Heirlooms and Ancestors

Priceless heirlooms or burdensome dust collectors? How you feel about family heirlooms can tell you a lot about yourself and your ancestral history.

I saw an article online recently about how the younger generation isn’t interested in family heirlooms. I’m both scandalized by and understanding of that attitude. I think that’s something that evolves if you manage to live long enough. From the perspective of ancestral healing, the question takes on a new depth.

When you ask yourself how you feel about heirlooms, it can tell you a lot about family behavior patterns that you might not have considered before. So ask yourself, depending on which side of the coin you favor:

Why do you feel that heirlooms must be passed on? Do you feel that your ancestors’ stories can be kept alive by bequeathing the items they owned to their descendants? Or, are you more interested in their value as antiques? If your heirlooms were destroyed or stolen, which flavor of loss you would feel?


Why aren’t you interested in taking on the responsibility of family heirlooms? Is it about not cluttering up your house with relatively (no pun intended) meaningless stuff? Do you see it as a bunch of old crap that belonged to people you never knew (or cared about)? Do you move too often and don’t have a stable place to store or display them? What are your thoughts?

When I asked myself about my family’s heirlooms, which I now treasure, here’s what I realized:

When I was a kid, I was interested when family lore was shared, but that didn’t happen often. I didn’t feel a great sense of connection with my ancestors. All I knew was my mom’s dad immigrated from Scotland and my dad’s dad came from Malta. Both of my grandmas were born in the US and I didn’t know their nationalities. I don’t recall any heirlooms on display in our house. I learned years later that they were stored in a box in the attic.

As I grew up, as the only girl, my mom started talking about passing her china and silver down to me. And, as my mom grew older and more affluent, she began collecting things of her own that would be heirlooms for future generations. She had an exquisite collection of trinket boxes and Royal Albert style bone china teacups that she wouldn’t allow anyone to touch. They stayed behind glass in lighted display cases.

Mom would get mad at me because, in her eyes, I was too irresponsible to take care of all these things if she suddenly died. I was young and moved around a lot, I struggled to make ends meet, and the last thing I wanted to think about was taking care of a bunch of meaningless stuff that would someday be foisted on me. To worry about teacups and trinket boxes seemed almost insulting when I couldn’t afford to get my kids vaccinated to prevent them being expelled from elementary school. The guilt trips I received over my inability to take care of things I didn’t want or ask for were insane (I took the guilt trips to heart at the time … I only see the insanity now, in retrospect).

There is almost nothing from my dad’s side of the family. I didn’t know his parents well, as we lived in another state, and we called them by the formal names Grandmother and Grandfather. As far as heirlooms go, there’s only a decorative plate that belonged to Grandmother, who gave it to my mom as a thank you gift for doing her hair for a special occasion. Grandmother died when I was six and we didn’t visit Grandfather often. My most vivid memory of him was his gorgeous Maltese accent, which he never lost after seventy years in this country, and he called me “Leeza”. Oddly, just remembering the sound of his voice brings tears to my eyes.

As Mom got old, after Dad died, I knew that I’d be inheriting these things sooner rather than later. By this time, I had become keenly interested (obsessed, actually) with genealogy and starved for information about my ancestors. I wanted to know the stories behind the heirlooms. Who did they belong to? Where did they come from?

For reasons known only to her, Mom clammed up. I would say to her, “How about if you and I spend some time together cataloging your collectibles? I’ll take pictures of everything and you tell me their stories. That way, the information can be passed on for generations.” She always put me off, and refused to tell me.

This is the cup and saucer that my grandma smuggled into the US, one of my favorite stories about her.

She took that information with her when she died. The only story she ever shared was about a teacup and saucer that my grandma smuggled into the US from Canada. She hid the saucer against her belly, beneath her girdle, and the cup beneath her bra. I thought this was a marvelous story and I treasure it and the cup and saucer.

When I’d ask, as a youngster, to use one of the teacups she’d say in a reverent tone, “No, that’s very expensive!”

In reality, they weren’t very expensive. Yes, Royal Albert was a grade or twelve above what we used in daily life, but what she was saying was she didn’t trust me to not break her valuable things. She continued this distrust when she got so mad at me for not settling down into the kind of life she lived, with her house in the suburbs and a safe space to store stuff.

