Chess Returns

Over the last few years, I have collected quite many family heirlooms. As the older generation downsizes and begins to whittle away its belongings, I have accepted the precious things that hold sentimental value.  (see post ). One such piece is a marble chess board and a well-worn  set of wooden pieces. Both have seen many years of use over several generations of my husband’s family.

When I redecorated my living room last fall to accomodate some newly-acquired heirlooms, including a grandfather clock, I decided to incorporate a dedicated chess table into the room. (see post ). My handy husband built the base for the marble board and I added two antique caned chairs from my side of the family.

For months the table sat, collecting dust, and I feared it would become a catch-all for loose papers before long.

Fortunately, in the last month, my son has expressed a renewed interest in the game of chess.

Many years ago, his Papa had patiently sat with him, giving him wise advice on game strategies once he moved beyond the basics. Son has memories of playing chess with Papa, or with his Uncle- both of whom who have since passed away. They were so gentle at guiding him, suggesting he rethink a move or making light of a mistake. They didn’t intentionally let him win. Often Son judged how he was improving by how few pieces the winner had left on the board.

This was contrary to the highly competitive matches I have witnessed between Papa and Uncle or between my husband and either of them. Each player took the game seriously and would ponder the possibilities for each move for what seemed an eternity. A rematch was certainly in order every time we visited and it was a matter of pride to win.

I don’t know what has suddenly drawn my son back to chess. Either he remembers how much he once enjoyed it, or he thinks enough time has passed since he last played his Papa that the memories are no longer painful. Either way, I enjoy eavesdropping on my husband and son during their evening matches.

Husband prefers slow, deliberate moves whereas Son has little patience for considering every alternative. I know he disrupts Husband’s thought process by bursting into song while waiting for his turn. It makes me laugh to hear him singing the melody of “Oh Fortuna” when I know Husband is trying to concentrate.

Other than a few pleas for one minute longer, Husband has adapted to the twenty minute chess match. I think the pleasure of playing on his family chess set, passed down to him from his own grandfather, and being able to play his son (something his father enjoyed immensely) makes him feel like he his fulfilling a legacy and passing on a family tradition.

It is wonderful to see the two of them playing a match nearly every evening. It is a chance for them to be competitive in a healthy, productive way. All boys look up to their dads on the road to manhood, and being able to outsmart your dad in a game of chess is a notch on the totem pole.

Someday when Son is settled into his own house and is ready to continue the tradition, this family heirloom will become his. In the meantime, I am thankful that I had the vision to give this table the honor and attention it deserves and that is no longer merely an heirloom collecting dust.

Family Jewels: Grandma’s Flamboyant Turquoise Pendant

As Valentine’s Day approaches, there seem to be jewelry ads everywhere: newspapers, tv , radio. They all emphasize the value of a brand new piece for your sweetheart. I’ll save my thoughts on the holiday for another time; for now I want to share my family jewels.

As most of my friends could tell you, I love jewelry. In fact, I feel naked without a pair of earrings or a ring on my finger. However, I do not have an expensive collection. The pieces range from $10 earrings up to $2,000 rings, but most fall in the $25- $200 range. Nothing is worth enough to not wear for fear of losing it. My favorite color is blue, which explains my attraction to my birthstone, sapphire;  I also have a large percentage of turquoise jewelry.

My attraction to jewelry goes back to my childhood. One of the first sets I remember receiving was a matching necklace, bracelet and ring. To my recollection the necklace was a gold chain with a red coral bead, encased in a golden heart. The matching bracelet had 3-4 of the same red beads evenly spaced around the chain and the ring was a solitary bead inside a flower-shaped setting. It seemed very fancy to a six or seven year old. I was only allowed to wear it for special occasions, such as church or parties, which is probably why it remained intact long enough to pass on to my daughter.

I remember my Tante who gave it to me fairly well. She was an endearing older woman who spoke very little English but with whom I could communicate through smiles and the few German or English words we each knew. I probably only met her half a dozen times in my life, but the post cards she sent regularly which my mother would translate, reinforced the warm feelings she had for me. Thus the jewelry set reminded me of her and made me feel very special. I tried to convey this connection to my daughter, but I think she was too young to understand its symbolic value. I am not sure to where the set has vanished.

