More Than an Heirloom

More Than an Heirloom

From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul

More Than an Heirloom

The world does not require so much to be informed as reminded.

Hannah More

Fifteen of us crammed into my Grandma Chesser’s tiny one-bedroom apartment a few days after her funeral. Even after her death at the age of eighty-one, her apartment was as it had always been—as neat as a pin. Grandma was quiet, austere; she dressed simply, almost plain, never drawing attention to herself. She hadn’t cut her hair for years and wore it in a single braid wrapped around her head. Only at night would we see the long silver mane.

She was meticulous about her meager possessions, tidy to a fault, and practical about what she needed and didn’t need. Because she had such a limited amount of storage, we thought that most of her keepsakes were thrown out or given away. But as drawers were opened and boxes searched, a whole mansion of memories unfolded before our eyes.

Grandma had utilized every available space in her tiny apartment; we found boxes under her bed, hidden behind blankets and stacked in closets. Dozens of pictures and letters spilled out of small shoeboxes. I even unearthed some cards and letters with my childish handwriting, my first attempts at letter writing. Stacks of letters, cards and all kinds of papers included report cards from the 1930s, World War II ration books, postcards from forgotten vacations.

Cries of delight rang out when my sister and cousins found long-forgotten handmade gifts made fifteen to twenty years ago. Then I found practically all of the presents I had made for her, too. Simple boxes and trinkets most people would have thrown out one week later, she had safely tucked away for her pleasure.

All those gifts—needlework, shellacked plaques with trite sayings, macramé potholders and scores of other items made by her seventeen grandchildren—filled the spaces of her home. When I had given her gifts and crayon pictures, she had smiled pleasantly, never one to make a big fuss.

Box after box, we searched in wonder. There were crocheted baby hats, leaving us to wonder whose tiny heads they fit at one time. Seven sons had been born to my grandparents. She never said much about the two who died at young ages.

Nestled with the pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses she must have worn as a teenager were Grandfather’s rusted fishhooks. She had even saved his old shaving cup, razor and razor strap. His death came at the beginning of their “good years,” after all the sons had left and life was slowing down. She stoically lived another twenty years without him, yet we always knew she missed him.

In her jewelry box, scattered among the costume jewelry, was a small, rough, gray rock. But it had my father’s name on it, written in his own childish handwriting in black ink. As he rubbed and examined it, his eyes searched the stone for details of its past. He couldn’t remember its importance, but she must have. He was her youngest son, the one she tended to spoil.

We laughed when we discovered a paint-by-number picture hidden behind a door. I claimed it as mine, but my brother said it was his. Why either of us would want to claim it, I don’t know. It is the ugliest painting in the world, yet she saved it. From a distance, it looked like a dog; closer up, it was a swamp of mottled green and brown paint.

I saw the valentines first. It was like finding treasure. All different sizes of bright red cards, 1930s vintage. Chubby-cheeked children, angelic faces, with cute cartoon sayings: “How’s chances?” and “You’ve got me all busted up over you!” Most were addressed to my father, each from a different girl. There were a few re-addressed to another brother, apparently some early attempts at recycling.

But most of all we found letters. Page after page that recounted everyday life, heartaches and unexpected joys.

“I think the kids have the flu.”

“Guess we’ll be coming home for Christmas.”

“We’re having pretty good weather today.”

“I’m tired of camp and want to come home.”

Grandma faithfully answered every letter.

I have heard many stories of families fighting tooth and nail over an antique bedroom suite, a piano or a diamond ring. Grandma wasn’t able to hand down valuable heirlooms like that, but what we found were more precious than Victorian pianos. Her memories were her keepsakes, important enough to save for decades, even as long as fifty years.

I’m sure that on her loneliest nights, these treasures gave her—and now us—the greatest pleasures.

Susan Chesser Branch

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