Female Inheritance

By Alison February 16, 2008 15 Comments 4 Min Read


"As I was going through drawers filled with old linen embroidered with my grandmother’s and great grandmother’s monograms, I came across a small plastic bag in which were two coat hangers covered  in blue wool with a label my mother  had written, undoubtedly intended for me: "Crocheted by Bertha Kaufmann in about  1920".
So my Mother had gone to extreme trouble, at some unknown date to anticipate my future discovery. She knew that one day I would have to  carry out this testing, nostalgic, heart-rending task of choosing what must be kept or not kept in the family house. She must have foreseen that moment when she would not be there, and so she had left me this information. She had wanted to draw my attention to it. As if she were addressing me, post mortem, to say to me: "Look, this is precious, keep it or throw it away, but know where this object came from.It was your great-grandmother who crocheted this. I would like you to keep it in memory of her and me. Give it to your children and the children of your children. This is testimony of a long line of women who were dexterous with their hands, attentive about fine linen, caring about their family’s well being, take good care of it, as I have done before you. This is your female inheritance."

Lydia Flem. The Final Reminder.

Perhaps tomorrow it will be a lovely, twinkly sunny day. You will dress in a pretty  rose spotted skirt and a fair aisle cardigan and  kiss your babies have a good day at the school gate. Then you will walk into  town, swinging your green basket as you go, waving hello to old Mrs Hambledon and stopping for a moment to admire the daffodils in the market square. Across the street you see a milky blue jug in the window of your favorite little antiques shop, a jug that will look divine sitting atop a pile of vintage hardbacks, holding a pretty spray of flowers picked from the garden. You see it and you step across the street to get it, but what you do not see is the car that knocks you over. The car that takes your life.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps  instead there will be time to say goodbye. Or a lifetime of hello’s and tomorrow’s. We none of us know and yet we live within the spectre of death daily and most of us make peace with it. But what we don’t do, beyond the simple act of financial insurance and will-making, is prepare for it. Not in a way that will resonate in the hearts of those who would grieve for us should the very worst happen. We do not take the time to mark our place in the world, to give provenance to the things we have made or the places we have been. Too many of us don’t make a ritual out of record keeping on our children’s behalf. We don’t catalogue memories, photographs or dreams in any meaningful way and we don’t write down all that we would say to the grown people our children will one day become. 

This isn’t meant to be morbid. Nor intended to deliver a little bit of misery to another shiny weekend. It is instead a reminder. A reminder to hold what we have dear. It is a call to arms. A gentle push to make this the weekend we stick those piles of photographs into an album and bless them with handwritten memories and quips from the day. The afternoon we too will spend hand stitching monograms on to our collection of fine linen, or ordering  labels to be sewn into the clothes we have knitted for our children. Let’s make this the weekend we put our financial affairs in order, or pour a big glass of wine and write letters to our children on the day they turn eighteen. Let’s walk our children around the house and tell them why this picture reminds you of your Nana, why this tiny little brass maid matters so much to Daddy. Let’s continue to fill our journals with all our unspoken thoughts. To not censor ourselves for fear of discovery, but to write in blood, what is. To offer our children the opportunity to one day fully know the woman we really were.  And let’s give them the gift of themselves: scrapbooks filled full of their first scribbles, a file of their own full of personal documents, a tiny notebook with all the funny things they once said in it…

We cannot know what will  matter to them when they are gone. Memories are too personal. After the recent death of her Mother, Martha Stewart was gently thrilled by the care her Mum had taken to bestow upon her something she knew Martha would hold dear…

"That night we gathered at my brother George’s home and were each handed  envelopes prepared by my Mother. In mine were documents I had never before seen- my birth certificate, my Baptism certificate and communion papers, my diphtheria and measles shot certifications, a $10,000 savings bond, and a note from the pediatrician saying I was fit for school. Only Mom, with her sense of organisation, would have known that these would touch  my heart like nothing else she could bestow upon me. Thank you Mother."

