in your family museum, noting the name of the persons (your children, for example, or other loved ones) you wish to leave them to after you’re gone. Make a master list and keep it with your important papers, such as your will.