Keeping the Stories of Family Heirlooms Alive

July 3, 2017  - by 

“Every family has keepsakes,” said Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander in an April 1999 general conference address. “Families collect furniture, books, porcelain, and other valuable things, then pass them on to their posterity. Such beautiful keepsakes remind us of loved ones now gone and turn our minds to loved ones unborn. They form a bridge between family past and family future” (“Bridges and Eternal Keepsakes,” Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander, Ensign, May 1999).

Elder Neuenschwander went on to explain that even more valuable than these objects are the genealogies, family stories, historical accounts, and traditions that we keep and pass on. However, the objects themselves can serve as wonderful, tangible reminders of those stories, making doubly sure the stories continue to be told and retold, stitching hearts together across generations.



Joseph’s Rocking Horse

When I visited Nauvoo in the year 2000, one keepsake I brought home was a thin metal Christmas ornament in the shape of a rocking horse. It came with a story, printed on cardstock, of a small rocking horse that had once belonged to a little boy named Joseph, the son of John Taylor.

Joseph’s family left Nauvoo in 1846 with a loaded covered wagon, headed for Utah. The rocking horse, carved by Joseph’s father, was left behind. Joseph missed the horse so desperately that he cried for two days. His father, who would become the third prophet and President of the Church, finally decided to ride his horse back to Nauvoo under cover of night to avoid the mobs and retrieve the toy. He tied it to the outside of the wagon for the long journey across the plains.

The little horse and its accompanying story were passed down and preserved for more than 120 years, until the horse was finally donated to the Nauvoo restoration effort, which started in the 1960s. It has been displayed in the restored Taylor home ever since.

Every family has a keepsake. What's yours?

The first time I saw the horse, I wasn’t necessarily impressed with the toy itself or the fact that it was more than 150 years old at the time. What touched my heart was the story of a father who had risked his own safety to ease the heartache of his little boy.

Tip: Look around your home—or your parents’ or grandparents’ homes—for family artifacts that have been passed down for generations. Then dig deeper to find out what was so meaningful about those objects. Most keepsakes won’t have stories as dramatic as Joseph Taylor’s rocking horse, but you can still go a few steps beyond “this teacup belonged to my great-grandmother, and I used to see it her kitchen.” What did the teacup mean to her? What does it say about her? (Perhaps it says that she was elegant and fastidious and took great care of her possessions; perhaps she never had much in the way of material advantages, but this was one of the few objects of beauty that she owned. How did the teacup make its way into your hands?

Crystal’s Civil War Spoon

Do you have heirlooms that carry family stories?

In a previous article for FamilySearch, I wrote about Crystal Farish, whose grandmother had a tradition of serving the same meal every Sunday, which included Swedish coleslaw in a bowl with pink flowers and a silver spoon that had been passed through the family since the Civil War.

For Crystal, that bowl and spoon became a symbol of her paternal grandmother’s love, devotion, and resiliency. Crystal’s father passed away when she was 12, just three days before Christmas. Her grandmother, while mourning the loss of her beloved son, still gathered the family for Christmas Eve and still cooked the customary meal, teaching Crystal that life goes on and that family traditions can be a lifeline in times of great loss.

Tip: Use your family artifacts as a natural part of current gatherings and traditions so their stories can continue to be told and take on new life and meaning. What Crystal’s Civil War spoon represents to her now has little to do with its original history and story. The spoon took on new significance for her because it was actually used instead of left to gather dust high on a kitchen shelf, destined to be forgotten.

Stacy’s Typewriter

Stacy Julian of Spokane, Washington, has a vintage typewriter sitting on a shelf above her photo albums and scrapbooks, next to framed heritage photos. The typewriter belonged to her grandfather, James “Mac” McDougal, who purchased it to take on his mission.

“Just because I have it, that doesn’t automatically give it meaning to the next generation,” Stacy said. So she planned a family activity to help her kids get better acquainted with the typewriter and the story behind it. She had them lift the heavy machine and touch the keys, explaining where the term keyboard came from (kids primarily encounter digital keyboards on their electronic devices these days).

How to record your genealogy using family heirlooms!

“I told my kids that Grandma remembers her dad carrying this beast up the stairs so he could sit at the kitchen table and type letters,” Stacy said. Then she read an excerpt from a letter that had been typed on that very machine.

