What do your family heirlooms say about you?

Heirlooms reflect your family's unique history.
Heirlooms reflect your family's unique history.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

You've got to have a sense of humor when your dad leaves you his extensive PEZ Dispenser collection. Used by generations of American children to dispense small candies, PEZ Dispensers were sold in hundreds of popular personas with heads that opened to push the candy out. They're a piece of Americana and a good example of the interesting nature of family heirlooms.

Value is in the Eye of the Beholder

Even a wild boar's head can have sentimental value, if there's a story behind it.
Even a wild boar's head can have sentimental value, if there's a story behind it.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Our heirlooms tell a story about our culture, our family dynamic and our fundamental natures. You aren't what you inherit, but you may inherit a lot of what you are -- and that can be reflected in the types of things your family hands down from one generation to the next.

The dad with the PEZ collection may have raised sons with a similar appreciation for the lighter side of life. If he was, say, a policeman, his sons could be interested in police work, too, and like Dad's gun collection even more than his candy caddies. They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and when you're thinking about the symbols of your family's past, you may identify with and value the things that you grew up seeing and doing.

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Is it nature or nurture that makes you love cooking Grandma's Cajun recipes? Who knows? Come Mardi Gras, though, she always makes sure you're elbow-deep in jambalaya. If Grandma offers you her favorite cast-iron skillet to remember her by, it may not be made of silver, but chances are it'll be precious metal to you.

Objects that Reflect Personal History

Heirlooms are curious objects because they can have enormous value that has nothing to do with money. We could get sentimental and say that it's all about heart, hearth and home, but maybe it's about all those things and something more, too. Take the case of the hardworking, professional mom who inherits assorted sewing gear from her grandmother. One day she's looking for a needle and thread, picks up the sewing basket and realizes that the simple act of sewing is something that she shares with untold generations of women in her family who worked, in their case with needle and thread, to make life better for their husbands and children. It's a glimpse of the past and a bridge to a new understanding of how the world has changed, but still, somehow, stays the same.

Ok, so not all heirlooms come with a built-in aha! moment attached, but they carry a lot of weight. When you read about people running into burning buildings, what do they grab once the kids and pets are safe? They save pictures, scrapbooks and family mementos. They protect irreplaceable family photos, letters and diaries. They save personal history in objects that reflect that history. With any luck, one day someone will pass a little family history along to you in the shape of a PEZ Dispenser, ring, watch, hope chest or photo album. Whatever it is, it'll be a link to your heritage, a clue to what you come from and maybe a glimpse of where you're going. That's so much cooler than anything you could buy at the mall.

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Sources

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