Why Every Day Objects make the Best Family Heirlooms

September 25, 2017


This is a story about pepper mills.  But it is not a story about which pepper mill is best, or how to use a pepper mill, or about recipes that call for pepper.  This article is about two very specific pepper mills.  Allow me to introduce you to them.


First, there’s the granddaddy of all pepper mills - because it is huge and because, well, it belonged to my grandfather.  Coming in at about 18 inches tall, this wooden mill is as simple and solid as they come (aside from its impressive height).  It is shiny, but shows signs of its age at the bottom where it has been held over many soups, salads, and marinating meats. 


This is the pepper mill that lived with my grandparents until my grandmother decided that it could go to a house of passionate cooks (my husband and I) about ten years ago.  It’s also the pepper mill that my sister and I used to serve my grandparents a fancy meal at our family’s gathering place in New Hampshire.  I have vivid memories of my sister standing over my grandfather’s shoulder in her best 1980s attire asking, “Would you care for some pepper, sir?” and waiting for him to say “when.”


Every time I use the granddaddy pepper mill I think of Grampa and I can picture him sitting at the head of the table, not only when we were serving him fresh ground pepper, but when he winked at me because we were having our favorite food (potatoes) or when he was serving up pancakes for the whole crew on Saturday morning.  I also think of Grammie, who we are blessed to still have in our lives, and who 10 years ago knew we would take good care of the pepper mill and put it to good use. 


The granddaddy’s little sister in our house is a hand-painted medium-sized pepper mill given to us by “Queen Jean” as a present for our wedding.  Aunt Jean was my husband’s aunt – a woman who brought sheer joy to everyone with whom she interacted, including all of the students she reached during her teaching career.  She was that person who ACTUALLY found $1,000 in a used bureau, or the perfect prom dress, while garage sale shopping in and around Atlanta.  She loved donning silly hats for family 4th of July celebrations, where she and her sister-in-law would try to get all of the women in the family to belt out the national anthem.  Queen Jean left our lives way too early, but her daughters carry on her legacy as awesome big cousins to our kids and an equally joyful influence in the extended family.


Every time I look at Queen Jean’s pepper mill (which she, of course, hand painted) I think of her infectious smile and of the times we visited her or met her at the family camp and she made every one laugh.  I only knew her for a short time as a “newcomer” in the family, but I aspire to be the kind of presence she was and I know she made this world a better place for so many people.


See, it is one thing to have a photo of the people you have loved who have left your life, or a piece of jewelry that you keep for special occasions.  But having something from them that you use every day is an amazing way to keep them in your lives.  I like to think of these things as functional family heirlooms – the well-loved and well-used things that get passed on through the generations and will forever carry the story of the people who made or loved them.


I look around me at the things I use on our homestead on a daily basis and I think about the well-loved items that we will pass on to our kids and grandkids – not in a morbid way, but in the sense of attaching our story to something they can physically hold and use nearly every day.  The Le Creuset pot that we bought on a trip to Maine in which we have made (and will make) countless batches of tomato sauce.  The table that holds trays and trays of vegetables to fully ripen them in sun on our porch and was originally made by my husband’s grandfather.  The tools that my husband inherited from his grandfather’s workshop.  The footstool with my son’s footprints traced on it, made to order by my dad when my son needed to reach the bathroom sink.  The beautiful quilts made by my grandmother, who’s motto has always been “use it, don’t just hang it in a corner.”


When I purchase things for my homestead, this notion of functional family heirlooms influences my choices.  I look for quality instead of cheap prices so that the item will last beyond our use of it.  I look for a story behind the person who made it, so I shop locally or purchase from small businesses or Etsy.  And I love when I can get something second-hand, imagining the story of the person who passed it on.


So here’s to Grampa and Queen Jean.  You both hold a special place in our kitchen, and as long as we are cooking recipes that call for pepper, you always will.

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