More tidying/decluttering leads to more thoughts about the past and our relationship to it.

If a yellowed lace tablecloth had been on the table when the Prince Regent came to dinner incognito, or Grandmamma wrapped the silver in it when fleeing Estonia ahead of the Soviets, or Great-Aunt Lena draped herself in it as she ran out of the house to escape the fires that followed the ’06 earthquake, then there would be that story to tell, that reason to keep the tablecloth or even its fragments.

What I have is the lace without the story: pieces of hand-crocheted lace cut from a tablecloth, and a note in my mother’s hand saying that it was from my grandmother Eleanor’s family. I can guess that the pieces were crocheted by a woman, probably in the nineteenth century, probably by someone I am distantly related to, and attached to a tablecloth that probably meant something to this woman beyond simply that it was pretty and she made it. It might have been made as part of her trousseau, or for a daughter or niece. Eventually the tablecloth became stained and spotted, either by age or by food, or both. Someone, perhaps the original lace-maker, perhaps my grandmother (were they the same?) carefully cut the lace from the damaged material, probably intending to attach it to a new, replacement tablecloth. This never happened. The lace stayed in a drawer in my grandmother’s apartment, and then in a drawer or a box in my mother’s house, and then was packed up and sent to me.

I do not lead a life that involves frequent use of tablecloths, and on the rare occasions when I use one, I have my choice of half a dozen intact ones. (Deciding which of these to give away is a task for another day.) Nor am I given to sewing and handcrafts. My nephews have no memories of their great-grandmother, since she died long before they were born. We are not the sort of family that has stayed in one place for generations, stashing all the trousseau pieces in the ancestral attic. We’ve moved around and started over, frequently. The family I know about is mostly male and of a practical bent, although since my grandparents were all from large families there may be second and third female cousins whom I wouldn’t know if I passed them in the street.

So I’m giving the lace away, to a charity shop that has a selection of craft and sewing items. Maybe someone will feel like attaching it to a tablecloth for a bit of nineteenth-century charm.

If you have family things that mean something to you, write out their story, and store it with the things. Tape a card to the bottom of the china tray; pin a note to the tablecloth. It’s like labeling the people in photographs. The time will come when you, or your heirs, don’t know who they were. Even if the things get given away, it would be useful to have dates and some information. Maybe someone whose family later lost the ’06 tablecloth would like a replacement that has a similar story; or it might wind up in some local historical museum as a suitable piece of decoration for a house of the appropriate era.

I should do more of this with the things I have. I recognize my grandmother’s handwriting, and I know “L. T.” was her husband, so when I come across a note of hers referring to something that was his, I know the connection if not the story. But my nephews and their wives won’t know her writing. And there may come a time when I don’t, either. “Write the swyvere down” is good advice for more than research.

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2 thoughts on “The difference a story makes

  1. When my grandmother passed away, my siblings and I inherited a ton of photographs. My favorite is the Civil War era woman (judging by her clothing) who looks exactly like my brother George in a dress. But a close second is the group of unknown young men (maybe from the 1920s?) posing on a dusty road by a fence. One is holding a snake in his hand, and the caption says something like “Chester and the snake! Ha ha ha ha ha!” I wish I knew more about that story!

  2. My mother has a habit of giving the family things to my sister and the stuff that she has bought or been given by friends to me (why, I don’t know), so if I need to get rid of something, I won’t feel too bad about it. I do have a crocheted lace tablecloth from my great-grandmother, but as you say, there’s a story or connection to that, so it’s staying.

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