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
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?