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'They Make Me Smile Inside': The Power of Family Heirlooms to Keep Loved Ones Close

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A hand with palm upturned holding a gold pendant with a blue stone. We can't see the face of the person, but they're wearing a black and white striped shirt.
Do you have a treasured family heirloom? (Valeria Boltneva/Pexels)

Recently, KQED Forum asked listeners: Do you have a treasured possession from your family?

"What's an object you treasure, that you'd be devastated if you lost?" asked host Mina Kim. "Maybe a family heirloom — a portrait, a wedding dress, a chess set linking generations — that speaks to who our families are? Or maybe something you're hoping to pass down someday?"

The answers resulted in a conversation between Kim, New Yorker magazine staff writer Hua Hsu and visual artist Ari Bird about the significance of heirlooms.

Bird noted that sometimes the objects that become heirlooms are unexpected, saying, "These are objects that their loved ones actually used, and maybe they didn't intend necessarily for those to be the heirlooms right there."

"Those are, I think, the objects that many of us are drawn to — that have that meaning," said Bird.

One listener, Ian, commented on KQED Forum's Instagram that his abuela gifted him her brother's stamp collection. It had stamps from all over the Americas and some from Europe, dating back through the 1930s.

Another listener, Beth, wrote that her favorite heirlooms were her dad's fountain pen and his bamboo fly-fishing rod. She wrote that those had previously been gifted to her father himself when he graduated university during the Great Depression.

We ultimately received so many answers about family heirlooms from listeners that they couldn’t all fit into the hour-long KQED Forum show, so we’ve compiled more of your stories here.

A clear through line in all the responses? It's that our heirlooms, no matter how big or small, can help us feel closer to a loved one who is no longer with us — something that's often totally disconnected from the actual monetary worth of an object. Or as KQED Forum listener Cassandra put it: "Isn't it funny that our most valued objects have little value?"

Submissions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

A handwritten letter lies on a table, with a stack of blue-toned envelopes -- presumably containing more letters -- in the background, tied with twine.
From letters and jewelry to clothing and furniture, you shared your treasured family heirlooms with us. (Suzy Hazelwood/Pexels)

As I grew up, I always loved a ring my grandmother wore with multiple diamonds. When she passed, it was going to be broken up so that my half-sisters could each have a piece of it. They voted, unbeknownst to me, that since I was the oldest girl, I should receive it.

I cry twice when I see it sparkle — once missing my grandmother and thinking of memories — sometimes laughing. And twice at the generosity of my sisters. — Anonymous

I have two cherished heirlooms from my late mother: her wedding and engagement rings. I wear these only for the Christmas holiday. My mother wore her wedding band often, but rarely wore her one-carat diamond engagement band. I once asked her why and she thought it was "too much."

My mother had a signature scent and it was called Blue Grass. She only wore it when she and my father went out, which wasn't very often. After she passed away, I made sure to take her (almost full) bottle of this cologne, which I still have over 20 years after her passing. — Susie

In the early '60s, my father managed a machine shop. Once to thank him, the owner gave him a gold diamond ring. My dad appreciated it but would never wear it.

When I was 16, I asked my dad for it. He was happy to have to give it to me. I put it on my finger then and I have been wearing it ever since, now as a reminder of my father, who was the most wonderful dad ever. — Martin

My grandma, Ruth Murillo, was an avid crocheter and used to make everyone a very intricate mantle as a wedding gift. She stopped when her eyesight worsened and her hands got tired. But she made an exception for my wedding in 2014. She has since passed, but I hope to pass my mantle to my children to show her amazing craftsmanship.

I’m a designer at Levi’s that works on women’s 501s [jeans]. I recently had my initials embroidered onto my personal favorite pair of 501s, as a way to celebrate my success at this company and in this industry. These jeans will be passed on to my kids once they don’t fit anymore. And with proper care, they’ll be worn by generations to come. — Marisela

My grandmother had some beautiful silver that had been passed down to her. I loved to go underneath her bed and look at it, and one day she taught me how to polish it.

My mom gifted it to me and I cherish it. It reminds me of my childhood, and the joy my grandmother showed when she taught me about all the different pieces. Also, when my dad passed away, I got a gold coin and a chain from him, and I never took it off. It stays right over my heart. — Sparrow

I wear my grandmother's wedding ring every day. In a moment of lucidity a few years ago, before her Alzheimer’s got really bad, she slipped it on my finger and asked me to keep it safe after she was gone.

It is the only object she kept since the day she received it. I wear it every day because I will remember her life, even when she doesn’t.Marina

My grandfather went to the Cleveland School of Art in 1914 and made a living in commercial graphic art. So we have various items that he made that are loved by our family.

For instance, a plaster cast of my mother's hand when she was about 5 years old. Also two diaries that he and his wife-to-be kept for five years apart, including through his time in WWI, when he was working in a Base Hospital Unit in Rouen, France. And a pastel portrait of him made by a French artist acquaintance of his during that time. — John 

My mother, Irma Maidenberg, was an amateur artist in a small Indiana town. She was inspired by the greats — Picasso, Miró, Klee — in creating whimsical figurines. People saw them and fell in love with them.

She made hundreds and I have many. They make me smile inside, and I love sharing them with visitors. They convey a sense of joy and whimsy she embodied in her life. — Reed

My husband died young, at age 47. We discussed what he wanted to keep for our daughter. But something so surprising and wonderful is that I opened his closet and garage to friends.

I love to hear that they wore his cuff links to a wedding, or took his ski jacket or bike gear on a far-flung trip. And I know that those friends feel it, too. — Anonymous

My father moved our family to California from Rhode Island in 1955. I was 8 years old and heartbroken at leaving my grandparents and aunts behind. When I got to California, I started writing letters to my grandmother. I kept the letters she sent back to me. She died in 1965, and I flew back to Rhode Island for the funeral. When I was there, I found she had saved the letters I had written to her, and I took them home to California.

I still have that correspondence and it has prompted me to keep a journal for my 2-year-old granddaughter. I hope she'll treasure this as much as I've treasured the correspondence between me and my grandmother. Pat

My mom passed away in December 2020 in Germany. I had little time to choose what I wanted to keep and pack things up.

I took what was closest to my heart, her favorite cups, books, photos, her notebooks and the stuff passed down by previous generations. Then I invited my mom's friends and family to take what they wanted to remember her, followed by neighbors and friends to take what they needed. Anonymous

I have brought back from France the lamp my mother kept on her bedside table. It was one of the gifts she and my father received when they got married in 1943. Because of the war, it is made out of wood — not metal or pottery.

I replaced the shade. I have it now in my living room, enjoying its soft light and remembering both of my parents. — Genevieve

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