I had started going to see Berenice, mostly out of respect for my mother and grandmother. She was important to them. I knew they would want me to and I would do my best to honor them. At first, we just sat and talked about this and that. On one of our many visits I was telling her about the stuff I had that belonged to members of the family, bits and pieces of history belonging to people I would never know. I proudly listed the things I had that had even belonged to her hoping to flatter and impress.
Her eyes locked with mine and she asked pointedly, "Why?"
She caught me a little off guard I asked "What do you mean?"
Never shifting her gaze, she asked again "Why do you hold onto all that stuff?"
"Because they were gifts, pieces of people's lives, it's holding what they held, it's a connection to the past," I tried to explain.
"Hmph!" she replied. "It's just junk!"
I was mortified and confused. "But it's history!" I protested. "They are heirlooms, family heirlooms, treasures!"
Much of what I had accumulated I had acquired from my mother. I have a piece of linen woven my great great-grandmother, a crystal necklace and table belonging to my great-grandmother. There are dishes made in 'occupied' Japan, linen table cloths and fancy tableware. There are the crystal dishes that we used for every holiday get together, a lamp my grandmother carried home in the snow when she was pregnant with my uncle, the area rug from the house on Winchester and a trunk full of photos. Some of the most precious of my mother's artifacts belonged to Berenice and her parents. With each artifact, my mother reverently told stories about the times and the people they belonged to.
"It's just stuff," she repeated, this time more emphatically. "You need to get rid of it. You need to let it go." Her gaze never waived. She was making her point.
Our conversation drifted to other things but her words weighed heavily. As we chatted my mind drifted. Berenice's family saved my mother from an extremely abusive situation. They provided sanctuary, much as they had done for my grandmother and my great-grandmother before her. They showed her there was another way that life could be different. She learned how to prepare a gourmet meal, set an elegant table of china, linen, and crystal, to appreciate opera and the theater, and create a beautiful living space (all on a shoe string budget, of course!) They gave her a place to live so she could work and attend the local junior college. Most importantly, they gave her permission to dream. They saved her sanity, saved her soul.
It suddenly dawned on me why my brother is named for Berenice's father and I for her. Ginger was actually her nickname. As the last of my elders she was something for me to cling to, a connection to my mother, my grandmother. Her stories about them helped me understand myself, my situation, my life better. She in many ways was saving me in much the same way she and her family saved my mother so many years before.
Later as I left, it hit me. I finally understood. True heirlooms are not 'things'. They are the intangibles. They are the gifts of self that are passed, that make the life of another better, that give meaning, give direction and more importantly, hope.