On the wall next to my bed is an heirloom alphabet sampler. It was stitched nearly 200 years ago by my great-great-grandmother when she was about 8. It has a couple of major mistakes: There are two letter o's-one at the end of a row of letters and the other at the beginning-and I wonder whether she miscalculated or whether the teacher kindly suggested that an extra o would balance out a row of letters that wasn't correctly centered.
Yet every time I see this simple sampler, a wave of peaceful love flows over me as I think of family members I never knew creating something that I would enjoy many years later. This simple piece of faded and slightly moth-damaged embroidery isn't particularly beautiful, but there is a serenity in its faded timelessness, its symmetry, its link with my heritage and the days I spent in my grandmother's home.
My great-grandmother left a pile of letters from a man who clearly adored her. But she married someone else instead, and there are no examples of loving letters between herself and her husband. My storymaker's mind reads these caring epistles and imagines the tragedy that tore them apart and left her in a loveless marriage.
The letters are rolled into the narrow chocolate box in which they have been kept for more than 100 years. I've retyped them so I can send a set to my brother and will copy them as a background for some family photos.
It's interesting to see the things that are carefully passed from generation to generation. Are they pieces of sentimental clutter or cherished links to our past? How do we relate to these objects? Do we store them in boxes in the attic, or take the risk of using them around the home and enjoying their simple beauty?
The children of Israel had a box of treasures that was a vital link to their spiritual history and a comfort to them as they traveled through the wilderness. And there's something very satisfying about using our family treasures and seeing them every day. They can remind us of people who've been a special part of our lives or had a significant role in our faith heritage.
So how can we find ways to cherish these symbols of love? And what do we do with some of the unusual items that don't always coordinate with our homes, our kitchens, and our modern lifestyle? Here are some ideas.
Textiles and quilts
If you're fortunate enough to have inherited an heirloom quilt in good condition, lay it over a guest bed or use it to cover a side table. Wooden clamps can hold your quilt safely and help you to display it on a wall. Keep the quilt out of direct sunlight to prevent fading.
Pieces of worn quilts can be carefully transformed into cot quilts, pillow covers, wall hangings, table runners, and place mats. Old buttons, lace, and handkerchiefs can be added to the recycled heirloom to transform it into something that blends your treasures together and yet expresses your own creativity.
Embroidered tablecloths can also cover beds or become drapes. If you don't mind changing the purpose of a tablecloth, you can turn it into a quilt by stitching an arrangement of vintage lace doilies, embroidery, buttons, and lace onto the cloth and then quilting it in the usual way. Attractive embroidered parts of old textiles can be given new life as a pillow cover or a framed art piece.
Beautiful old clothes on padded silk hangers can be hung on a bedroom wall as romantic decorations. When Sarah cleared her grandmother's wardrobe, she found some of her familiar cotton dresses and used the fabrics to make patchwork pillow covers and other household items that she and her sisters could use every day to remind them of the wonderful summers they spent in their grandmother's home.
You can also use nonvaluable vintage fabrics from old linens and clothes to create long-lasting gift bags. Just make simple rectangular bags in a variety of sizes and shapes that will suit most kinds of gifts. Allow enough height for the bag to be pulled together at the top with a length of vintage ribbon, and sew the ribbon to the bag in the side seam. This gives you instant gift wrapping that looks lovely for a variety of family celebrations and won't tear if it has to travel with you. Old buttons and lace can be used to embellish the bags.
Paper and photos
Old love letters can be scanned into your computer or photocopied and transformed into something new. Large-sized copies of old cards, photographs, and letters can be used to create your own personalized gift wrapping for a wedding present. Or you can use these items to decoupage a tatty desk, screen, simple chair, or bed headboard. Scanned images can also be reversed, printed onto specialist paper, ironed onto fabrics, and then transformed into clothing and home accessories.
It's a good idea to have precious photos restored, scanned, and touched up so that everyone in the family can have a set of pictures. Attach any information you know about the photograph. Or scan the photos and use a Web site that enables you to create your own bound picture books (such as www.shutterfly.com).
Collections of old books can be stacked together in interesting combinations and tied with ribbon, lace, string, or leather straps to create bookends for your shelves.
Tableware and containers
A set of heritage tableware is lovely for special occasions. Develop a generous attitude to breakages so that you aren't afraid to use the dishes for a family celebration. If you do break a special piece, there are Web sites that help you locate matching items. Lonely pieces of china often turn up in flea markets.
Odd teacups can be filled with guest soaps, dried lavender, posies of fresh flowers, or small pots of violets. Use them as place markers at a tea party by tying a pretty name label to the handle and placing a muffin, or tissue-wrapped gift, in the cup.
Pitchers can find a new life as a penholder on your desk, a vase, a kitchen utensil holder, or a watering can on a windowsill of flowers.
Chipped ceramics can still be used as display pieces with the chips hidden at the back or under some flowers, and a smashed plate can be saved and incorporated into a tile mosaic.
Glass objects can be grouped together to create light and airy displays on a windowsill, table, or shelf. I've stacked old stemmed cake stands and sundae dishes in pyramids on a high shelf and arranged vintage glass jugs and jelly molds among them. I've woven an invisible string of glass fairy lights around the objects and plugged it into a timer so that the whole shelf lights up with a heartwarming and sparkling glow every evening.
Glass and light are made for each other! All kinds of glassware can be blended with tea lights and candles to create a stunning display for a special occasion or to use on Sabbaths. Take care that delicate glass is protected from the hot wax so it doesn't crack from the heat.
Glass can be used to display other small items. Vintage jars and stemware can be filled with flowers, old buttons, beads, marbles, and other little treasures.
Tools and utensils
Old tools can make an interesting display on the wall of a man's office, garage, or garden shed. Some vintage kitchen utensils can find a new life as doorstops or garden decor, or you can use them in your kitchen just as they are. There is something lovely about mixing up a birthday cake with the same hand whisk your grandmother used and reflecting on the simpler way of life that she enjoyed. Old pie plates and pans can be filled with arrangements of candles, fragrant dried rose hips, mosses, and beads.
These can be challenging to manage if they're not what you?d choose to collect, but you still want to treasure them. You could develop a new interest and add to the collection, house the items in a glass display cabinet in an appropriate room, or feature them on a high shelf. If the collection isn't valuable and you want to keep it, be creative! After a family meal, place the objects in the middle of the table and give everyone 10 minutes to think of as many different uses as possible.
Lara inherited a collection of ceramic birds that weren't particularly valuable. She had a sleek modern home, and the family decided to paint all the birds with a matte (nonshiny) white paint. Then she glued them to a long piece of driftwood and placed it on a low table with white candles. It was stunning. And she had created a new heirloom from an old collection.
George uses his dad's old camera collection as bookends on his office shelves, taking care that they are wedged in and won't fall down.
Find its place
As the earth's resources become scarcer, it makes good sense to take care of God's world by valuing what we already have. Grandma's hand mixer or tabletop grain mill may prove very useful in a future world where precious power resources may be rationed.
In Philippians 4:8 we are urged to think about things that are true, noble, right, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy. Many of our heirlooms can fit these categories and remind us of character-building stories from past generations. Using these beloved items and seeing them every day can inspire and comfort us and root us in our family heritage.