My wife and I have rearranged our computer desks recently, having replaced our big computers with laptops. I've been building some shelves for all the gadgets plugged into them. I'm not skilled with tools, and calling my shelves rustic would be far too complimentary. We have a son-in-law who does skilled woodworking, and the dining-room tables he has made for some members of the family will qualify as heirlooms. My shelves won't; but working on them has made me reflect on what it takes for something to become an heirloom. It may not be the quality of the object - but the story that goes with it.
I have to back up a bit. Through the 1950s, my father was a civil servant, and my mother was a frequent volunteer with the Parent Teacher Association and the League of Women Voters. In the early 1960s, President Kennedy appointed my father to a more important job, and he no longer had restrictions on his political activity (although he had no political ambitions). My brother was still in high school, and my mother didn't want a regular job - but she did have strong political feelings. So she decided to run for Democratic Party precinct captain in our precinct in suburban Maryland.
I was the only family member unenthusiastic about her idea. I was a great admirer of the incumbent precinct captain, Mr. Bull. Two of his sons were in my Boy Scout troop. Mr. Bull came along on our hikes and camping trips, and he was much better at outdoor activities than my own father. Besides, his campaign signs, which read simply "VOTE BULL," had been fixtures in the area for many years and appealed to my adolescent sense of humor. Still, I did have to admit that I liked the candidates my mother supported in primary elections more often than I liked those supported by Mr. Bull.
My mother wanted to run her campaign on almost no budget, and she decided to forgo signs. She was well known in the area, due to her volunteer activities. She recruited my brother and his friends to go out campaigning for her on Halloween night, which fell just a few days before the Nov. 4 election. They were organized so that one of them would knock on the door of each house in the precinct, and say, "No, I don't want candy, the treat I want is for you to vote for Evelyn Ordman for precinct chairman on Nov. 4."
Some voters told my mother later that they were really impressed when the kids actually politely declined to take any candy. (Later that evening, of course, they had a Halloween party in our basement, complete with all the candy they wanted.)
Some friends with more experience in politics insisted she needed at least some campaign supplies. One of them decided to force the issue by making an in-kind campaign contribution: He ordered 100 yardsticks, imprinted "Elect Evelyn Ordman Democratic Precinct Captain November 4th." He felt these could be passed out at appropriate meetings.
Evelyn campaigned without the aid of yardsticks. I don't know if the order was placed late, or the printer had political views, but the yardsticks were delivered on Nov. 7, three days after she had won the election. And while she was reelected once or twice before turning her attention to a job working for the county school board, none of the later elections fell on a Nov. 4.
So in the years that followed, my family had a very large supply of yardsticks. They were used for craft projects and anything else that came to mind. But 40 years later, a few are still around - perhaps enough for one for each of the candidate's great-grandchildren, who have now started to arrive.
I realize that my newly constructed shelf unit may never become a treasured family keepsake. But the yardstick I used in measuring the boards to make it is, without a doubt, a family heirloom.