Do Our Family Treasures Have a Secret Life?


We all have them. Those items we gather as we move through our life. They may have been handed down to you by your parents, grandparents or passed down from many generations. It could even be a silly souvenir that you purchased on that great family vacation a few years ago. If you still do not know what I mean, these are the things you would grab as you leave because of a fire. You know the things that have no monetary value, but are priceless because selling them would be like selling a part of yourself. Do the people in your family know their story? Do they have a secret life so that their story is not known? Their story is your story, your family’s story and needs to be told.

I have just finished reading “The Secret Life of Objects” written by Dawn Raffel. The author would choose an object, her 14-year-old son Sean Evers, would provide the illustration. Dawn would select an object as a coffee mug, rocking chair, watch, prayer-book, just an ordinary item until she told their story. Then they would come to life because their story was her story and that of her family’s. In her telling the stories of these objects, we learned the deep meaning they had for her but also served in the forming of her memoir. The book is an enjoyable read, and I came to an end way too soon. I recommend that anyone doing genealogy read this book.

Chalk board from the school days of Emma Craft.

Chalk board from the school days of Emma Craft.

Pictured above is the slate chalk board that was used in school by Emma Craft. Emma was my wife’s great-grandmother and was born in June of 1866. You may not be able to see in the photograph where Emma carved her name into the wood. At the time, she was going to school this would have been used to work out math problems and many other exercises. Paper cost money and the chalk board was used in place of paper. Also, her school would have been a one room school house. Emma was married at age 25 to Oreon Monty. According to the write up in the Plattsburgh Sentinel “A very pretty wedding was that of Miss Emma Craft and Mr. Owen Montey, which took place at the residence of the bride’s father, Mr. Stephen Craft, five o’clock, P.M..” Please note the complete misspelling of the Groom’s name. The article goes on to say ” Supper was served, and a most agreeable air of sociability prevailed…They were the recipients of many beautiful and valuable gifts, tokens of love and friendship.” Pictured below is a homemade cedar chest that was made for her wedding day. Draped over the lid is a hand embroidered pillow case that was crafted by Emma’s daughter Florence Monty Gonya, my wife’s great aunt. My wife has very fond memories of riding her bike to the Gonya farm and visiting with her great aunt.

Cedar Chest and Pillow Case.

Cedar Chest and Pillow Case.

The clock you see pictured below at one time hung in my grandmother’s living room. It does not work now but as a child I could watch the movements of that clock and day-dream the time away. Since my grandmother lived just a few blocks from me, I would often go to her house for a visit. I especially liked Sunday dinners at grandma’s house. She was a great cook and the meals were always delicious. I would always know where my seat was. It was the one with a bottle of Coke by the plate. Drinking soda with your meal was not allowed in my house. However, at grandma’s house she overruled this and the soda was mine. My grandmother died when I was 24 years old. I was told I could take anything I wanted from her house. The only thing that I could think of was this clock. It reminds me of days that seem so far away.

Grandmother's Living room clock.

Grandmother’s Living room clock.

Objects from the life of Robert Lyon.

Objects from the life of Robert Lyon.

The above picture is of a wooden bowl with its cover, and a certificate admitting Robert A Lyon the privilege of practicing law in New York State Courts. Robert was to leave for war soon after his high school graduation. The army put him through some college, but after a couple of years he found himself on the way to Italy. He was to be a clerk typist but at various times found him operating a Browning Automatic Rife or as they were called a BAR. Italy was to touch Robert in a very special way. As Robert tells it, he did not keep his derriere low enough and collected some shrapnel and a purple heart. He never told his mother about being wounded. Instead, he brought back that wooden bowl. We have hundreds of letters that Robert wrote to his mother during the war. By reading them, you see the formation that made him the man he became. Once back from the war he got married, worked and got a law degree all at the same time. He set up his law practice in rural northern New York. He worked at night at a dairy farm to earn the money needed to get his law office going. When he died almost every farmer in the county were his clients. My wife has memories of him being paid off in vegetables and meat from these farms. I was with him one day when somebody asked him what type of law he practiced. He smiled and answered “oh anything that comes through the door”.

The picture below is of an old World War 2 garrison cap. I cannot begin to tell you the hours I spent playing with that hat. With that hat, I was the general that led his troops into battle that we always won. We would play outside for hours saving the world from the bad guys. I would even put it on when playing with my plastic army men indoors. However before I wore it, my father had use of it and not for play. It was part of the uniform that my father wore while he was in the army during World War 2. I now have his medals and the knowledge of the terrible price that came with that cap. He saw more bloodshed and inhumanity than anyone should ever have to. When he came home from the war, he got married and went to work every day at the foundry. He would speak very little about the war. He kept it locked up inside and also in a heavy footlocker. There it stayed waiting for a young boy to discover. The flag in the picture covered my father’s casket. He died when I was fifteen years old. It’s funny the things you never forget. When they handed the folded flag to my mother, the airman said, “from a grateful nation”.

