I glance inside the wardrobe. It’s still there. It adorns the dusty rear. It must be there 20 years now, stoic and battle hardened from years of neglect and warding off all those moths.
Cowering in the closet, it looks like its enjoying its safe refuge, harbouring behind my old wedding suit that won’t see the light of day again.
I’m talking of my uncle’s jacket, a family heirloom that we decided we should salvage when he passed away. It embodied everything about him.
Tattered and worn but also a dignified edifice of years of service battling the elements on the farm. A wisp of straw pokes out from its fissures.
I allow myself a grim smile remembering the time we tried to get the corn cut before that ominous forecast sent us all into a panicky flutter. It also sent my uncle into an early grave.
I notice the button is still missing from the bottom. He never bothered sewing it back. The one I pulled off as a child, tugging at it overenthusiastically when we played tag rugby all those years ago. That jacket is worth very little in material value but it’s a priceless heirloom in every other way.
Family heirlooms can range from the beautiful, to the benign, to the bizarre. A cynical observer would say they are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them. They can be very contentious especially when the lucky benefactor is not related to the donor.
My cousin Sylvia was delighted and surprised when her elderly neighbour Rita left her a prized china cabinet that had been in Rita’s family for generations. Rita, who lived alone, used to delight in raiding the cabinet for her finest bone china when people called for tea. Her daughter, who lived in Dublin, was not impressed that such a family heirloom was about to slip from the family’s grasp. Sylvia didn’t want any ill feeling so she graciously declined the cabinet. It wasn’t long before the furniture removers van appeared at the house. The cabinet was Dublin bound and the family’s legacy would live on. When they went to hoist the cabinet onto the back of the van it groaned and shuddered as if in protest of being moved from familiar surroundings. Before they could heave it away, it gave a little sigh and shattered into a heap of sawdust. No one had noticed the woodworm that had been feasting on it for generations. Sylvia was unable to suppress a smile as she recounted this tragicomedy to me.
They say the best heirlooms one can pass onto the next generation aren’t material possessions at all but things like genuine words of wisdom, words of encouragement, a sense of pride and dignity. By remembering a special memory or a story, by recalling these influential words that may have been imparted to us at the cusp of the final breath, we are honouring those who have passed over and ensuring that their legacy lives on.
Everything else is immaterial or should I say material?
We can’t take these things with us. We are born into the world naked and we extinguish as dust. Arguably the greatest family heirlooms are traits that can be instilled into us from an early age and passed down through generations. Traits like a little faith, a semblance of hope and a whole lot of charity are things we can all aspire to.
Like the song says, “walk on, walk on, with a little hope in your heart, you’ll never walk alone.”
Land as an heirloom
Land is another heirloom that has seeped into the collective conscious of the Irish psyche. Because of Ireland’s centuries old battles of trying to own its own sod of clay, the question of land, who owned it and who’s going to be the next to mould their fingers through its fertile plains can be very divisive as regards heirlooms. The land and its fore bearers are like hushed heirlooms from eons ago. Sacred places, silently cradling the secrets of its ancestors.
They are also like silent souvenirs that once buzzed with the life and energy of their owners. Just like my uncle’s jacket.
I close the creaky closet. My sneak peek at history is satisfied for now.
Offaly farmer and sometime-scriber Cormac Troy continues his musings on topical themes with a sprinkle of dark humour thrown into the mix.