‘You must have old memories and young hopes’ : Conserve family treasure | Sunday Observer

‘You must have old memories and young hopes’ : Conserve family treasure

Recently, I was watching a friend – Ananda - and his 16-year-old son ‘renovate’ two old kavichchi chairs. They had already ‘touched’ the tiny nicks and scratches with gum-mixed teak dust. And now, as they commenced repainting with water-based teak-colour paint, I witnessed how the two old chairs transformed into a brand-new look with no visible signs of cuts and bruises.

At that point, Ananda’s son irritably asked his father, “Why don’t you send these relics to an auction sale?”

His father smiled. “Because, I’d be giving away part of your life. My father told me, his father received a set of kavichchis as a gift from his colonial boss on his 50th Birthday. My father gave the long divan to your loku appachchi as a wedding gift and these two to me.”

He explained, “Do you know son, the Portuguese word ‘poltrona’ means easy chair and it is believed that the easy to pronounce word putuwa was absorbed into the Sinhalese lexicon. Seating furniture peaked during the Dutch period, when styles became elaborate, featuring flowery decorations, which continued into the British period. Today, we have Kavichchi or armed divans, hansi putu or veranda chairs, and the kulu putu used by mothers to sit on while feeding their infants.” Ananda’s son listened intently and his irritation disappeared. His grandfather had died 35 years before he was born; yet, because of the chairs, it was as if they still belonged to him.

Old memories

I didn’t fully realize the impact of Ananda’s story until recently, when I saw a newspaper advertisement offering a “handmade bed about 100 years old.” When I called the advertiser, she said, the items are very old and do not ‘match’ their modern furniture. She added, “We sold the bureaus yesterday. They were so ornate I was afraid no one would want them.”

As I put the phone down, I wondered how much of their heritage - how much of themselves - would be lost when the last piece in the bedroom suite was finally sold, brushed aside by practical considerations. Wouldn’t their children be left with no lasting memories of early family life?

Be it a chair or a handmade bed, each keepsake in its own way nurtures and protects heritage - the unique sense of tradition in a person’s life. Each helps to calm the pressures and soothe the impermanence of daily living. As my grandfather often cautioned me, “You must always have old memories and young hopes.”


Anyone who has seen their great-grandmother’s bridal dress, grandfather’s wallet, or a photo of a relative going off to war knows how moving these pieces of history could be. These treasured items, passed down from generation to generation, provide insight into the lives of our ancestors and a richer understanding of our family history.

One man I know who has moved his family five times in seven years soothes his feelings of rootlessness with an ancient mantel clock - a family heirloom - which now only erratically ticks the seconds. “Sometimes, when I’m depressed or upset,” he says, “I sit and listen to it tick, and I begin to think of the good times and the bad times it has kept track of, for four generations of my family. I remember then that others before me went through harder times than I could possibly know, and pretty soon, I would be unable to feel sorry for myself.”

Discover heritage

I recently learned from one of my friends living in the US what some people will do to ‘discover’ a personal heritage that hasn’t been preserved. My friend who has the same interests as mine told me this story. “I was visiting a flea market in Connecticut where antiques were being sold. In a dealer’s stall hung a faded portrait of a proud family posing in front of what must have been their new home. Several youngsters were kneeling at the feet of a man and a woman, holding their newborn. On one side, sat the grandparents. Above the picture the dealer’s hand-lettered sign read, “Instant Relatives, $12.”

“I laughed as I read the sign. When I passed the dealer’s stall later, the photograph had been sold. He told me that he could never sell old family portraits until he tried the “Instant Relatives” sign. Now he sells all the portraits he can find”

But, tradition cannot be purchased like a set of dishes or a kitchen appliance. Heritage must be preserved. Often, it has to be rescued. For example, a colleague of mine, visiting his mother’s eldest sister was startled when she asked him to take several boxes of ‘odds and ends’ to the garage, which she had assembled for the trash collector. In one box, under some old clothes, he found a family Bible he had never seen before. On the first pages, his family’s births, deaths, occupations and names through five generations were recorded.

In the New Testament section, his grandmother had pressed a single yellow rose with a notation in ink tied to the stem: “September 28, 1889. Met Simon for the first time.” Simon later became her husband.

Now, each year at Christmas, my colleague takes out from the bookshelf the ancient family Bible so that the story of Christ’s birth may be read from it to the family.


Family heirlooms are a great treasure, but can be easily damaged by light, heat, humidity, pests, and handling.

Store your treasures in a stable, clean environment. If you feel you must display fragile items, then try to avoid dampness, too much heat, and dramatic changes in temperature and humidity.

If you choose to frame or display family treasures, place them on or near walls that get the least amount of sun ray. Framed photographs or textiles may also benefit from having ultraviolet light-filtering glass. Rotate items between display and storage to provide a ‘rest’ from exposure, in order to prolong their lives.

All objects deteriorate over time, so start caring for them now. Consult a professional if you spot trouble.