Should We Part With Family Relics?


My Dad’s old flannel shirt, which I’ve kept but never worn.

On Monday the New York Times published a column from a Baby Boomer who was conflicted over whether to part with a mink coat that had once been her mother’s. It sent me upstairs to look at two of my own family relics, which I don’t use but hold onto for totally different reasons. I’m sure all of you have one or more of these!

The columnist wrote that the mink reminded her of how beautiful her mother looked wearing it, the considerable financial sacrifice her dad made to buy it, and the pride he felt when saw his wife. As she savored these memories, the daughter also fretted that she wasn’t tall enough to wear the coat with aplomb, and about the ethics of wearing fur in the first place. While she decided to donate it, she still felt guilty.

Many of the commenters talked about what they would have done (many would have kept the mink, even if it meant altering it into a jacket or blanket), their own family mementos and how they struggled with the decision to keep them or get rid of them.

After I read this I went upstairs to look at two of my own unused family treasures. One is my father’s old L.L. Bean flannel shirt, which we bought him for Christmas at least 20 years ago. I’ve never worn it but it hangs in our closet. He died 15 years ago this month, but looking at it reminds me of him. It is un-showy, sensible and comfortable…everything he was. The shirt was soft enough to cuddle a grandchild against and practical enough to wear for the many work projects that he undertook at our house. He wore that shirt or something similar when he taught me how to put up dry wall; when we took walks together with my mom and my children; and when he gave us common-sense advice, which was often.

The second relic is something I haven’t worn for more than 30 years. It’s a platinum cross, encrusted with diamonds, that once hung on a platinum chain around my grandmother’s neck. While the crucifix is a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice, this particular one reminds me of a woman who never sacrificed. My grandmother was not a good mother; my own mom and her brothers were often left alone while she gathered with friends to play card games laced with smoke and profanity. She never combed my mom’s hair; fortunately a goodhearted neighbor would often give he

This cross, usually a symbol of Christian sacrifice, but not in this case.

This cross, usually a symbol of Christian sacrifice, but not in this case.

r a bath and make her presentable. Strident and cutting, my grandmother would browbeat her family…especially my grandfather, a goodhearted man who loved whiskey and song (often at the same time). Sometimes my mom had to skip school because she did not have shoes, but my grandmother still wore that diamond-studded symbol of Christian sacrifice. As my mom grew older and went off to work in Manhattan, she dutifully turned over most of her paycheck to my grandmother. But every day my mom would visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, kneel in front of a big cross and pray for a man who would understand her family. This cross listened. Eventually a man who liked flannel shirts would rescue her.

In raising her own four kids, mom used her own mother like a photographic negative — imprinting us with the love, care and attention she never had herself. The cross, once my grandmother passed it on to her, stayed in mom’s jewelry box.

Eventually the diamond cross found its way to me and while I’ve kept it I can’t bear what it symbolizes – misplaced values and miserable mothering. But long ago my Aunt Theresa, my dad’s sister and a woman who truly combines both style and common sense — as well as a delicious touch of moxie — had some good advice about the cross. “Why don’t you wear it as a lesson?,” she asked.

That advice has probably kept me from giving the cross away or selling it. Looking at the cross, and at my dad’s shirt, reminds me of what’s most important. It’s easier to figure it out with the shirt, once worn by a man who was never selfish.  The cross perhaps has to be seen a different way: a symbol not of sacrifice, but of transcendence and forgiveness.

Do any of you have any family relics that you don’t use but can’t part with?

10 thoughts on “Should We Part With Family Relics?

  1. Beautiful piece, Cathy! I kept a few things from my parents and a few other family members who were very special to me. None of these items has any monetary value. One of my favorites is an Easter card with a bunny popping up out of an egg. My Mom wrote a sweet loving message to me inside. I kept it originally because it made a great decoration for my Spring bulletin board at school. Now I still get it out every year and hang it up, but I love to look at her handwriting ~ somehow it brings back so many memories of her.

  2. Yes Kathy I have several. One I keep in my top drawer is the vest my Mom knitted for my Dad during WWII when he was in service. It’s not my favorite color but I am a knitter and this is the only item that my mother ever knitted as far as I know. At least it’s the only one that survives. It reminds me of how frightening it was for my Mom to be apart from my Dad when I was born. One of these days I’m going to wear it. Now I’m inspired. Maybe on my upcoming birthday. Great post.

  3. This is wonderful post. It is obvious yu will keep them both. Now — for those if us who have WAY TOO MUCH of their Parents stuff Still around………………….

  4. I still have earrings and rings from my Mother and Aunt and WWII memorabilia from my Dad. I treasurer all of these items and take them out and look at them every now and then. These items were special to them and therefore have become special to me!

  5. your aunt’s advice is very wise
    wear the shirt – I wear my dad’s flannel jacket

  6. We all have our mementos that remind us of a loved one that is no longer with us. The items remind us of the person, but the true memories reside in our hearts.

    Being from the same family, I have memories of both my uncle and my grandmother who were mentioned in this article.

    I can remember my uncle making wonderful fruit tarts and bread, driving my sister and I down to Avalon to spend time at the shore, and him slipping my sister and I $5 and telling us to keep it all on the hush hush! 🙂

    My memories of my grandmother are warm as well. I have heard all of the stories about her, but she always treated my sister and I with love and kindness. Perhaps as with most things, she mellowed with age.

    When I think of the stories that are not so nice, I try and wonder why they happened. My thoughts are that maybe she had an upbringing that was not ideal. I never heard her speak of her mother, and I think that is very telling. She was a woman sent away at a young age to a new country because she had epilepsy. Perhaps her actions had something to do with that as well as other circumstances that we will never really know. Perhaps her disease affected her in ways we cannot understand. It does not excuse her behavior, but it may help to explain it.

    I think that someone who treats others that way do so because they do not love themselves. Some can rise above their circumstances,others cannot for whatever reason.

    I remember a woman who sang to me in Italian, sat with me when I was sick, let me stay up late to watch The Movie of the Week, and tickled my arms and feet. Maybe at that point in her life she was able to rise a little higher and was able to express love.

    It is not for me to excuse or defend what she did, I was not there. What I can do is offer another side of the story. She had many faults, but I try to remember the good times and forgive what I can never truly understand.

    • Margaret, thanks so much for offering another perspective, a beautifully written one. You are right…Nani did have a good side that showed itself most glowingly to her grandchildren. I did not have a lot of time with her because we lived so far away for a long time, but she was a good grandmother to you and Val. Glad you wrote!

  7. I love the way you wrote about these two items, Catherine. Powerful writing, and powerful lessons, as well.

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