You can’t take it with you. But sometimes, it would be nice to hold onto it a little bit longer.
I’m talking about possessions, specifically family heirlooms. An heirloom needn’t be valuable, it just needs to speak to your family’s history. I asked readers to share stories of the family treasures that got away.
“I was not the one responsible for not holding on to a family treasure,” wrote Nancy Bowers of Bristow, Va. “It was my Grandmother who threw away my Grandfather’s baseball uniforms! Oh, to have the shirt he wore when pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1909 World Series! But her thought was ‘Who would want this stinky old shirt?’”
When Ann Hamann’s widowed mother went into a nursing home it was up to her to ready the house for sale and auction its contents. She regrets letting go of two things. One was a greeting card to her father signed by a teacher.
“Dad was born in 1900,” wrote Ann of Fairfax. “At the time I made the decision to get rid of it, it didn’t seem that important but I learned later to my surprise it did.”
The other was a set of flatware. It wasn’t valuable — just silver plate — but Ann remembered her mother telling the story of its acquisition. “She found the set in a jewelry store in a nearby town and when she came home and told my dad how excited she was about it he said she should just go get it,” Ann wrote. “I don’t have the things, but the memories don’t leave you.”
David Romanowski of Bethesda wishes he still had his parents’ clunky 1950s typewriter, “on which I tapped away many an evening, composing poems and stories and learning to write.”
Wrote David: “One of my sisters became the keeper of many of our family heirlooms, including the steamer trunk our grandmother brought to America. Sadly, all were lost when my sister’s home was reduced to ash by the Camp Fire.”
A reader named Denise from Elizabethtown, Pa., has been trying “the minimalist thing.” That can have its dangers. “In the midst of my cleaning out, I had two clear bins,” she wrote. “Each had dolls inside.”
One bin was full of her mother’s Cabbage Patch Kids and other inexpensive dolls. The other contained a china doll and an antique wax doll from her great Aunt Sadie. “Guess which box mistakenly went to the Community Aid Store?” Denise wrote. “I’m still sick about losing those dolls because I was so set on cleaning out. In the meantime, these other dolls have to go.”
Not all treasures are actually treasured. When Krista Box was growing, there was a cuckoo clock on the dining room wall. One day it stopped working. Her mother took it to be repaired but never picked it up.
“About eight years later, I stumbled across the ticket from the repair shop and thought it would be a grand surprise to reclaim the clock and hang it back up on the wall,” wrote Krista, of the District. “Looking back now, I can still see her reaction of surprise and faux happiness covering up what she was really thinking which was, ‘Oh no, not that damn clock again!’
“Shortly after that I left for my first semester of college, and when I returned a few months later, the clock was gone again, but this time to a destination unknown.”
Washington’s Vicki Boehm has never actually held the heirlooms she pines for. They belonged to her father’s parents, Amalia Hartmann and Nicolai Adamovich Boehm, ethnic Germans who escaped Russia and settled in Mandan, N.D., in 1905.
Her grandmother died in the flu epidemic of 1918, leaving five children, including Vicki’s then-6-year-old father.
“My grandfather left his children with a housekeeper while he went to Nebraska to earn a living,” Vicki wrote. The housekeeper stole almost everything of value and disappeared, leaving the children to fend for themselves.
“The kids sold family pieces their mom had brought from Russia, including a samovar, in order to eat,” Vicki wrote. (A samovar is a type of tea urn common in Russia.)
A few years ago, Vicki saw an episode of “Antiques Roadshow” filmed in Bismarck, N.D. “I found myself sitting on the edge of my chair watching actual appraisals, as well as people wandering in the background, thinking, ‘Is that my grandmother’s samovar? What about that one?’” she wrote.
“ ‘Antiques Roadshow’ is filming in West Fargo, N.D., this summer. When that segment airs, I will probably sit on the edge of my chair and wonder, ‘Is that it? Is that her samovar?’ I’d like that piece of my family’s immigration story returned.”
Sometimes, there’s a happy ending. When Karen Buglass’s husband, Ralph, cleaned out his parents’ home, he enlisted the help of a Kensington, Md., antiques dealer to decide what to sell.
“Among the items relinquished were an original Louisville Slugger bat and a rocking horse built by his dad,” wrote Karen, of Rockville, Md. “A few weeks passed — after which he stepped into that Kensington shop and bought back those very items!”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.