No instrumental or aesthetic reason exists for a 21st-century city-dweller to own a six-foot-long scythe with a curved ash snath handle and a four-foot steel blade. And yet I own one, along with a railroad watch, crazed porcelain, a red kerosene lantern, a brass pocket compass, a silver thimble and distant land that I never see. Most people I know share the underlying motivation for ownership of such anachronistic items: our ancestors owned them.

Somewhere deep within us lies an unquenchable desire to maintain tangible contact with those who gave us life and whom we loved. The monetary value of a family artifact is irrelevant to its significance. The fact that an ancestor held it or viewed it or wore it or cherished it carries a compelling obligation to retain it as a remembrance. Simply having an inherited item often confers an irreplaceable satisfaction.

When an individual on a popular television series learns that an object owned by several descending generations has appreciable monetary value, the near-universal response is: “It’s not for sale. It’s going to my children.” Or when an antiques merchant on a similar show tries to purchase such an item, the oft-repeated response is: “That meant a lot to Dad. We’re not ready yet to let it go.” Possessing an artifact bequeathed by one’s family seems somehow to maintain an invisible and impregnable bond that transcends generations and strengthens over time. Perhaps introspection about our own impermanence is assuaged by material reminders that a consciousness of our forebears has survived. To have what they had is an affirmation of their enduring importance to us.

In the event that your curiosity might someday be kindled by what you see during a visit to our home, I will answer in advance, “No, we do not still churn our own butter.”

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