Garrison Cap and Flag.

Garrison Cap and Flag.

I only gave you a quick peek at the secret life of these objects. The stories could be longer and more detailed. Long or short version of their stories, it is up to you to tell them. We all work so hard to get our genealogy right. Why would we pass up the chance to tell everyone what these heirlooms are and what they mean? Just take one object a week or a month and tell its story. By doing this, you will be keeping your family history alive. That’s better than finding your treasures on sale at a flea market.

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68 Responses to Do Our Family Treasures Have a Secret Life?

  1. I have an old battered chest of drawers. It was always in my grandmother’s second room, where I slept as a child on visits. The family story was constant; my grandmother’s fearsome Irish grandmother brought it from Ireland. Everyone agrees that’s how it became an Australian family heirloom. Once I began to dig into Grandma Belson I found the following: at 16 (approximately) she fled the convent her father had placed her in because she was uncontrollable and eloped to America with the ferry man, had two children, abandoned them, went back to Ireland, caught a ship to Tasmania, married someone we’d never heard of, had six children, fled, took up with Charlie Belson in NSW, had eight children before she was able to marry him because the Tasmanian husband had finally died, and died, aged around 90, in Queensland. How on earth did that chest of drawers make all those moves? I wish it could talk.

    • chmjr2 says:

      It is talking through you. You are able to tell the story. Do not worry about not knowing everything, none of us really do know it all. Tell the story, write it down. When you learn more you can add to it. Thank you for reading my blog and your comments.

  2. boundforoz says:

    Every now and then there is a blog which stands out above the others and this is one of them. Interesting from start to finish.

  3. Aquila says:

    Reblogged this on Lineage Hunter and commented:
    Something to think about. Even objects have history and connections to people.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Thank you for reading my blog. I get a good feeling when people reblog my postings.

      • Aquila says:

        I do too. At least knowing someone else has read it lets you feel you’ve accomplished something. I learn something every day. I’m not always looking for what it is, but it’s never useless.

  4. What a fantastic idea! You are so intuitive!

  5. Great stories! I have similar ones. Haven’t figured out how to label items and attach stories to them. I put file labels on them at one time, but they are falling off. Ideas anyone?

  6. pastsmith says:

    This is a great post. Makes me wish I had some family items to treasure.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Perhaps not now but I am sure as time marches on you will acquire these treasures. Perhaps most of your own making but they will have a story to tell. Thank you for reading my blog and your comments.

  7. I agree! I also think it is important to photograph and document the family heirlooms that you don’t have. Go visit the aunt that got the special rocker or the cousin that has the wedding dress. Photograph and record the stories about these treasures.

    Great post, I especially enjoyed the sections about Robert Lyon and your father. Thank you for sharing.

  8. chmjr2 says:

    You are so right about going out and photographing and writing down their story. Thank you for reading and your comments.

  9. Sheryl says:

    Sometimes I find it interesting to think about why some items have survived across multiple generations while other haven’t.

  10. lifelegaciesproject says:

    I loved reading this. I love how cherished objects like those are visual representations of so many memories and feelings within the family– so much treasurable history.

  11. LJ says:

    Great idea! I’m going to follow your example this summer. Also, I’m checking out that book right now. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Wonderful stories. It’s good to be reminded that there are little things that can job our memories when thinking about family history!

  13. 2rcarrol says:

    Thank you for this great idea. My family history has been of moving around a lot, with many heirloom objects getting lost in the shuffle, I do have two well-worn and beloved quilts my grandmother made, and a fork from the set of silverware she got long ago, but after being married 58 years this summer, even some of my wedding presents still in my possession would qualify, I imagine. I will have to include this idea in my family history, as well as read the book you mentioned. Great blog!

  14. Cathy says:

    What a great idea. I’ve become the custodian of a variety of items over the years and now I’ve started to photograph them and write what I know about them. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Glad I could provide you with an idea. I am sure you will be surprise what comes to mind as you start writing about an object. Best of luck with your effort.

  15. Working on a post right now on this family treasures. . . thanks for the inspiration.

  16. Amazing treasures! They did come alive in your story.

  17. chmjr2 says:

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting on my blog.

