Our tangible connections to the past, and the stories that go with them, can help us to form a sense of who we are and where we have come from. The lives that we have lived in the past shape our identities and influence the way we live now, but it can be difficult to hold on to these important memories, particularly as we age. As we grow older, our childhood memories become brighter, and our ties to our past become even more important to us, but just as we learn to value these older memories, we can begin to lose them. If we are not careful, we will lose the more tangible reminders of our past too. All those letters, diaries, and photographs that can seem so unimportant when we create them will take on new value when we look back at them decades later. We need to make sure they are still around for us to treasure.
The much longer histories of our families can also shape our sense of self, creating connections through time and space that help us to understand what life was like for our parents and grandparents. Knowing who we are and where we have come from can give us roots. It can also help us to remember our family stories and pass them on to help the next generation establish their own roots and connections. Many people take an interest in their family history at some point in their lives, whether it is as children completing a project on family trees at school, or as older adults starting to take a deeper interest in their roots as children or grandchildren appear at the tips of the branches. Whatever our reasons, and whenever we choose to begin looking for these connections, the tangible reminders that we have of our family’s past will play an important role. Making connections to the past will be much easier when we can search out clues from old papers, and the connections we make will feel a lot deeper when we can read our ancestor’s own words or see their faces in old photos.
Preserving the connections between the generations is one of the most important functions of family heirlooms, particularly those fragile documentary heirlooms that give us an insight into how our ancestors thought, spoke and lived. Our links to the past can all too easily be destroyed by time. Old papers and photos may have been lost or damaged and the ageing process itself can take a toll on our ability to recall details. What was out great aunt’s married name? What regiment did your grandfather serve in during the war? These are questions that it becomes increasingly difficult to find the answers to as time passes. Having some tangible reminders of the past can help us to remember more, and make it much easier for us to pass on this family knowledge to our own children and grandchildren. This is why we need to keep hold of family heirlooms and make sure that they are being cared for properly.