Heirlooms Are for Childless Couples
by Theodore Rickard
Among the imponderables in cleaning out the old homestead -- besides the mystery of the single ski and the left foot of a pair ice skates found behind the furnace -- is what to do with the family heirlooms. These are the things that our own and previous generations found impossible to simply throw away, and so we're stuck with them. Now it's come time to sell the house and move on. The problem seems to be that the accumulation of our "stuff" simply refuses to move on.
For example, my late mother-in-law was an enthusiastic jelly-maker, an art that proved impossible to pass down to her daughter who relied, instead, on what was on sale at the Pick 'n Save. Grandmother, after all, didn't have to play chauffeur to softball, swimming, dance, and/or hockey in a seasonal enslavement to the offspring's varied athletic interests. But there are still two enormous kettles and about 100 glass jars in the basement. So, now what?
There are also two floor lamps. I remember them vividly at either end of the sofa in my parents' living room. Each had two bulbs and two pull-chains. They blighted my older sister's romantic life for years, since the ratcheting sound of the pull chains if the lights were turned off would trigger a parental visit. This challenged my sister's boyfriends for years. Amazingly, only my future brother-in-law thought of unscrewing the light bulb. The last use for the lamps was when they were fitted with aluminum foil reflectors and became "Klieg lights" for an attic performance written, directed, staged and starred-in by our youngest, more melodramatic daughter. Her brothers were dragooned into performing minor roles and, when not on stage, providing the audience. The boys' motivation, apparently, was their little sister's "Or else, I'll tell . . . ." And neither their mother nor I ever did learn just what it was she was using to blackmail them. The youngest of the brothers, in fact, claims that she's still doing it. And he can't remember what it was, either.
In the far corners of both basement and attic we have enough abandoned athletic equipment to outfit an Olympic team. Kayak paddles are stacked with field hockey sticks, relics of sports that nobody but our kids ever thought of. There's the usual collection of tennis rackets that look oddly small on the business end compared to the wide-screen versions in use today, and the empty can for the tennis balls that the dog chewed up years ago. Why we kept all this stuff is beyond me. Maybe to explain to ourselves, years later, why we found child-rearing as so physically exhausting an enterprise. No wonder we were tired all the time. We were trying to keep pace with a bunch of athletes!
The boys' stuff seemed to end up in the basement; the girls' stuff, in the attic. I don't know why this should be. The old doll house is in the attic. The one with the windows shot out with a brothers' sling-shot -- for which outrage the cries of indignant injury echo to this day. No sooner were the windows replaced, we recall, than interests changed from dolls to boys, and the doll house was pushed back under the eaves.
Likewise the attic contains the rows of prom and bridesmaid's dresses which, for some reason, could never be passed along to somebody else, could never be worn again, but couldn't be discarded, either. Some are wrapped in old sheets, some in transparent dry cleaning bags, while one or two wear plastic trash bags modified for the purpose. Side by side they hang, shimmering wraiths of the once-magical and important. One is the youngest daughter's high school prom dress. The front of it is tear-stained with a girl friend's anguish. I don't know the details. I have never asked. Nor shall I.
Each hanging wrapper seems to enclose the event itself, packaging the triumphs and tragedies of the young, hanging them in a row, now done with them. Each enfolds a part of each daughter's life. They have daughters themselves now, but claim they have no room to store the old party dresses. They've never said why; maybe they don't know. We've decided that when we sell the house, we'll just leave them there. Perhaps with a nice note. "They might fit somebody in the next family that lives here," I said to myself. But I know that isn't true at all.
The dolls stored in the attic are easy. At the first mention of moving, each daughter shows up to claim her personal family. There is not even any squabbling about it; each knows exactly which doll accessory belongs to her own doll, and recites precisely when and how acquired.
"I got the going-away outfit when I had the measles, and Aunt Anne gave me the matched luggage to go with it." Neither her mother nor I could remember the gifts. Probably because one of the boys had chicken pox the same week while the other broke an arm jumping off the garage roof with a golf umbrella for a "parachute." Neither of these events registered with the sisters. Certainly not the way the doll's matched luggage did. And maybe we remember only because the one with the full arm cast got the chicken pox the next week and, as the doctor said, "Well, what did you expect?”
If whoever buys the house has daughters of their own, maybe they, too, will like to play "dress up" and put on shows in the attic. They'll need the costumes then, and a couple of spotlights. I wonder if they might be interested in making jelly. I hope so.