I got a call from a cousin asking me if I’d like a memento from her mom’s house, which she inherited after her parents died. She was sorting, donating and packing decades of family belongings so it could be sold.

Her mom was a beloved aunt who welcomed my curiosity when looking at many objects she displayed in her home. I loved visiting my aunt’s and uncle’s house with multiple nooks and crannies for exploring, including a heated front porch containing many plants, and their upright piano. Above it were framed oval photographs of my grandparents: black and white, from bygone days before my grandfather died in 1926. Looking at those framed faces gave rise to regret that I had not known my grandparents. As I contemplated the sale of my cousin’s house, which held so many memories of my childhood, I felt some sadness knowing that its passing to another family meant the end of an era for me.

JulieAnn Heinrich’s maternal grandmother with five of her six children at the farm in Minnesota in 1923; JulieAnn’s mother, Pearl, is second from right, behind her brother. Photo courtesy of JulieAnn Heinrich

The memento my cousin offered was a special pillow made for my aunt by my sister, for her 80th birthday back in May 2000. My sister transferred four family photos onto fabric for the front of the pillow, and on the back, a salutation, “Happy Birthday, to a great Aunt!” When this pillow arrived weeks later, it became a prized possession.

Although the photos were familiar, the montage was a great pictorial history of my Aunt Lucille and her siblings: my mom, Pearl, Helen, Millie, Paulie and Gert. The first photo was a lineup of the siblings in their childhood mugging for the camera, with huge smiles and bowl-cut hairdos. Another was of Lucille, my mom and another friend in New York City at the 1940 World’s Fair, a big trip for farm girls from Minnesota, my home state. The third photo was from the mid-1960s. The adults were wearing their Sunday best. My mom and her siblings sat in birth order around the living room table, with their spouses behind them. Examining their faces gave clues to each personality.

The last photo was taken in my parents’ backyard at their 50th anniversary in 1990, my mom with her sisters Helen, Lucille and Gert, as Millie and Paul had passed. It reminded me of the summer parties my mom organized for many occasions. Such fun and frivolity for 15 cousins and their parents, enjoying a potluck “picnic,” with tables and lawn chairs scattered around the back and side yards.

This pillow is a lovely keepsake of stories shared by my mom and her siblings, of the closeness they forged in their childhood on the farm. Fatherless from an early age, they helped their mother keep the farm productive to support the family. The pillow reminds me of the houses of my aunts and uncles and the gatherings with cousins that carried on the family lore and traditions begun on the farm. Now these homes hold new histories with new families, but our memories are held in our hearts.

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