One of my very earliest memories is of my brothers and mother and me running from the house and down the front sidewalk barefoot in our pajamas in the middle of the night, my mother telling us to hurry and not look back. My father had come home from a late-night church meeting and discovered the house already well ablaze. He woke us and got us out of the house, then stayed to fight the fire with the help of his brother and a few neighbors.
I remember waiting for what seemed an eternity at my uncle’s house half a mile away, whimpering and worrying about the well-being of my father and my toys and clothes in the midst of that fire. I remember the mix of emotions I felt when my father finally joined us. As my mother rubbed butter on his burned hands and combed out his singed hair, he told us how he had discovered the fire and woke us up and got us to safety, but then struggled in vain to control the blaze and save the house and our possessions. By the time the local volunteer fire department had arrived with their truck, it was too late. It was a total loss. All my toys and clothes and even my shoes were gone. (I learned many years later that due to a mistake by the insurance agent, the house and all its contents were uninsured, so the loss was indeed “total.”)
I remember how depressing it was to go back to the still-smoldering house the next day. I remember the smell and the smoky blackness covering everything. I remember picking through the ashes trying to find something, anything, that was still usable or even recognizable. I remember finding a few mostly-whole cedar shake shingles and suggesting that maybe we could use them when we built a new house.
Fortunately, no one died or was seriously injured in that fire. We lost our house and our possessions, but the people were safe. The greater disaster had been avoided, and the events of that tragic evening would become another volume in our family’s library of legacy stories.
When pressed, my dad would occasionally tell that story over the years. He would share it on long drives, sitting around the campfire on fishing trips, and during family reunions. Interestingly, as he told it, it was not a story of loss or victimhood. Instead, it was a story of divine intervention—of leaving the meeting earlier than usual that night and coming straight home, arriving just in time to rescue his family from the fire. It was a story of neighborly kindness—of relatives and neighbors and church friends coming to the aid of a young farm family who had lost everything, providing them clothes, toys, dishes, and a place to live while they rebuilt their home and their lives. It was a story of choosing your own attitude in the face of hardship—of not blaming insurance agents or others but picking yourself up and going forward, playing the hand life deals you with courage and faith.
Scott’s family has no pictures of him as a baby or young child because all their photographs were destroyed when their house burned down when he was three years old. He shares this story:
To each of my Nephews, William Augustine Washington, George Lewis, George Steptoe Washington, Bushrod Washington and Samuel Washington, I give one of the Swords or Cutteaux of which I may die possessed; and they are to choose in the order they are named.—These Swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheathe them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self-defense, or in defense of their Country and its rights, and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof.
Stories — The Magical Pixie Dust of Life
“The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.” -- Roald Dahl
The artifacts of human life are precariously fragile. Significant treasures
can be lost forever, sometimes with little or no warning. Whether by natural causes or man-made disasters, precious relics created over years or decades or even centuries can vanish in a moment. Sometimes these losses affect whole countries or continents; sometimes they are intimate and personal. In every case, we are left much poorer as a result.
“We know George Washington received many swords as tokens of recognition of his courage, service or greatness. He also purchased other swords which he used for a variety of purposes beyond military service. Washington gave several swords away during his lifetime to recognize another individual’s valor. There were at least seven swords left in his estate at his death.
“The first sword chosen in George Washington’s estate is considered to be his most elegant sword. Today it is exhibited at the New York State Library in Albany. It was sent to Washington in 1780 by Frederick the Great of Prussia with this message: “From the oldest General in the World to the Greatest”. This sword was chosen by Washington’s nephew, William Augustine Washington, passed down to his son and eventually donated by the family to the State of New York for exhibition.
“Another of the five swords chosen by Washington’s nephews was the ‘Spanish dress sword’ or ‘Mourning sword.’ It was worn by Washington at funerals and is seen in Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of the General. Inscribed on the sword are the words: “Recte face Ice” (Do what is right) and on the opposite side “Nemine Timeas” (Fear no man). Pursuant to General Washington’s will, Judge Bushrod Washington chose this as the fourth sword. It was eventually passed down through the family until it ended up in the hands of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association where it is displayed today.
“I have tried to imagine what these swords would have meant to the nephews of George Washington and their families. I envision that the nephews may not have dared wear the swords but instead may have chosen to display them prominently in their homes. When a guest might arrive I suspect they would be shown the sword and told the story of the charge that accompanied it to never use it except for self-defense or to defend the Republic and its rights, and in that latter case to die rather than relinquish the sword.”
