When I was young, I inherited two big custom sets of crystal wine glasses and an enormous antique display case. The furniture was impressive dark wood with classic glass window panes and it nicely showed off the sets of probably 60 separate glasses and companion pieces for drinking several different types of wine. I don’t know much about wine and never paid real attention to the glasses, but I’m fairly sure there were separate sets for drinking champagne, Cabernet, and white wine.
One set was clear faceted glass crystal (see below) and the second was a gold-colored leaded crystal. I think there were some martini glasses also along with a punch bowl and server. Unfortunately, I don’t drink very much and don’t have many fancy parties, so the stuff was barely used. Whether it was Waterford or Limoges or whatever, I really don’t know antiques, so I’ve already forgotten.
Crystal glasses. Photo by author's family member.
The glasses and display case belonged to my late grandmother who (bless her heart) apparently wanted me to have them. Though she was not rich, working as a school librarian into old age, one of her late husbands had come from European aristocracy and they’d had some very nice furniture and possessions. During her generation, showing such finery at social occasions was an important badge of status. She often dressed in designer clothing as well.
When I first acquired my late grandmother’s sets of crystal and the display case, I was in my 20s and single. For a young guy, just out of college, living in small apartments and travelling a lot, sometimes barely having enough money to pay my monthly rent, it was unusual to have custody of these family heirlooms that screamed wealth and old age. A few years later, I got married. During that whole period, I moved several times, and each time, had to take special care of that antique furniture and the crystal glasses.
The past is beautiful, but some things are hard to keep forever. Public Domain.
Along with those crystal and display pieces, my wife and I also acquired some other furniture from my grandmother. All of it had history within the family. A table had belonged to her mother, my great grandmother. There was a chest of drawers which I have used (for decades now) for storing my clothes. My grandmother had excellent taste and the various guests to our home over the years have commented how nice it is.
How much was it worth? Don’t think I didn’t check! When I was young, I had a lot more use for money than for family heirlooms. The chest of drawers has been extremely useful, and the table was okay, but the others were kept more for their sentimental and display value. All in all, a conservative estimate would put the value of the wine glasses and display furniture at around $1000, perhaps slightly more on a good day.
Honestly, I would rather have had $1000 in cash than those pieces! But I resisted the temptation.
In effect, my wife and I have kept this stuff displayed because previous generations kept it displayed. And as we moved a few more times after getting married, each time we had to pack and unpack it carefully. On one move, the moving company we hired broke a large piece of trim from the display case, essentially ruining it, even though I got a little money back from the insurance. I had a couple of restoration guys come over to give estimates and both of them estimated they could fix up the piece nicely for about $500 (arguably more than its actual value). We didn’t pay it, but covered up the ugly part with a cloth.
It was older and bigger than this one, but you get the general idea. Creative Commons via Flickr.com by Lee Wright.
Several years ago, before moving into a new place, we went shopping for a new bed. We bought a modern bed, not a classic looking one that would fit with my grandmother’s old style. Personally, I love the classic, dark wood stuff, but my wife has a more modern style and she’s suffered enough with the old wood. At the furniture store where we bought the bed, we looked at some of the other items for sale. They had a chest of drawers (dresser) that matched the bed. It was of a similar size to mine and I casually opened up one of the drawers.
Surprise: it rolled right open! For decades, I’ve been using a chest with old wood drawers and practically no hardware aside from the handles. Despite using oil, bar soap, and other smoothers/lubricants over the years to try and grease these drawers, it’s wood on wood. I’m accustomed to giving them a strong tug and a strong push to open and close them. They always make rubbing or squeaking sounds and the handles cling when they lurch open or closed. I cannot get dressed in silence.
But here, at the furniture store, was a chest of drawers with a magical drawer that opened instantly with barely a touch. What marvel of engineering was this? The salesperson came over to try to sell me on it and saw my astonishment at how well it worked. “How does it slide open so smoothly?” I tried to find the secret, as this thing almost seemed to have a motor of its own. “Ball bearings,” said the salesperson, “all of our pieces of furniture have them”.
And probably have for decades. But mine doesn’t. For a few minutes, I was tempted to own a chest of drawers that didn’t need to be muscled open. But my wife saved me, telling the salesperson that we had an antique piece which had belonged to my grandmother. The salesperson rolled her eyes. “Get rid of it and get a new one,” she said. “Most people have given away their old family pieces. The newer ones are much better.”
And that was when I resolved to keep my grandmother’s chest of drawers, which I still use every day.
This is it. Photo by author's family member.
But soon after, a rift opened up between my wife and me over the display case and wine glasses. We were about to move again to a new home and I was done with them. I did NOT want to take down that display case again and pack everything, hire movers who would take special care with the antiques, and then put the whole thing back together yet again at our new place. We’ve spent more money moving these pieces over the years than they must be worth. Why? For whom do we keep doing this, when neither of us really cares?
I appreciated the family heirloom furniture that was useful, but the ‘display only’ stuff had become much more trouble than it was worth to me. And we’re not the only ones wrestling with this. As a CBC story last year explained, “It's a demographic certainty that as baby boomers age, the volume of unwanted family heirlooms will skyrocket.” https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-august-25-2017-1.4260799/how-unwanted-family-heirlooms-create-a-divide-with-aging-parents-1.4260802
My wife didn’t like our heirloom stuff very much either, but felt loyalty to the family to continue to hold and display it. We’d both been tempted to eliminate the glasses and display case. But though I was ready to do so, my wife believed we should keep them if my grandmother wanted us to do so.
She won. The last time we moved, we again packed it all and moved it gently, then carefully started to put it back together at the new place. It’s actually a job for several people at once, because lifting the top segment of the display case, holding it in place, and bolting it back together requires 3-4 people and a ladder. There’s a lot of old glass in the display case: window panes and shelves, not to mention that wine glass set it holds. So we did this and had a couple of friends helping us as we put the wine glasses back into the glass shelves.
Then, the best thing that could have happened finally did happen. We had the glass shelves in and the wine glasses were all laid out below, ready to be arranged again. The friend who was stacking glasses onto the top glass shelf tripped on the ladder. He must have put weight on the top glass shelf, which was obscenely heavy even without wine glasses. It slid down and crushed the lower shelves, two of them dropping to completely obliterate the entire collection of crystal wine glasses, all except for a few (only four pieces of the nicest set) that escaped without being smashed. No one was hurt, but the glasses and furniture had been wrecked.
Creative Commons via Flickr.com by llreadll.
In the space of a few seconds, my friend had made a mistake that destroyed almost a century of family heirlooms. He always has been so sorry for that slip up, and yet it wasn’t his fault. What do you tell someone who is helping you out of kindness, volunteering his time in friendship, and yet makes one unintentional mistake that destroys the whole display collection?
What do you think I told him?
“Thank you!” I said that crash of glass was the best sound I’d ever heard. I didn’t ask him to drop the top shelf or know it was going to happen, but it was the perfect move, the best thing that could have occurred. In the years since then, I have thanked my friend several times, and even my wife has agreed that it was the simplest outcome. Finally, we were relieved of the burden of these display heirlooms. And though I had wanted to give them away earlier (stopped only by my wonderful wife, who has a better heart than I do), we were able to unload them without me having to act against my grandmother’s wishes.
Relieved of those items which had no real use (other than an obligation to be displayed), we’ve been left with a couple of pieces of old furniture that are truly useful. I don’t care if the table is too small. And I don’t care if my sock drawer squeaks and needs to be pulled hard to open. Every time we use them, I thank my grandmother for leaving me these fine pieces which had such significance to her. It’s very special to be able to tell my children that her mother (their great, great grandmother) dined on this same table a century earlier.
Honoring the past is priceless as long as the burden is not too heavy.
Top image: Statue in Blackburn, UK. Creative Commons photo via Wikimedia.com by Robert Wade.