Two Family Treasures by
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When my mother died in 2015, three years after my father’s death, my brothers and I had to divide up our parents’ possessions. My mother had devised a wise plan to accomplish this without starting a family feud. My brothers and I met without our spouses, and we drew lots for the order of making selections. Then, we took turns putting post-its on the items we wanted. After the art and good furniture had been chosen, many family treasures remained, but I knew exactly what I wanted: my grandmother’s canister set and my grandfather’s iron. Both items were approximately 100 years old, qualifying them as being older than I am. I could have selected more monetarily valuable items, but being a sentimental sort, I went for the memories.

Some of my parents’ possessions to be divvied up

I probably have other more valuable things that are older than I am, but these are the two I treasure the most.

I remember the canister set being in my paternal grandmother’s kitchen. It was made in Germany and its blue and white windmill design was popular in the 1920s. Still, I’m left to wonder how my grandparents came to possess this set, as they always struggled to make a living. Perhaps it was a wedding gift?

My grandparents with my father

If the canisters were in perfect condition, the set might be worth $300 on Etsy, but by the time my mother inherited them, some pieces had been broken. There was a bottle for vinegar, but the one for oil was gone. There may also have been canisters for additional things, but she was left with the assortment pictured in the featured image. When she broke one of the lids, she glued it back together. Somehow, that makes the set even more precious to me.

Broken but repaired with love

I was always curious about the labels on the set. Sugar but no flour (perhaps that one broke). Coffee and tea make sense, but rice and farina (the main ingredient in Cream of Wheat) are not things I would store in a canister. But the thought of Cream of Wheat evokes cozy memories of my mother bringing that to me on a tray when I was sick. Now they hold a variety of tea bags, with the oil/vinegar one being empty. I wasn’t sure I would find a place for them when we moved, but they happily co-exist with the modern décor that dominates our new kitchen.

The iron belonged to my maternal grandfather, who owned a tailor shop on Brush Street in Detroit. It is very heavy, although it has an electric cord which means it was purchased sometime after the turn of the 19th century. I can picture my grandfather wielding this heavy iron to press the clothing he had cleaned, made, or altered. It serves as a reminder of how much physical labor was part of his job. Although the picture below is blurry, I can see his store clearly in my mind’s eye. I sometimes helped him write his bills in English when I was a young teen.

My grandfather in his tailoring shop

My mother adored her sweet, loving father and somehow ended up with the iron, even though she was the youngest sibling. Perhaps her older brother and sister thought it was junk, but my mother proudly displayed it in her home and used it was a door stop when she moved into senior housing. One person’s junk and another’s treasure, and I was delighted to use one of my post-its to claim that iron.

I probably have other more valuable things that are older than I am, but these are the two I treasure the most. I hope one of my children or grandchildren will find a place for them in their home someday. They are a powerful link to the past and I hope they will still be loved when I am gone.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. My heart jumped when I saw the photo of the canister set. My mother had her mother’s set and took possession and kept it for years (my favorite piece was the salt box.) It was mostly for show and when we downsized several years ago, I realized I had no room for it and gave it to my niece who loves antiques. Your story made me very nostalgic and now I’m sorry I gave the canister set away (It probably would have been stored in a closet. I’m such a baby.)

  2. A very sweet story Laurie , I love the look of those old canisters – and I have a blue and white kitchen!

    Your grandfather’s iron reminded me that when he came this country my paternal grandfather worked in New York’s infamous lower eastside “sweat shops” as a “cutter” which I assume means he cut patterns.

    At one point he developed emphysema and on doctor’s advise my grandparents left the city for upstate New York where they started a farm and eventually a small hotel. That immigrant generation worked hard and didn’t have it easy, did they.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      You are so right about our grandparents’ lives. I knew his store was hot and steamy, but until I lifted the iron, I had no idea how much physical labor was involved in his work. Not easy at all!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Laurie, these are, indeed, wonderful treasures and links to beloved grandparents. The value is of no importance at all. It is the memories that you share that are all-important (and how wonderful that you have photos of the owners as well).