For specific suggestions about how to preserve a wide variety of heirloom treasures, please read Chapter 10 of Scott’s book, Ten Troubling Questions That Keep You Awake at Night.
For many families, when one of their loved ones dies, has a stroke, or suffers a debilitating form of dementia, the family has not preserved their legacy stories and passed them forward to future generations. The family can’t hear the sounds of their loved one’s laughter or share the stories of their childhood, their courtship and marriage, or their favorite recipes and vacations. The family has lost forever their parent or grandparent’s expressions of love, of religious faith, of advice on how to build a strong family or survive a terrible loss. The family has photographs, but not the stories that make those pictures speak. The family has pocket watches, old dishes, and other knick-knacks, but not the context that brings those inanimate objects to life. Sadly, volumes and volumes of human treasure have been lost forever.
We believe the key to building our own legacy and preserving the legacies of others is to find ways of creating and capturing those fleeting moments when ordinary yet extraordinarily amazing women and men open up their hearts and pour out the magical pixie dust of life: the thousands and millions of remembered moments that together make each one of us a unique and precious human being. When our stories continue to be told, we’re really still alive. When the bits and pieces of our lives continue to speak in the stories we’ve told, the library remains open, and we bless others—including generations yet unborn—with the true wealth of a lifetime.
In our view, the first steps on this long and critical journey of saving the human wealth all around us are to develop an understanding of the incomparable role of story in the human experience. We believe that in millions of ways, large and small, stories matter.
In his book, Like a Library Burning, Scott teaches how to preserve and pass on your family’s legacy stories. You can learn more at www.LikeaLibraryBurning.com.
Simple Steps to Preserving your Treasures
All objects deteriorate over time, so start caring for them now.
Consult a conservator. Sometimes there’s no substitute for expert help. Professional conservators understand what causes the deterioration of many different materials and how to slow or prevent it. Find them through a local museum, library or historical society.
Light, temperature, humidity, pollutants, pests, and handling all affect how rapidly objects decay. Here are a few basic things you can
do to save your heirlooms:
● Display or store your treasures in a stable, clean environment. Filtered air, at a temperature of 72 degrees or below, and humidity between 45 and 55 percent are ideal goals. Day to day, try to avoid dampness, too much heat, and dramatic changes in temperature and humidity. If you feel comfortable, your treasures probably will too.
● Location, location, location! Display and store your treasures away from heat sources, outside walls, basements and attics. Don’t hang Great Grandpa’s portrait over the radiator or fireplace.
● Shun the sun and fluorescent light. They fade and discolor most treasures and are especially dangerous to fabrics and anything on paper.
● Check for signs of pests. Holes in furniture or textiles, wood shavings, and tiny droppings are all evidence. Consult a conservator if you spot trouble.
● Heirloom allergies. Historic objects can be harmed by abrasive cleaners; dry-cleaner’s bags; glues, adhesive tapes, and labels; pins and paper clips; acidic wood, cardboard, or paper; and pens and markers.
● Even if it is broken, don’t fix it! A smudged painting, torn photograph, or broken vase may seem easy to fix. They aren’t. Well-intended but amateur repairs usually do more harm than good. Consult a conservator for advice on valued items.
Preserving the Stories of your Treasures
Make sure to identify, photograph, and maintain records of your treasures. Describe the history and condition of each object; note who made, purchased or used it; and tell what it means to your family. Always identify individuals in a family photograph and the time and place it was taken.
Getting the details down on paper is rewarding in itself, gives you a way to monitor the condition of your treasures. Your family treasures can also suggest how your family history fits into the larger story of the nation’s past.
What happens to the value of the object when it and its story become separated? On the other hand, how is the value of an object preserved and enhanced when the object and its story are kept together?
My good friend and colleague John A. Warnick, has written about George Washington’s swords as a powerful example of giving purpose and meaning to heirloom objects left to family members:
“During the Revolutionary War era, a gentleman would no more leave his home or quarters without his sword than without his pants! It is very difficult for us today to appreciate how important a status symbol the sword was in society.
“To a military officer it was an emblem suited to his rank and often worn as a visible reminder of his bravery. Swords often served to connect one generation of a family to another as they would be handed down from the person who had worn them to his posterity. So it isn’t surprising that we would find a gift of swords in Washington’s will. What is unusual, however, is the wording of that gift. As you read these words, which are taken exactly from his handwritten sixteen page will, please consider if you hear the voice and vision of General Washington: