My friend Maria is classy. Classy with a capital C. When, almost 25 years ago, I attended her wedding in Sweden on her mother’s family farm, which was as picturesque and Carl-Larsson-like as it sounds, one of the highlights was The Bestowing of the Family Heirlooms. Every few hours, a scrum of Swedish relatives would arrive, often singing, and present Maria and her fiancé Ted with a delicate set of china, or bundles of worn felt that would be unwrapped to reveal silver cutlery or serving dishes that had been in the family for generations.
At one point my friend Jill, who had been Maria’s college roommate, leaned over to me and said, “I don’t know about you but there is very little presenting of felt-wrapped silver in my family.” (For her part, Maria would thank her relatives profusely and graciously praise each item. Then, behind her hand, she’d say to Jill and me, “How the hell am I supposed to get all this stuff back to the states? What were we thinking, getting married in Sweden?”)
Perhaps because my grandparents were immigrants who packed light, there was no heirloom china to hand down, beyond one porcelain plate with Charles Dickens characters printed on it, and my mom is not handing that over one second before she has to. Maybe that’s why, when my siblings and I were all teenagers, we created our own family heirloom.
I don’t actually recall where the item in question originated. It just appeared one day, like magic, and with its presence a game began, a game that required us to stay in close touch. Because rather than clinging tight to this family heirloom, we like to make sure that it gets ample time with the other siblings. And the more of that time the temporary owner is unaware that the object is under their roof, the better.
Allow me to explain. Say I am in possession of the family heirloom, uncovered perhaps at the bottom of a box that was filled with Christmas gifts for my kids so I couldn’t refuse to accept it. I must then pass it off to my brother or sister and – this part is key – I must not tell them that I have done so. I must hide it in their house so efficiently and effectively that it will take them weeks if not months to come across it, even if they’re looking for it. Think: laid flat between the mattress pad and the mattress in the guest room, or rolled up and stuck inside a little-used vase in a high kitchen cupboard, or layered behind a couch cushion.
Because then when you call the heirloom’s owner, weeks after you were last with them, and say, “Did you find the heirloom yet?” he or she will go INSANE. It’s like an itch you can’t scratch when you find out the heirloom is your house somewhere, the game of hot potato that threatens your sanity. And after weeks of searching, when you DO find it, all you can think about it how to keep the game going. Airline flights have been booked for lesser reasons.
The heirloom went MIA about five years ago, around the time one of our cousins became seriously ill. He needed it more than we did, and if it did anything to cheer him during his illness, it was worth putting a temporary stop to the heirloom’s travels.
But on Monday I received a box in the mail. It was a slightly updated, slightly roomier version of the original heirloom – we’re all middle aged now, after all. It was blue instead of white. But everything else was the same.
No one is taking credit for resurfacing this gem. But both my brother and sister should remember that I’m scheduled for a loooong visit back East this summer. And while this t-shirt will be traveling with me, it won’t be coming home in my suitcase.