What makes something a family heirloom? Age? Value? Ownership? The fact that two or more family members stop speaking to each other because they have a big fight over it?
I hate to say it, but that last reason might be the most valid.
Merriam-Webster defines “heirloom” as “something of special value handed on from one generation to another.” It doesn’t, however, try to define “special value.”
That’s wise of Merriam-Webster, because the value of an heirloom doesn’t necessarily have much to do with how much cash you could get if you sold it on EBay or Craig’s List or at a local antiques shop. The real “special value” that transforms something into an heirloom is the stories around it.
I remember years ago visiting the Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City. In one room was a collection of beautiful old pianos. One of them had traveled from England, first by sea and then from St. Louis by wagon. Its owner was a widow with six or seven children, the youngest of whom, if I remember correctly, didn’t survive the voyage.
Another instrument, a square grand piano that would need a sizeable parlor to house it, had an even more interesting history. The wagon train it traveled with apparently started somewhat late in the year and needed to speed up the last part of their journey in order to get across the mountains before snow came. They dug a pit, wrapped the piano in hides (beaver, I think), buried it for the winter, and went back to retrieve it the following year. Since it was in immaculate condition more than a century later, it apparently survived its temporary entombment perfectly well.
I enjoyed seeing the pianos and reading their stories, but it was also a little sad to see them sitting in a museum, unplayed and labeled with “do not touch” sign. These were family heirlooms that were no longer in their families.
One of the heirlooms in my family is a parlor organ. Its history isn’t quite so dramatic as that of the continent-crossing pianos, but it did make its own journey across the prairies by wagon. The trip, from the southeastern corner of South Dakota to the family homestead in the south-central part of the state, took three rainy weeks in the spring of 1905 and included crossing the Missouri River by ferry.
I remember my grandmother playing that organ, which she did by ear because she didn’t read music. My sisters and I—with the benefit of enough piano lessons to make us dangerous—used to play on it, too. We would pull out the various stops to see what differences they made in the sound and pump the pedals until our legs got tired. The collection of old music books and sheet music in the library table was where I discovered a whole new set of verses to “My Darling Clementine.” My favorite, and the only one I still remember, was: “How I missed her, how I missed her, how I missed my Clementine; Till I kissed her little sister, then forgot my Clementine.”
One of my sisters still has the organ. The next time we visit, I might have to introduce my youngest grandchild to it. At age 15 months, he likes music, and I imagine he would have great fun pulling out all the stops. And if we paired him with his slightly older cousin, they could take turns on the pedals.
It would add one more generation of stories to this particular family heirloom. They might even get into a big fight over it. And maybe they would eventually learn to play “My Darling Clementine.”