Telling Family Stories with Keepsakes

There’s a story inside every family keepsake.  If you’re searching for a good way to find family stories to tell your kids to provide them a sense of belonging, heirlooms and keepsakes are a great and easy place to start.  From knitting needles to china to hammers, objects from your family’s past are windows into them.  Family artifacts not only shed light on previous eras, hobbies, and traditions, but they give us a tactile connection to those who came before.

The Reasons We Preserve

Have you ever stopped to think about why we keep things?  Why would I want Grandma’s rolling pin or Christmas ornaments?  What difference would it actually make to me?  Why do we hold onto things when it doesn’t seem a very logical practice?  There’s a wonderful article called Why We Preserve that delves in to these questions.

While the desire to preserve isn’t logical by nature, the logical reason for preserving history is that history promotes nostalgia, and nostalgia is good for us, our families, and our communities. Nostalgia is important and strengthening—an antidote to the stresses of today that is, as it turns out, easy to bottle.  ~Christopher McAfee

Something I found interesting in this article is a look at nostalgia.  The word “nostalgia” was actually first used as a medical term in the late 1600s.  The root of the word means “an aching for home,” or, as we might describe it, “homesickness.”  The only cure for this condition at the time was to send the person back home.  And it worked.

And, you know, when I think about it, that’s exactly what I do.  That’s precisely what nostalgia, keepsakes, heirlooms, and memorabilia do.  Plates that sat on my grandma & grandpa’s mantle now sit on a display shelf in my guest room.  And when I see them, I’ve gone back home.  My mom collected Christmas angels.  Several of them now have a place on my own mantle at Christmastime.  And when I see them, I’ve gone back home.

Consider what happens when you experience the power of memoirs or memorabilia. Over the years, I’ve noticed that certain items bring me feelings of joy, belonging, and connectedness. When I ponder my past by looking through old photographs, yearbooks, or letters, I feel connected to humanity.  ~Christopher McAfee

Triggering Memories through Keepsakes

What memorabilia or heirlooms do you have?  Even a simple tablecloth or pitcher can evoke memories.  They can also hold dear someone who is gone.  I have keepsakes that are simply things my great-grandmothers used to own.  Holding on to those small, tangible items helps me remember what I know and appreciate about these women I never met.  It helps me never forget that I’m a part of something bigger, something greater.  I am connected.

You will certainly have your own memories when you see dad’s work bench or the doll house grandpa made.  Talking to other family members about their memories of these things can broaden your own memories as well as give new insight.  Reminiscing together is an enriching family activity!

Make a Record

Shortly after my mom was diagnosed with the illness that would take her life, I decided there was no time like the present to make sure I knew where all my heirlooms came from.  (And, in retrospect, there really was no time like the present.)  I went through my whole house photographing things that I knew had been passed down to me.  Then I quizzed my parents.  And then I made a record of my family keepsakes.  I created a storybook called “The Stories of Our Heirlooms.”

It’s very simple (and my photography is frankly not even very good), but this record now stands as a family history of sorts.  Now we know!  We know where our heirlooms came from and we know their stories.  The whole story of my mom’s house flooding after a dam break when she was five years old is now preserved next to the picture of the plate her mom served dinner on that day.  It’s part of our family story.

Letters, notes, and photos are also keepsakes and heirlooms.  My sister, while going through some books the other day, found a poem the other day with this statement scribbled in my mother’s handwriting:  “I don’t know who wrote this poem, but it certainly says everything I would want to say to my children and grandchildren.”  The messages from this simple piece of paper are priceless.

Keepsakes are an easy and fun source, a jumping-off point, to start telling your family’s stories. 

~Jennifer #familyhistoryfriday


  1. McAfee, C. (2017). Family Search. Retrieved from




Jennifer Wise

consultant at Heritage Makers
I'm Jennifer, and I'm passionate about connections.I enjoy helping people discover the very real benefits of preserving stories, photos, and memories because of the impact they have on children, families, and individuals. I blog weekly at sharing tips, ideas, solutions, and inspiration, and I'm over at, too. Learn more about me at the "About" tab.

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