To Have Or Not To Have

Is it acceptable, do you think, to ‘inherit’ something before the person who owns it has gone?

It’s probably a bit late to be asking that question, given I inherited my mother’s piano some years ago and she is still with us (see here).

Following the death of my father recently, my mother, in trying to accept this new reality, is trying to simplify her life. I think I would be the same.

So, as a result, she has told us to take whatever items we have always wanted now rather than wait until she is also gone.

It’s awkward. And uncomfortable. And upsetting. But understandable.

The piano was different. I could not live in a house without one. As the only child to learn the piano, it was a given that The Piano would come to me. But when would that ultimately be? I couldn’t wait. It was inherit early or buy a different piano.

I was lucky and my mother understood what The Piano meant to me and allowed me to take it when I left home. And every time I see it, play it, I love the connection to the past it gives me. An impersonal purchase from a piano store would never have been the same.

But raiding the house for everything I might want? Not in my make-up. When we packed up my grandfather’s house when he went into care, while my siblings took away books, furniture and knickknacks, I helped wrap up my grandmother’s glassware for my mother. And left with the toaster (ours had just died).

I am sure the same would occur now except that there is one item (other than the piano) that I have coveted my whole life (well, ever since I knew of its existence). And so, when my mother said I could take it, I did.

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It is a red leather-bound set of the works of William Shakespeare. It was given to one Henrietta Pierce, as a farewell gift from her students when she left The Friends (Quakers) School in Hobart, Tasmania in 1897.

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It includes a letter from the school. And this is what I love most about it. The set is beautiful and wonderful but it is the personal aspect of the letter that makes it so precious to me.

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Henrietta was, we think, the sister of my grandmother’s Aunt Margaret with whom my grandmother was sent to live when she was eight years old. As there seems to be no mention of Pierces in the family history we have, Aunt Margaret was perhaps an ‘adopted aunt’.

My grandmother never went back home. Aunt Margaret insisted that she must have an invitation to return and it was never forthcoming.

How did my mother come to have the books? She remembers being taken to the Quakers’ Meeting House in Melbourne where the service went for two hours. To keep a then four-year-old quiet, my mother was given a stack of books to read. Books were always important and she was always given one whenever they went to the meeting house.

Henrietta and Margaret lived together near the Hawthorn railway station. They obviously knew of my mother’s love of books and consequently gave her a number of their own, including the set of Shakespeare, whenever she came to visit.

This set is unbelievably precious and important to me, well beyond its value as a set of books. It is a strong part of my history, a strong part of who both my grandmother and mother were/are as women and I feel blessed and privileged to be given this link to our family history.

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29 thoughts on “To Have Or Not To Have

  1. This is a very beautiful item and your mother’s willingness to gift it to you is a beautiful gesture. Giving is a higher order human impulse. The offer – to gift – should be respected, honoured. When a gift is offered, accept it, with gratitude.

    Thus endeth sermon.

    (My own parents are in the process of downsizing, moving house. They are hoarders and are finding the process of disposing of possessions extremely painful. Today my mother gifted me socks. She can’t bear to chuck them.)

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  2. I am so delighted to know of your link with the Quakers, having been one, though a lapsed member now. What a lovely story and the books are a real treasure. I can understand that they are very precious to you.
    H. My family would have been in Hobart in those early days. My mother was sent with her siblings from Devonport to Hobart as boarders to Friends School, much later than the time you mention, of course. Would love to meet up one day to have a chat! glad you have the piano, so sensible, I can relate to your mother wanting to simplify her life and see you enjoy it.

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    • That’s wonderful! My mother’s parents were married at the Friends Meeting House in Russell Street. The connection must have broken at some point as it is not part of my history (my parents met through the Presbyterian Church). I must ask my mother about it while I can. And then we must definitely chat one day!

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  3. Priceless, really, and it warms my heart to know that the books are coming into your fold where they will be properly cared for. The letter! Oh my. The handwriting is just wonderful, isn’t it, and the sentiment expressed tells us much about what a special lady Henrietta was. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

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  4. It warms my heart to read this post. I love the old set of books and the letter! Such exquisite penmanship! I particularly like the name Olive Dear. Thanks for writing this and sharing what is no doubt an experience of mixed emotions.

