Heirlooms carry with them the feeling of continuity, lineage. They are special just because they came from the past, with a history that includes forebears. And somehow, knowing a heirloom’s story, its history, makes it more precious than ever.
A small white house at 505 North 4th Street in Guthrie Center, Iowa, was special to me for several decades. I was cherished in that small white house. Grandma Wilson lived there.
I loved spending Christmas in her with house, where she’d be watching for us from her picture window. It took half an hour to get there from our farm south of Dexter. Sister Gloria and I would watch from the back seat of the two-toned blue Chevy to see who could spot Guthrie Center first.
And when we got into town, and about to turn up Ordway Street, we’d compete to announce, “I see Grandma’s house first!” But then we’d let the other sister “see Grandma first.”
Grandma would meet us at the door with hugs and chuckles and “my, how you’ve grown.” A huge Norfolk Island Pine, with a little tinsel on it, would take up much of the entry area.
During the Fifties, Grandma had one of those aluminum trees, with a revolving wheel that caused it to change colors.
In the Seventies, Mom got her a ceramic Christmas tree, with a bulb inside that lit the small plastic “lights” decorating the branches. That’s the tree I think of–the one that greeted us in her picture window–when I reminisce about Christmas at Grandma’s.
Her table would already be set with the Battenberg lace table cloth Uncle Donald brought her from China when he was in the Navy, even before the war.
Because we’d learned how in 4-H Club, Gloria and I were given the job of setting the table with Grandma’s old-fashioned blue, cream, and white china. And the simple, slender silverware kept in a dark wooden box lined with burgundy felt, and special tabs in the lid to hold the knives.
If some of the Omaha relatives also came for Christmas, Mom would bring along her matching set of silverware. I liked the heft of the hollow-handled knives, the curviness of the sugar spoon.
I was blessed to have Grandma Wilson for 42 Christmases. She died at the age of 97, still living in her own little home. One day Mom handed me Grandma’s familiar silverware box.
“I wanted you to have these,” she said. “Gloria can have my set someday. You know, we bought these together when you were little and Gloria was just a baby.”
I had never heard this story before. I knew that Mom and Dad had married during the war, and that he was an Air Corps pilot. . . .who could hardly wait to get back to an Iowa farm when the war was over.
And that by 1946, Mom was a farm wife who had lost three brothers during the war, mothering a toddler and a new baby, and cooking–without electricity at first–for a hired man twice a day.
She told me for the first time how she’d longed for pretty silver plate instead of stainless steel, which in those day was crude and rough to use. She asked Dad to let her know when he thought they could afford a set of silverware for twelve.
When she got the okay, Mom drove her mother and small daughters (without car seats back then) to the Standard Station in Dexter, and bought Greyhound bus tickets to Des Moines. The bus wound through Dallas County, making stops at Redfield, Adel, and Waukee before bouncing through the Des Moines suburbs to the downtown station.
Mom carried baby Gloria and I toddled along, holding Grandma’s hand, as we walked the busy sidewalks to Plumb’s Jewelry, Sixth and Walnut. Doris picked out a simple but elegant Gorham pattern called Invitation.
She wrote a check for a set for twelve, plus serving pieces and double teaspoons. (In 1947, a dozen Invitation forks cost $17, knives $27, two dozen teaspoons $17.) Grandma believed she also wanted a set.
So we left Plumb’s with two sets of the treasured silver plate. Grandma carried Gloria this time, and Mom was in charge of the heavy packages and me back to the bus station. It must have been an ordeal, but a satisfying one.
What a celebration to position Grandma’s slender folks on my own Christmas table, to get to enjoy the same graceful spoons she used for special dinners.
They take me back to her eager wave at the window, her pretty old-fashioned table setting, and the precious story–the best heirloom of all–of how the Invitation silver plate became part of the family.