Monday, February 25, 2013

The importance of heirlooms

A few months ago, my sister asked me to bring an old piece of furniture back to my parents' house when she was rearranging her apartment. It was a small end table that had belonged to our 2x great-aunt, Mary Rose Mulvaney Daniels, or Auntie Mae.

Although Auntie Mae died before either of us was born, she looms large in our family's collective consciousness. She had no children, and her husband died young, so she spent a lot of time with her nieces and nephews and their families, and stories about her are told frequently to this day.

Auntie Mae would end each dinner with "Thank God and the O'Haras for another good meal."

Auntie Mae would compliment you on what you were wearing when it was something you'd received from her as a gift.

Auntie Mae would drink Presbyterians, and remark on my grandfather's bar tending skills: "You make a strong drink, Bill O'Hara."

Auntie Mae would send my dad $5 in a card when he was in college, with an admonition not to spend it on beer. (It was always spent on beer.)

Auntie Mae and her good friend, Sally, would go for a "constitutional" around the block in the evening. As they got older, the ritual moved into the backyard, and consisted of a stroll around the pool - but it was still their constitutional.

As Laura loaded Auntie Mae's end table into my car, she asked me to put it in the attic at my parents' house - "unless you want use it?" 15 seconds of considering the limited space in my apartment and the table's small size and concealed storage capability, and I was in. It was only later that I realized how fitting it was: Auntie Mae had lived for years in the small Queens neighborhood where I've lived for 18 months. After a detour through our childhood home in the suburbs and my sister's Brooklyn apartment, the end table would be going home.


I'm sure Auntie Mae never kept a PlayStation3 on top of this little end table, or had it filled with bad movies and TV on DVD. Still, there was a certain sense of continuity, of relationship, of her being a real person and a part of our lives, when my husband asked me yesterday - he was preparing for a boys' night of watching said bad movies -  "What happened to our copy of The Room?" and I responded "I think it's in Auntie's Mae's end table." It was as natural as if I'd said "I think it's in the bag your mom gave us" or "Check under my sister's books." And it was equally as natural that he responded a few minutes later, "You were right. It was in Auntie Mae's table."

Ben has a hard time keeping my ancestors straight (meanwhile, I know some of his very well), but a tangible object - a whole piece of furniture - the thing that holds our DVDs - sitting right in our living room is hard to ignore, and hard to forget. Ben had never heard of Auntie Mae before 5 years ago. I had always known about her, but never known her. But being privileged to have this heirloom in our home allows us to keep her memory alive, in some small way, in even the most mundane parts of our daily lives.

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