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    • Oh gosh, Maggie, I have to thank you for your comment! At your mention of dear Olive Dear, I went back to have another look through the names and have discovered the uncle of a former Premier of Queensland! I noticed the name Christian Bjelke-Peterson, googled him and found a whole history. He was a physical culture, geography and science teacher at the Friends High School at the time Henrietta was there! So exciting! 🙂

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  5. What a wonderful post and lucky you with such a special memento. I know your mother’s downsizing is hard on you…the reasons behind that are something we never want to deal with, but isn’t it grand that you can have such special things now and let her know how much you treasure them? You imbue them with a new memory of your mother just by the giving and receiving. Actually, that’s a pretty nice thing all the way around when you look at it that way.

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  6. Those books are a real treasure – for multiple reasons, which you already know! How lucky for both you – and your mother – that they will knowingly be loved and valued.

    I already started several years ago to gift pieces of jewellry I’ve collected over the years to my nieces. It makes me happy to see their delight – and they are thrilled to have, and use, the pretty pieces of jewellry that I’ve ‘outgrown’ and were just sitting unused in a box.

    Before my mom passed away, she gave me instructions on certain things that she wanted people to have. I strongly encouraged her to give it to them herself – that it would be so much more meaningful. She followed my advice (which was a surprise in itself) and each person told me afterwards how special it had been to get it personally from her.

    I thought you might be interested in this post I wrote several months ago …
    http://mylifelivedfull.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/let-there-be-light-2/

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    • That’s a lovely post, Joanne. That’s what was good about writing the post – I rang Mum and asked her what the story was. I knew it had been given to “Miss Pierce” but had never quite got a handle on who she was. Mum knew a bit but really it was Dad who held all the family history in his head. As you found with that odd little lamp, too late to ask now. But at least I have some of the story which I would not have if I had come into possession of this set after Mum’s death. So, yes, it is a good thing this way.

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  7. I understand your reluctance to trawl through possessions looking for things that might appeal to you, H. There’s something greedy about it. And it seems to be saying “Hurry up, Mum …!”, doesn’t it ?
    My having been sent away from home (and expected to stay away) meant that I was never going to be in a position to select anything, even after my mother died. I happily left it to two of the sisters to do so; and they sorted with generosity.
    But this is something ELSE ! – this is so sublime as to fill me with jealous rage, even though I’m not “a Shakespearian” in not picking up the big oldish volume I have to peruse it in a regular basis. One of the most lovely things about that wonderful letter is the reminder of how names have changed: how did this come about ? – rhetorical, I assure you. 🙂

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    • I’m glad your sisters were generous. We had been suggesting that my parents should write down who should have what but I guess that is difficult in itself. I think I was concerned there would be a repeat of the free-for-all at my grandfather’s and I would walk away with the microwave and nothing else. And I don’t even need a microwave. I liked Joanne’s comment that she encouraged her mother to give them away herself and how much more meaning that had. I am coming to accept that this is actually easier as it is Mum’s doing, not us clearing it out afterwards.

      Names. Funny things. Some of those names are coming around again. I definitely came across a baby Olive recently.

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  8. A wonderful story, and I’m so glad the Shakespeare will continue to be loved.
    Being your mother’s age (or older!) I can well understand her invitation to take what you want now – and also your reluctance to do it. My kids are the same, not wanting to whip off what they consider mine while I’m still around to enjoy it – and also a bit superstitious, I think, about being reminded that one day, I won’t be. (They tend to go ‘la-la-la when the possibility is mentioned.) But what they don’t realise is that the knowledge that the things I treasure will coninue to be treasured is far more important than the things themselves. (Except for the odd item like the kitchen stool my uncle made my grandmother – they can’t have that until I no longer use it!)

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  9. That is such a wonderful keepsake from your mother. My mom and dad gave my brother and I many of their keepsakes while they were living. They wanted to make sure we had the things that we truly cherished, plus they were downsizing. It does feel weird at the time, but now I am so glad they had the foresight to give us their gifts.

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  10. What an interesting piece of family history and such beautiful books. I agree that the inscription makes it even more valuable; I love that all the signatures are so legible.

    For the 2 years since my father’s death my mother has been going through a similar “cleaning”. The most precious items I now own are three A.A. Milne books my father was given during World War II when he was being evacuated and separated from his parents. Every time I hold them I think of the comfort he found in them during those difficult years.

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