The Things We Carry

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.

refugee photo

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.

Gil and Maud Hug

I’d have to take another. Mark it on the back with a Sharpie, April 1987. The engagement party.

April 1987

If I could, I’d grab more. My parents. My extended family. Gil would take this burst of joy.

el 1

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.

Joyce Ulysses 750 wraps 1000

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.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Photography, Publishing

6 responses to “The Things We Carry

  1. Hmn, thanks, you might be right. Anyway it’s intricate, and she did a lot of it. Hard to imagine any woman sitting still for that long today!


    I think yours is a kind of BATTENBURG lace: the even TAPE forms the design, and the crochet or tatting fills the spaces between. Battenburg lace was first created when Queen Victoria of England named her son-in-law as the first Duke of Battenburg in the late 1800s. Every English Duke had his own lace pattern.

    Read more:

  3. Well, I don’t know the intricacies of lace making, but I was always given to believe my great aunt’s work was tatted. Thanks to the offer to take a look. When I next get the piece out of storage I’ll try to share it with you.

  4. It definitely makes you think on what you could do without, no matter why you’re leaving. I was surprised how few true heirlooms I live with every day now. Storage, yes. But even then.

  5. lkcr

    Jean, I make tatted lace. I learned from my grandmother. That lace piece is not tatted lace. I believe it is lost thread open worked, or it could be bobbin lace, but I can’t be sure. If you could send me a high def photo of that I would be able to make a sure identification for you. Lace is kinda my thing. I do crochet, knitted, tatted, and embroidered.
    I am guessing that the base fiber content is cotton, and that the embroidery was done in silk.
    It is indeed beautiful, and well worth stuffing into your sock should zombies come knocking.


    What to save? With monsters breathing down my neck, or with disaster descending from the skies … or with ravaging fires, threatening my home and belongings… what should I choose to carry? (For that matter, on a far smaller scale, far less desperate, what did I refuse to let go, when I was down-sizing? Predictably, I’ve regretted some of my choices, and I bet many escapees from disaster, did, too, but what could they do about it?)

    History is grateful to those who saved photos, heirlooms, handiwork, and toys from their grandmothers. Collectively, these things function as society’s memories; we study them, and we learn, and we remember to remember.

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