  18. kakingsbury says:

    Reblogged this on Trovando Famiglia and commented:
    This is such a good idea. I have a few inherited objects that I wish I knew the significance of – the least I can do is write what I know about them, which I am embarrassed to admit, I’ve yet to do.

  19. Great post! I write my family’s stories, but hadn’t thought to let the actual objects lead me in to them. I have the shaving brush that Dad used when he was in the RAF in WWII, and a few other small items. I will use them as the starting point and see what comes out. It seems to be a good way to get to the everyday activities of life. 🙂

  20. chmjr2 says:

    Thank you for reading my blog and your comments. I get inspiration by touching and seeing items that were a part of history. So when I read the book that lead me to write this blog it was a easy step to take.

  21. gpcox says:

    I can not find a post of yours that I have not read, so I’m leaving this note. Don’t want you to think I’m ignoring you. How’s the writing coming along?

  22. hcpdwv says:

    Really enjoyed your post. I am a director of a genealogy library in WV. New to this blogging. You can check us out at I will try my hand of re blogging this on our FB page.

  23. hcpdwv says:

    Reblogged this on hcpdwv and commented:
    Enjoyed this blog! Think you will too!

  24. My coolest treasure is a pair of moccasins that were made for my father when he was an infant (probably by a Mandan Indian). My grandson took them to school this year and shared the oral history of the moccasins with his classmates. They all wrote thank you letters that are now stored along with the moccasins.

  25. Donna says:

    Great post. I, too, appreciate the sentimental value of the “little” things that once belonged to our ancestors.

  26. I love this post! I too, have things that I have saved for so many years but never thought of doing what you have. Guess I’ll add that to my list of to do! Thanks so much for the visit. Great post and can’t wait to read more.

  27. Reblogged this on The Guthrie, McCoy, Misson & Showalter Families and commented:
    I ran across this great post from Charles Moore on the Moore Genealogy Blog. His post is about a fantastic way to memorilize our family treasures. I am so glad I found this!

  28. Pingback: Do Our Family Treasures Have a Secret Life? | The Guthrie, McCoy, Misson & Showalter Families

  29. Stephen says:

    That was incredible post with such amazing stories behind each of the objects. Thank you very much for sharing.

  30. ccrooksphoto says:

    I agree. So important to pass along the stories now. It’s a good idea to take photos of all those family treasures, (not only for family but for insurance purposes) write on the back or if digital, a caption, a description of what the item is and why’s it’s important to the family history. Then place those somewhere in a separate spot, like a safe box, where you have them when you need them. Or, if you really want to get creative, you could make a book through one of the on-line services and write, as you have here, the little stories that go with each. Would be a wonderful gift for family members because down the road not everyone’s going to get all those items.

  31. I work on my geneology a lot and I also am in love with all of my family pieces that I have acquired over the years. I have been trying to instill the love of family antiques to my grandchildren. I have a new book on the market called Dobyns Chronicles and it is loosly based on the life of my maternal grandfather. That was another love project for me. Anyway, this was a great based and I did enjoy reading it. Sorry about going off the deep end there for a sentence or two. Thanks for posting.

  32. SilverSeason says:

    I enjoyed your post. I have furniture today which belonged to my parents and grandparents. this means I am using with knowledge of where these pieces have been and what they mean to me.

    • chmjr2 says:

      I am sure you have many treasured items when you think about it. One person suggested taking pictures and a little write up on these items. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  33. Admin says:

    Love your blog! Could not agree more about taking another look at those family heirlooms, and to pass them on to a family member how has a passion for genealogy. Far too many family bibles and photographs cropping up at auctions and in flea markets!

  34. Pancho says:

    I bought this book on your recommendation and found it very inspiring. With an artist in the family to handle the drawings, I’m eager to try my hand at this way of preserving the history of heirlooms. Thanks for the pointer!

    • chmjr2 says:

      I am so glad you liked the book. I have recommended a few books on my blog, and when I do I hope others will enjoy them. Thank you for your comment.

  35. dkheeter says:

    I have my parents cedar chest. It was given to them when they were married in 1939. I treasure it and it is still very useful!

    • chmjr2 says:

      Yes the are very useful. We have ours packed with blankets and such. It is well over a hundred years old and still on the job. Thank you for reading my blog and your comments. You have a real family treasure with that chest.

  36. I’m def going to look up the book you mentioned. I have many family heirlooms and have taken pictures as like you, I feel the history of the item needs to be remembered as well. Very much have enjoyed your stories.

  37. Reblogged this on texthistory and commented:
    A fine article on family memories & objects

  38. Luanne @ TFK says:

    I can’t tell you how much I love this!

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