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Add a dash of memory

Agriculture.com Staff 12/02/2006 @ 1:07pm

As a child, I looked forward to holiday dinners at Grandpa and Grandma Burns' turn-of-the-century farmhome.

My sister, brothers, and I knew the food would be wonderful. The buzz of preparations added to our anticipation. We wrestled heavy dining room table leaves into place and pressed tablecloths, napkins, and silverware into service from the cool recesses of Grandma's buffet.

My memories of those holiday meals with extended family were so strong that when Grandma died, I asked for her dishes and silverware.

Since my marriage, I've been fortunate to celebrate most holiday meals with my in-laws. My siblings live on opposite ends of Iowa.

I keep thinking, "Someday I'm going to use Grandma's dishes more often." I've taken for granted that my daughters will be happy to have these -- and other -- heirlooms.

My main concern has been to avoid family arguments over keepsakes. Recently, however, I've learned that families today are less inclined to keep heirlooms. They don't want to polish silver or iron linens. Many pieces go to eBay.

Whether an item becomes a treasured heirloom or a hand-me-down destined to gather dust depends upon its meaning to the recipient, says Eric Arnould, University of Arizona. He says young people care about possessions entwined with stories or memories. They want items they've "used, grown up with, eaten from, and done so repeatedly," he says.

If the next generation turns down an heirloom, it may be because it carries too much "baggage," Arnould says. For example, if you have Mom's table setting, does it mean that you must host every family dinner?

Another reason that more family heirlooms are selling to the highest bidder simply may be the sheer volume of stuff that we own. "Our parents' generation is the wealthiest ever," Arnould says. "If things end up on eBay, maybe it's because we can't store them. And we're more mobile."

He reminds families to share the significance of heirlooms when they're used or displayed at get-togethers. "If no one wants a cherished heirloom, it may be that no one ever told its story, it doesn't fit into family traditions, it's been hidden away, or it belonged to the black sheep of the family," he says. Informal meal trends also work against heirlooms. Two decades ago, more than half of all brides who registered for dinnerware chose both a casual and formal set. Now most only register for a casual pattern. One strategy is giving an heirloom to a select family member as a wedding gift to elevate its significance.

So it may not be too late for me to attach meaning and memories to Grandma's dishes and other heirlooms. I'll start this Christmas and reintroduce them regularly for birthday celebrations and dinners. I'll look for ways to tie family stories into traditions that the next generation will want to transplant to their own hearth and home.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to look up old family recipes. After all, the memories of what's served on those heirloom platters also will be savored for years to come.

As a child, I looked forward to holiday dinners at Grandpa and Grandma Burns' turn-of-the-century farmhome.

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