The Making of an Heirloom

Reader Contribution by Cindy Murphy
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The far-reaching effects of Hurricane Ike were felt even in West Michigan; it came in the form of rain….lots of rain. The deluge lasted three days, without letting up, and by the time the last raindrop fell, we received 10 to 12 inches here … eight inches of it ending up in our basement.

Eight inches equals a lot of soggy stuff; nearly everything in the basement was stored in cardboard boxes. When the rain stopped, our garage and driveway looked like a soggy free-for-all trashy rummage sale with everything from the basement thrown in heaps. All those packed cardboard boxes of clothes, Halloween decorations, Christmas ornaments, family photos, financial records, and whatever else was down there had to be picked through to see what could be salvaged. What a mess!

Sifting through a disintegrating box of sopping wet linens, I found an old tablecloth – a green, cotton square with a printed border of little hearts, Dutch girls and flowers. I smiled remembering the last time it was used.

When my oldest daughter, Shelby, was in third grade, she had to bring an old family heirloom to class and give an oral report about its history, using the heirloom to illustrate how people lived and thought in days past. This heirloom could not be a picture. Shoot – nearly all we had were pictures … or trinkets that mean a lot to one member of the family or another, but nothing that would be considered an heirloom with a history behind it. Mom’s house is packed with such things, but she lives hundreds of miles away – too far to drop in and grab something off one of her packed-to-overflowing shelves. My daughter and I searched our house. In a box in the basement, we found a tablecloth that I had somehow acquired from Mom. I called her to explain my daughter’s homework assignment predicament, and find out if there was a story attached to the tablecloth. It looked kind of Pennsylvania Dutch to me, and because Dad grew up in rural Pennsylvania, I thought perhaps it was from his childhood home.

Mom must have heard the desperation in my voice; I know I heard the wheels turning in her head. She thought for a moment before answering my plea with, “That was a favorite of mine when I was young – we used it every Sunday. On Saturdays, I remember helping my mother do laundry, and it was my job to put the clothes through the clothes-wringer before we’d hang them on the line to dry. We used that tablecloth so often, I’m surprised it isn’t worn thin from all those wringings. Your dad – they didn’t have an automatic washer growing up. When one of the kids got in trouble at home, their punishment was to turn the manual crank on the washing machine – and doing laundry in a family with fourteen children was no picnic. It could take all day! Your Dad was a character; he was always in trouble as a kid … he did more than his share of laundry.” Great – this could work; we’d found something with a bit of history!

My daughter wrote the report about how laundry was done in the “olden days.” I ironed the tablecloth for her to take to school. While doing so, I noticed that stamped on the backside, in the corner in small print, were the words “Prentiss Lane Inc. ‘Sweetheart’ Rd. 1962-63.” Now, I know my kids sometimes think I’m old; ancient even – born before the days of the wheel or any other modern convenience, but I’m almost positive there were automatic, electric washing machines the year before I was born, 1964 … and it was certainly not even close to a time when Mom would have used a clothes-wringer. I called her. “Yes, yes … so the tablecloth was not from my childhood – and it was not used often; I think I bought it off a clearance table and used it once. But the story about how we did laundry was true. Does it really matter if thisparticular tablecloth was part of that laundry?” I laughed. It would have to do – there was no time to find something else for the report. My daughter took the tablecloth with the date safely hidden inside the folds, aired our family’s dirty laundry history in front of the class, and received an “A” on the assignment.

Shelby didn’t know the tablecloth wasn’t really a favorite of her Grandma’s when she was a little girl until I pulled it out of that box, soaking wet, and told her the story behind the story.

“Grandma lied?” she laughed.

“Well … sort of. Because she loves you and wanted to help.” I laughed too. It was a tiny secret shared between Mom, me, and now my daughter.

So, do I keep a tablecloth that I think is not particularly attractive and would use even less than my mom did? Or throw it in the pile of things that can’t be salvaged or are too much bother to clean and save, only to be put back in the basement and most likely never to be pulled out again? It was an easy decision; I put it in the pile to be laundered.

Merriam-Webster’s defines heirloom as something of special value handed down from one generation to another. It does not have to be something of monetary value. It can be as cheap as a dime-store tablecloth on clearance – one that has memories of three generations laid upon it.

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