Family History Through Objects

Objects bring back memories. Times together as a family around the solid mahogany dining table. Playing with Mum’s jewellery and perfume at her glossy wooden dressing table. Watching Dad work with his tools in the shed. Learning how to fish with Grandad’s much loved fishing gear. These memories are precious, and we don’t want to lose them. We want to hold on to our memories, and that makes us want to hold on to the objects that evoke these happy times.

Its important to honour our memories, and also to respect the feelings that much loved and used objects bring up. At the same time, its not possible for each succeeding generation to retain all the objects passed down from earlier generations. Its important to stay connected to our roots, but we also need space for our own lifestyles, for our own choices and preferences.

When choosing which momentos of loved ones to keep, size is an important consideration. Objects that are small and portable can act as precious keepsakes without dominating the space in your home. Larger items of furniture pose a challenge, because they take up a lot of space. When a loved one dies or wants to hand on big pieces of furniture, it can be difficult to decide what to do if you already have a fully furnished home. A common response is to rent a storage unit or pack the garage. However unless you realistically expect someone in the family to make use of these items, this solution is delaying the inevitable.

One way to retain the memories associated with objects is to take photographs. If possible its nice to do this while they are in their original location, as you remember them. This means you will always have a visual reminder of the scene in your memory.

However furniture and photos of furniture don’t tell their own story. They rely on you to remember times gone by. If it is important to you to retain a record of those associations you can write a brief memoir associated with the furniture item, and to keep with the photo. If you can’t fit Mum’s dressing table in your home unit,  you could take a photo and write a paragraph about how you used to play with her jewellery. If Grandad’s fishing gear is falling to pieces, you can take a photo and write about holidays spent together on the end of a wharf up the coast. If you are interested in family history, you could store these photos and anecdotes with other family history material, in hard copy or online.

If you have creative skills such as creative writing, painting or drawing, you could use a much loved object as a subject for your creative work such as a short story or sketch. Transforming your memories into art is one way to pay homage to them, and come to terms with change. You may find that this process of photographing, writing, recalling and observing does more to connect you with your past than holding on to the physical object. Having the picture on your computer or in a folder can make these memories more accessible and pleasurable than the object itself sitting in a shed.

These ideas are just suggestions. If it feels like too much trouble, don’t do it. Its not essential that you document every piece of furniture that your family ever owned. Its not intended to make a hard job even harder by adding an extra level of complexity. Its not meant to make you feel guilty for waving off  a bulk load of old family furniture in the Salvation Army truck. We all have to find our own way to resolve the question of how to disburse family heirlooms. These are just a few thoughts that might be of help to transform a stuck situation where holding on to inherited items from the past has become an obstacle to embracing the future.



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