I still don’t know why she wouldn’t tell me the history of the items. I suspect it’s because, in her elder years, she became miserly and felt like everyone wanted to take her things. She felt put upon and taken advantage of, which was truly not the case. No one in the family deliberately did this to her. Everyone was respectful of her things and her fears. I can only assume that this was a buried psychic pattern, an ancestral wound.

Mom valued things for their monetary value and I treasure them for their stories. It breaks my heart that I’ll never know the origins of many of the items.

I’ve chosen to explore this aspect of my mom’s psyche because if she had this bent perspective, so do I, even it’s expressed in a different way. She expressed the dysfunctional pattern as a fear of people taking her things, but it expresses in me as “I’m not good enough, mature enough, responsible enough to take care of very expensive things.”

Perhaps that’s why I choose to look at these very expensive things as stories, instead. I’m a great caretaker of stories. Maybe that’s what made me the family historian. It’s not about the money spent, it’s about the people who spent it.

Now that I’m in possession of a portion of Mom’s collectibles, I keep her teacup collection in her display case, which I inherited. I make a deliberate point of inviting my kids and grandkids to carefully choose a cup for a spot of tea, which I make in my own teapot that I hope someday my kids will fight over inheriting, instead of dreading having to store their mom’s old crap.

My way of breaking this pattern, aside from allowing the kids to respectfully use the teacups, was demonstrated recently on my granddaughter’s 21st birthday. She and I have spent many afternoons sipping tea and eating scones together, and she’s beginning to collect household items for her first apartment. With this in mind, her birthday gift was her very own Royal Albert teapot set, in a design pattern that fits her personality.

I hope she’ll pass her tea set along to her progeny as an heirloom of her own, along with the teacup my grandma smuggled in from Canada in her bra, and the “Feed the Birds” cup that I bought at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and all the other items I’ve told her stories about …

Lisa Bonnice is an award-winning, best-selling author whose “day job” is as a Program Host at The Shift Network, where she hosts summits on ancestral healing, life after death, and intuition and medicine.

Her current passion-project is a series of metaphysical comedy novels. The first is entitled The Poppet Master (previously published as Be Careful What You Witch For!, now revamped and with a new ending). The Poppet Master is a modern-day fairy tale about Lola Garnett, a bored housewife and office drone who wakes up with unexpected psychic abilities, and no instruction manual, and Twink, the reluctant, sarcastic faery assigned to assist and educate her. The Poppet Master is available wherever books are sold. Its sequel is in the works.

Lisa is also writing The Maxwell Curse, a fictionalized version of a story she found in her own ancestral lineage about a witch trial, a generational curse, and massive mine explosion, all of which left ripples of destruction in their wake, devastating one family’s tree.


2 responses to “Heirlooms and Ancestors

  1. Wendy van Zweden

    Love reading this Lisa. I often wonder the same. I am a collect since I was 18, a love and education from my first late mother in law. And lucky for me now, my husband treasures history as well.

    Before then, My own family had heirlooms both with precious memories attached and other cabinets displayed exactly so, cause that is justhow my great grandmother had it displayed!

    I suppose I fall in both courts… I want to keep the memories alive and I want my family to know the momentary value of other stuff. I recognize in my own home I have stuff on display and in use, because i like it. Old pretty things give me pleasure. Noone wants to live in a museum because it is expected of us.

    My daughter and step son are appreciating the history, my son and step daughter, not so much. Never fear, the granddaughters also have time to work out which camp they fall into.

    For me, it is important to share the knowledge and stories attached regardless.


  2. Curtis Michaels

    I have two heirlooms. They mean everything to me because my grandmother, who taught me to love the English language gave them to me. She gave me her antique Oak Secretary, along with her “Compleat Works of Shakespeare”. There are other things I’ve inherited and they’re all at my sister’s house. She says I can have them any time, but I don’t want them. I’ve told her to pass them to her children or grandchildren.

    This heirloom means something because of who it came from and why. Once I die I expect the book will be trashed because of its condition, and the secretary will be sold to an antique dealer. But while I live they have meaning.


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