    I love those blue and white canisters. They’d look great in my Vineyard kitchen, but that is beside the point. They have deep meaning for you and make you think about what might have been in them (they summon thoughts of Cream of Wheat), how you use them today, they’ve been repaired (you are never going to sell them so who cares). How civilized of you and your brothers to divide up the property in such a way, so as not create a big family rift.

    The iron was clearly meaningful to your mother and now it remains so for you. It is now a wonderful relic from a bygone era, but so much more. It helped your grandfather earn his living through hard work and reminds your family of a beloved ancestor. Thank you for sharing him with us.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      My brothers and I followed my mother’s wishes, and we were all happy with what we received. I think we knew what each of us valued, so there was only one minor dispute between my brothers over a bedroom set. I was surprised neither of them wanted the canister set or the iron. To have these things out in my home everyday links me to the past.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    What a terrific story and I love your two favorite treasures. As you so wisely note, the true values of so many of these family items are the memories not the monetary worth. So I think you chose widley indeed.

    I should also note that your distribution procedure sounds very much like the one that my wife and her sisters devised for their parents’ treasures several years ago. Their mother is still alive, but, since the sisters know exactly where things will end up, I think each one is already, if prospectively, enjoying her respective treasures.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      The distribution plan could not have been better. I think it was wise of my mother to leave out our spouses. While it was a sad experience, it was also a special time for the “children” to bond over their shared childhoods and parents. Whenever, I look at my two treasures (every day), I feel a special connection to my roots.

  5. Marian says:

    I love what you chose, Laurie, and I can understand why you picked the canister set and the iron for the memories they stimulate. It is interesting that, with our ancestors being so poor, they did get items that were fancier than expected. Your sentence about helping write your grandfather’s bills in English made me smile. My maternal grandparents also were tailors and needed help with writing in English.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Marian, I think we share many common roots. When I helped my grandfather with his bills, he used to dictate things like “one collar, two cuffs, one crotch.” The last one always made me laugh.

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    We also picked things out in turn and I went for the sentimental and the small (to get back to Canada!). The canisters are lovely, and I was surprised to see “farina” as a staple. Having engaged in the great pantry moth battles, I think I know why rice and farina might be put into canisters. Also loved the idea of using the iron as a doorstop. Using the precious mementoes is perfectly fine.

  7. Suzy says:

    I think your mother’s plan for dividing up the possessions was perfect! And yes, leave the spouses out of it! So glad you got the items you wanted. The canister set is beautiful (and how funny that farina is one of the items to be stored in them). The iron is meaningful for the reasons you state. Even if you just use it for a doorstop or a bookend, it reminds you of your grandfather, which is great. I wish I had something like that!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      My mother’s plan was genius and created a bonding experience rather than fighting. We learned the hard way. After my father died and we moved my mother to senior housing, there were things she couldn’t take with her. My sisters-in-law got into a battle over some vases and pitchers. I highly recommend her plan for anyone in this sad situation.

  8. Mister Ed says:

    Very touching story. I agree with the other comments — the value is not what other people would pay for it. It’s what it means to you. I suppose if you were required to value them in dollars and cents, the proper amount could be what you’d pay to prevent losing the item(s).. But even that analysis seems too impersonal.

  9. Susan Bennet says:

    Laurie, I loved your story. You–the only girl? (I know that role!)– chose the items that represent the traditional roles your grandparents assumed to make and preserve their home: the mother, who nurtured her children and husband, and the father, who braved the outside world to provide for his family. You rightly recognized the essence of your grandparents’ legacies to you and your siblings. The canisters are indeed gorgeous. It is interesting that they all are of the same size and shape — who says we don’t need as much tea as sugar as farina?

    • Laurie Levy says:

      LOL. Right now, they are all holding various types of tea. No one has ever opened them to see what I put in them. And yes, as the only girl, I did have different priorities than my brothers, although my youngest brother is also sentimental.

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