The next day, Stacy’s 8-year-old daughter, Addie, stood contemplating a heritage picture that was hanging in their home and asked, “This is the grandpa with the typewriter, right?” Stacy confirmed that it was, and Addie suggested that Stacy use the typewriter to type a letter to Chase, her son who was then serving a mission.

“Addie successfully bridged two generations and made a connection to her great-grandfather,” Stacy said, not to mention the adorable missionary connection: letters being typed to and from missionaries in the same family, on the same typewriter, more than 80 years apart.

Tip: Create opportunities for sharing the stories of family artifacts with your children and grandchildren in a way that resonates with them today. Connect the objects to current life experiences, as Stacy did with the keyboard, and also to the specific ancestors who once owned them. The Julian children now know something specific about one of their great-grandfathers, thanks to one family home evening lesson.

“I think as we anticipate that great family reunion that follows this life,” Stacy said, “we’ll want to prepare ourselves for not only meeting but also conversing with family members that we have worked to search out. We’ll want to have something other than names and dates to approach them with, and if we have created connections and enjoyed shared experiences with them, we will have all the more to talk about.”

Angie’s 5-Generation Quilt

I have a family keepsake in the making that is more meaningful to me than many of the other little odds and ends I’ve inherited over the years. It’s currently sitting in my top dresser drawer in pieces inside a black cardboard box.

It’s a quilt that my great-grandmother started cutting out several decades ago in what my grandmother told me is a black-eyed Susan pattern. When my great-grandmother passed away, my grandmother took the little box and started working on the quilt as well. She’d pull it out now and then, in between the myriad other quilting and sewing projects she was always working on, and stitch up a block or two.

As I stood in my grandmother’s sewing room and listened to her tell me about this box of fabric scraps, I told her how much I loved the patterns and the colors. “Would you like it?” she asked. “I doubt I’ll ever get around to finishing it.” I had forgotten that it was impossible to admire something in Grandma Neva’s presence without her trying to give it to you, and yet I enthusiastically accepted.

Family heirlooms hold the stories that build family history.

My grandmother passed away earlier this year, and she’s right, she wouldn’t have had a chance to complete the quilt. But I will, and I plan to enlist the help of my mother, who is a much better seamstress than I am, and even have my young daughter add a stitch or two. In the end, this will be a quilt handmade by 5 generations of women: from Ila Priscilla Olsen Turner, born in 1908, to Keira Jane Lucas, born in 2010.

And what stories will this keepsake hold for me? I will treasure the memories of my grandmother’s hands applying meticulous stitches that consistently won blue ribbons at the county fair. I will remember how as a child I played beneath the quilts on their frames, watching the needle poke down and back through, down and back through. I will remember my grandma’s admirable frugality (no scrap of fabric was too small to save) as well as her generosity (every one of her children and grandchildren received a handmade quilt both when they graduated from high school and when they married).

Tip: This experience of standing in my grandmother’s sewing room and listening to her talk about her fabric and quilts arose out of a photo tour I took around her home one day. Knowing my grandparents were getting frailer and were not likely to be living independently much longer, I went from room to room, photographing objects that particularly stood out in my memory from childhood. Regardless of whether I eventually ended up with any of those objects, at least I had the pictures to spark my memories. I’m sure I’ll upload a few of those pictures and stories to the Memories section of my grandmother’s profile on FamilySearch.

The Things That Matter

“If I want my children and grandchildren to know those who still live in my memory, then I must build the bridge between them,” said Elder Neuenschwander in his 1999 conference talk. Objects, keepsakes, and artifacts can build those bridges in tangible, accessible ways that will make the memories feel more real to younger generations. There’s not just a story to tell or a photograph to look at, there’s a rocking horse, a silver spoon, a typewriter, or a quilt that can bring the stories to life.

“My grandchildren will have no knowledge of their family’s history if I do nothing to preserve it for them,” continued Elder Neuenschwander. “That which I do not in some way record will be lost at my death, and that which I do not pass on to my posterity, they will never have.”


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  1. Es muy buen artículo. Unop a veces se desprende de objetos, que con el transcurso del tiempo se añoran, como los juguetes de nuestros hijos. Siempre hay que guardar Es muy lindo y emocionante,recordar aquellos tiempos.

  2. Fabulous. I love this. I’m creating stories about my ancestors using heirlooms and other documentation. It is my way of teaching my children about their past. It has been so much fun. I love what you have written here. 🙂