In my grandma Stewart’s bathroom, sitting on a shelf above the commode, was an old fashioned leather Victorian tall boot with a button up the side, a pair of thick stockings and a small beaded pocketbook that once belonged to a long gone grandmother (I have no idea which one). My aunt Lori has a very large, tarnished metal brooch with a long, thin purple gem that once belonged to another of our unknown grandmothers. While I was never allowed to touch the heirlooms in the bathroom and had to admire them from afar, I did have many moments holding and admiring that brooch, wondering about who owned it. Since the birth of my first grand baby this past September, I’ve been wondering what I’ll leave behind for her and it’s been even more on my mind since suffering my bilateral pulmonary embolism in January.
As I walked through my house the other day, I pondered, what makes a good heirloom? What will tell my story? What says this was mine? We’re not rich by any means; I have big box store furniture we put together in ten minutes, my shoes are faux leather and practically disposable, my clothes aren’t handmade and more than 80% of my jewelry comes from Target or Etsy. So, what bits of my life are worth saving and leaving for my children and grandchildren? When I was talking to my husband about it, he looked at me incredulously, said “Are you kidding me?” and pointed to the living room. I looked at him bewildered because all that’s in there in a print of Sir Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June. He said “That’s you. Every time I see that picture, I think of you.” I laughed at first but then I realized, how right he was. There was definitely a history with that painting and I… a very long history.
I moved to my father’s house after leaving a very bad relationship. I left positively everything behind except for a laundry basket full of clothes. When I got my first apartment following that, it was absolutely bare. I had my step-mom’s tiny television on a metal dinner tray stand, a borrowed rocking chair and a bed. I ate dinner next door at their house for months because I had no kitchen table/chairs and practically no pots or pans of my own. Life was, well, fairly crappy during this time and I made reasons up to not go home. I just didn’t want to be there staring at the walls or squinting to watch four channels on a miniature television screen. So I ended up going to the library, the Indian mound park, an arboretum or the mall to just walk around.
In the mall was an art and framing gallery where I would pass this gorgeous print of Flaming June hanging on the gallery wall. Every single week, I’d stand there gawking at her; it was just the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. One day I actually ventured into the gallery and I nearly choked on the $400 price tag. I knew there was no way, no how that I could ever afford something like that. I didn’t even have a couch so I couldn’t justify such an expensive print. Then one day, the gallery had a going out of business sign saying that everything was twenty percent off. Talking to the owner, she said that she was moving to New Orleans and the less stock she had to transport, the better. Sadly, as much as I wanted it, the print just still wasn’t in my budget. In the following weeks as I watched the percentage slowly dip the price lower and lower, I was anxious and secretly thankful that nobody had bought her. Even though I wasn’t sure how I’d afford to eat the rest of the week, I happily came home with Flaming June when she reached sixty percent off. She was my first “big” purchase and I felt, for the first time, like an adult.
Building my life over again was a tremendously hard and scary experience but she somehow made it better. I moved from house to house like some kind of gypsy, fell in and out of relationships, started and quit several cruddy paying jobs, had times where I barely had two dollars in my checking account but she was my constant reminder that I could start over as many times as I needed to and I would be alright. For the longest time, I didn’t have much else but I had her. I’d come home from a miserable day, wanting to bawl my eyes out or give up completely and I’d just sit and stare at her, getting lost in those calming blues and warm oranges, daydreaming of better things and better days to come.
Today, she serves as a reminder of where I once was and is a gauge of how far I’ve actually come. She inspires me still; I pulled the colors from her to use in my living room where she is still prominently displayed. My husband jokes that if there was a fire, she’d probably be the only thing I’d grab and save. I guess I hadn’t really appreciated that my story was so wrapped up in a painting until my husband pointed it out. If something were to represent me and my life, she would be it. So I keep thinking maybe an heirloom doesn’t have to be an original painting, a pricey piece of jewelry or a handed down christening dress but rather, it can be something special and meaningful at a point in someone’s life that helped define them. I hope that whomever gets her when I’m long gone, appreciates my story and finds that same inspiration I once did.
Have you thought about what you’ll leave behind for your loved ones?