March 2010

Family heirlooms hold undiscovered stories

By Lisa Tracy
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Objects of Our Affection by journalist Lisa Tracy is one woman’s personal “Antiques Roadshow”-like quest through three generations’ worth of bric-a-brac, photographs, dishes and piece after endless piece of furniture. Told with equal parts humor and bittersweet sentiment, the book opens as Tracy and her sister are moving their independent—yet increasingly frail—83-year-old mother from her Lexington, Virginia, home to a nearby retirement community. “I was on an archaeological dig,” Tracy writes, “plowing through layers of family possessions we’d managed to ignore for decades, or in some cases had never seen before.” Inside one chest of drawers are a miscellany of family papers: “genealogy charts, military commendations, fragments of biographies, letters from the War of 1812, a photocopy of a journal from the 1840s, and what seemed like dozens of little framed daguerreotypes of people whose identity was a complete mystery to me.”

The sisters decide to take care of their mother first and worry about all the stuff later, but 10 years on, there’s still a bursting storage bin to contend with. An auction is scheduled, and though Tracy is relieved that “the family’s centuries-long accumulation of material goods is no longer going to be our personal responsibility,” she can’t help but wince at the parting of so many long-treasured items. “It’s hard to let go of objects because they are full of stories,” she writes.

Stories shape Objects of Our Affection. Believing that “we can . . . never be free of our stuff until we have dealt with the stories it carries,” Tracy consults curators and librarians, her research taking her from Philadelphia to the Philippines. Far from a mere cataloguing of expensive heirlooms, the book is a journey into the past, into family and community, and a look at the mystifying way that an aged Victorian horsehair sofa can stand as a silent yet eloquent reminder of “loss and pride, anger and love for a world that was.” Objects of Our Affection is a touching tribute to the lesson that “somewhere in the hastily sorted documents and photographs were probably our last best clues to who we were, where we’d come from, and why we’d lugged all this furniture with us.”

Lacey Galbraith is a writer in Nashville.

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