Fortunately not all is lost, as most of the jewelry I have in my collection has a story and/or a person connected to it. Over the next few posts I hope you will bear with me as I describe the meaning of my family jewels. I will begin with:

Grandma’s Flamboyant Turquoise Pendant

Costume jewelry became very popular in the 1920’s. People saw it as an artistic expression rather than a show of wealth. After the Second World War, penny-pinching women who still wanted to dress up collected colorful brooches, necklaces and clip-on earrings. They could still look fancy without spending a fortune. Both of my grandmothers fell into this economic class. They collected their Betty Crocker points in exchange for cutlery, they would not allow food to go to waste, often canning or freezing extras and, when they could afford it, they bought or received a new piece of costume jewelry.

By the time I was born, they each had an eclectic collection of pins, pendants and chains. When I was a girl, I loved to sit at my grandmother’s vanity and look through her jewelry box. Sometimes she would let me try pieces on. I would parade in front of the mirror admiring how I looked in what I thought was the fanciest jewelry in the world.

One piece in particular caught my eye. It had a bright turquoise stone in the center, bordered by a gold collar inlaid with a ring of colorful stones. I do not know how or where she acquired the necklace, but somehow I imagine it could have been given to her by my grandfather when they celebrated their anniversary in Hawaii. The pendant cries for attention, “Take me dancing, with a lei around your neck!” It gives me a picture of my grandmother as a younger, more outgoing woman with a lot of confidence in herself.

It is totally fun to wear any day, even with a sweater and jeans. A simple outfit can make a statement with this flamboyant necklace dangling across my chest. I especially love to pair it with a turquoise bracelet and earrings. When I wear it, everyone notices. If it is the first time they have seen it, I always receive a compliment. I thank them and proudly tell them it once belonged to my grandmother.  As a piece of costume jewelry it is not worth much, but to me it is a priceless piece of my family.

Saving Family Heirlooms

Tranby House silver tea service, original set ...

Image via Wikipedia

This weekend my family visited my mother-in-law at her new apartment. She had moved in last summer and is still getting settled. Downsizing from a townhouse to a small apartment forced a lot of choices about what to hold on to and what to give away. Much of her furniture,  linens, clothing, tools and various other items had been sold or donated. She kept much more than could comfortably fit into the apartment, so a few months later there was another phase of paring down. We had already taken objects from several rounds of cleaning out: irreplaceable family photos,  a much-used marble chess board and a full set of Limoge china. The latter has been put into safe-keeping for my daughter when she is grown.

When we arrived at the apartment this weekend, we were happy to see how much progress Ma had made in rearranging her furniture and finding a new place for old things. She had her kitchen all set up and had prepared a delicious dinner for us when we arrived. The savory aromas of her turkey ball soup had my son clamoring for a taste. We helped her hang paintings on the walls , which really made her apartment feel like home.

The next day, Ma called me into a closet where she had stored things for which she had no place. By this point of her downsizing they had been whittled down to the most precious family heirlooms with which she couldn’t bear to part. As she pulled out the items, I could see what they meant to her. A silver tea service, an antique planter, a beautiful china cheese plate. I asked her to tell me what she knew about each collection. Some had come from her husband’s side of the family of which she had less information. Most had been passed down through the family for several generations.

How does one decide what to hold onto and what to let go? I could hear the angst in her voice as she pleaded with me to take things home. I wanted to help, so sometimes I created reasons to take things home.

"I don't keep cheese out on the counter, but this will compliment my china set."

I asked my husband whether he knew about a set of silver kiddush cups, which had been bought by his grandfather in Palestine during the 1930s.         He looked them over and agreed we should keep them. Having recently redecorated my living room, I now have a special place where I can display these treasures.

When she unwrapped my late brother-in-law’s silver cup, with the date of his bar mitzvah engraved inside, she became overwhelmed with sorrow. My children both loved him so much that having his special cup will be a silent tribute to him. We can place it on the table in his name at our seder. 

Unfortunately, she could not convince me to take the silver tea set from her parents’ house. Even though it is meaningful to her, at this time I have no place to display it nor would I tend to use it. Maybe someday one of my children would like it, but for now Ma will have to hang on to it. Perhaps as the kids get used to seeing it at her apartment, or experience being served tea with it, this forlorn family heirloom will get a second chance.