There are heirlooms in our house that I grasp with the strength of the stories they hold. They are beautiful to me because they are old, because they hold family stories – most of which haven’t even been told, and never will – and because they belong to my family and by default, to me.
They are items to which my husband feels no attachment. He has a much looser grasp on family stories and history than I, for better or worse. He sees them as items that clutter our house.
I see them as reminders of my family’s past, and therefore a grounding for my present.
Let’s start with the trunk. It was my great-grandmother’s. She used to be only a name to us – a name with no story, other than that she was a Home Child. Alice Baldry. Or Bauldry. Or Baulding.
The trunk held everything she owned as a 10-year-old Home Child arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from Liverpool, England, in 1873. It’s small. It used to be gray, but I remember my mom refinished it, erasing any hint of printing that may have been on the inside. It sits in my living room, a small, plain, badly refinished trunk with a broken clasp and pieces of trim missing. The original handles are still on it.
The trunk itself doesn’t hold much information, but the stories it holds are difficult and, I believe, the tangible, identifiable genesis of generational trauma for my family.
Before she boarded the ship in Liverpool, my great-grandmother was a mystery. We had no records of who she was, where she came from, nor why she was sent away. My beautiful and lovely friend, Sarah, has traced some of her history before her fateful journey to North America.
Generational trauma – a baby born to an unwed mother in the mid-1800s, given to a grandmother for safekeeping and raising, but relinquished as an orphan when the grandmother entered the poorhouse. With barely a decade of life behind her, my great-grandmother was shipped across the ocean with 60+ other children of varying ages to an unknown destination, a new “family” and a life of servitude. A lifetime of keeping her secrets, never talking about her life before nor her branding as a Home Child.
My mother sat on this trunk and cried when she told us – as many of us as were home at the time – that her mother had died. I was just about seven years old. We sat around the living room in our farmhouse, a room that seemed huge to me, my mother weeping at the far end with my dad beside her trying to comfort her. I know there was no love lost between my father and his mother-in-law, but surely, he felt some compassion for my mom, whose own relationship with her mother was a tempest, full of strife and criticism.
Generational trauma. That little trunk holds a lot of pain and despair and fear. It sits in my house now, gently used as a coffee table in my living room. I acknowledge its history, the stories, the pain it held for so long. I acknowledge it, and I let go of it. The trunk is just a trunk, but a special trunk. It’s a piece of love and faith and history that I also want to acknowledge and do want to hold on to. So the trauma can end. So we can overcome the demons of our past, individually and collectively.
A little brown trunk with pieces broken off it, a broken clasp, a piece of metal hanging from the corner. A family heirloom. A holder of stories.