Perhaps tomorrow won’t come. Or perhaps like Martha Kostrya we will live long, rich, satisfying lives. Who knows? But what we do know is that this is our job. To stuff our days with memories worth keeping. To be memory keepers and do our very best to leave nothing unsaid when we are gone.

To say our goodbyes every time we press a kiss on to their foreheads.


  1. snehal says:

    You have inspired me- I’ll be using the long weekend wisely.

  2. judi says:

    You did it again …touched mu heart.. What a spendid writer you are.. Thank you ..I strt my days with checking to see what wisdom you have for us…
    What a beautiful child you are blessed with.

  3. Melissa says:

    This was said only like you could. My mom passed suddenly in October and I have been thinking of the things that should be done………Thank you.

  4. Melissa says:

    You continue to inspire me.

  5. Anita says:

    What a wonderful reminder – and done is such a beautiful way!

  6. Kimp says:

    Alison- you usually touch me with what you write but today you really struck me right between the eyes! My mom died two weeks ago and I will miss her terribly. she was suffering for a long time and I prayed the Lord would take her quickly – she had suffered long enough. When my sisters and I cleaned out her stuff – my heart was raw with knowing that I won’t be able to call her and just chat. I have her two sewing machines -being the only one that sews besides her – So two of my daughters will have what was grandma’s. Thanks for being my good friend ‘across the pond’ – fondly – kim

  7. I’m so thankful that both of my parents are still living but I certainly pondered how I’ll go on when they are gone. Mom gave me one of her old Bibles with all her handwritten notes in the margins. As I read through it, I love that I can know what mom’s thoughts were on those same verses. I wonder if I should begin doing this for my children as I study. Blessings… Polly

  8. Amy says:

    Beautiful post! I love the idea of writing a letter to our children when they turn 18.

  9. Linda says:

    My father died last year quite suddenly. When I got the news, I remember thinking: He’ll have left something for me. I combed his computer, his drawers, for some letter I imagined he *must* have written for me. (We were close.) To date, I’ve found nothing. I’ve just recently bought a journal with the express purpose of writing a “letter” to my daughter. I know how much comfort such a thing would have brought me.
    What a wise post — thank you.

  10. Jen says:

    Beautifully written, with perfect sentiment. Like you say, without being morbid, you never know when it’ll be your last goodbye. I hate leaving, or going to sleep, on a misunderstanding for that very reason. My 17 yr old DD knows she is loved, just like I know my mum loves me. And that thought comforts me. BTW, my grandma, that DD is named for, was christened Bertha 😉 I chose her middle name for DD’s middle name, though – Rose is much prettier!

  11. OhSovintage says:

    I just love that picture – who is it by? You write so well, we should all take notice of what you say here. My father died four years ago and never left any note or anything for me despite knowing he was dying. It felt as though he hadn’t really acknowledged my existence and despite having the opportunity to say ‘goodbye’ to me he hadn’t bothered. A friend’s father also knows he doesn’t have long and he is busy putting his affairs in order, sorting through things and writing about his family so that his memories won’t be lost once he is gone.

  12. pymfan says:

    Thank you…it comes at a very good time. Serendipity arrives like a robin on a snow crusted winter branch….we know that the sun will break through the clouds at any moment and the long sad will go away and become a more bearable form of remembrance.

  13. Katherine says:

    I am touched again as I was when I read Martha Stewart’s thoughts and memories of her mother~it really made me think about having something prepared for my children, just in case…
    I am enjoying catching up with your posts–I was out of a computer for about a month!

  14. The photograph for this post is so beautiful~~do you know anything about the artist?
    You writing is wonderful . . .I try to visit as often as I can.

  15. Debbi says:

    Dear Alison,
    Today, as always, you inspired me. I love the way you process. You touch me, and inspire beautiful thoughts. I read recently of a couple of authors who, every day before they begin to write, sit down and read for an hour, refueling, “filling the well”, I think is how she described it. Today, however, was different, I did it, too. After filling myself at your well, I sat down and began the process of “putting pen to paper” for my children. If you check my blog… you only need to see the first entry, where you are credited. Thank you, again, and again! ~ Debbi

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