What heirloom would you bring?
I’m reading about refugees and the things that they carry (remembering the Tim O’Brien tale The Things They Carried, about the impedimenta Vietnam soldiers take with them into battle.) BBC News Magazine profiles refugees during the Nazi menace of the 1940s, asking that question.
Isabelle Rozenbaumas’s mother escaped Nazi-overrun Lithuania, barely, with her carriage-driver father, and snuck out three class photographs from that time.
Julian Glowinski’s grandmother was deported from Poland to Siberia in 1940. Amazingly, she packed a sewing machine onto a cattle truck, and converted gowns into wedding dresses in her concentration camp in exchange for food.
Elke Duffy and her family fled East Prussia in January 1945. With her she took an amber necklace her mother had strung from amber she and her sister found on a Baltic beach.
Ian Carr-de Avelon’s wife’s grandfather was forced onto a train in Lwow (then Poland, now Ukraine) with his wife. Rather than cherished photos he took a camp stove. A camp stove? But of course ultimately it made perfect sense.
So what to take in a hurry, with the monsters breathing down your throat?
Photos. But today they mostly stay trapped in the computer. You can’t just lift them out of an album, with yellowed tape stains on their backs. So print some, fast.
Maybe I’d take this one, if I had to take one.
I’d have to take another. Mark it on the back with a Sharpie, April 1987. The engagement party.
If I could, I’d grab more. My parents. My extended family. Gil would take this burst of joy.
Or, he says, an oilcloth Santa he remembers making when he was six.
What object would I choose? Not a sewing machine. Not an iPhone. I looked around my house, and I thought about storage. At least three dusty cardboard boxes are marked Heirlooms, mostly from a family bow-windowed breakfront now residing in a home with more space. How do you choose among the loved objects of the past?
I might take my paternal grandmother’s copy of Ulysses, by James Joyce, its cover broken off, which she bravely purchased at a time when the novel was still censored in the U.S.
Or a scrap tatted by my ancestors, embroidered with carnations, the cloth handled by their fingers.
I could tuck that into my sock.
But if I was going to bring some bigger object – what?
How about a china plate. A cake plate, a foot across, strewn with pink roses and lilies of the family. Utilitarian as well as cherished.
Just a plate. But a plate belonging to my great-great-grandmother, a woman with the interesting name of Brown Coats. A deep souvenir of family, embodying the optimistic conviction that sometime in the future, there will be cake.
Will the plate make it through the mud, the rutted roads, the mountain passes? Despite its apparent fragility, I am certain it is strong.