2    Oct 20080 comments

Our family’s story: Heirlooms

Look around your living room. What do you see?

You probably have at least one family heirloom, possibly an antique, passed down from your ancestors through the generations.

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Here's just one example of a Russian samovar; there are many types and shapes. The samovar was also used in Iran. In our family we have both: a late 19th century Russian samovar from my great-grandmother and a late 19th century Persian samovar (produced in Russia).

Many people will have tangible items of family history on display including precious photographs, portraits, and objects carefully carried during difficult immigrations to new homes around the world. Others may hold collections of papers and documents passed down from ancestors, holiday greeting cards, wedding invitations and more. One researcher even has her Lithuanian grandmother's 1901 wedding trousseau.

One family treasure often seen in the homes of those with Eastern European Jewish roots is a brass or silver candlestick or pair of candlesticks.

Click to view photo in full size
PHOTO: An Eastern European candlestick

My own family heirlooms - from Belarus - include a beautiful tablecloth, cross-stitched by my great-grandmother, a Russian samovar she carried to New York in 1904, and a wedding gift of six large silver spoons, each bearing the Cyrillic initial for "T" (Talalay).

From my husband's Persian family, we preserve beautiful handmade pieces of naghde, netting embroidered with gold and silver bullion (very thin strips of the precious metal used as embroidery materials), and a few pieces of termeh, a rich brocade intricately embellished with the same gold and silver embroidery. We have beautiful Persian carpets, as well as silver pieces, and numerous handcrafted copper trays mde in Isfahan. The trays are heavy and come in all sizes, from very large (coffee-table size) to small serving trays, created with all types of designs. Here's one example of what these trays look like:

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Imagine if these treasures could speak? We would learn family history, understand and unravel family mysteries and we could even ask them questions!

Family history research is not only names and dates, but learning about real people - our ancestors. Who were they? What did they do? How did they live their lives every day?

Each item, regardless of origin, carries the story of where it came from, how it arrived in the our ancestor's hands, and how we today came to possess it. As we continue to tell these stories, we also keep our family history alive.

There is another side, however, to being the guardians of these precious heirlooms. What will happen to them in the future? Who will inherit them? Who will care for them, love them, and continue to tell their stories with love and respect?

Some say a wise mother or father should make arrangements for the disposition of heirlooms while they are still alive, that they should decide which items should go to which child or other relative.

Others ask what will happen when the younger generations don't want to polish ornate silver or the design doesn't fit in with their taste.

What you can also do to prepare for the future is to learn how to properly preserve artifacts. Talk to experts as different materials require different methods. Do identify each object, photograph it, and keep records. Research each item's history and its relation to your family.

Encourage the younger generations of your family to get involved, by gifting them with books on family history or related books on names or geography relevant to your family. Provide them with copies of genealogy data, photographs, documents and family letters.

Family history didn't stop with our ancestors. What happens today is family history for future generations. Use every opportunity to encourage family members to get involved and to keep this alive.

I look forward to hearing from readers who have their own family heirlooms. What are they? What do they represent? Where are they from? How do you share their stories? And to whom will you give them in the future?

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