My grandfather’s childhood pencil box, which I received from him almost a decade ago. PHOTO: ZACH POOLE

My maternal grandfather, Neil Freake, is a natural-born storyteller. Every time I get the opportunity to visit him, I spend hours captivated by the tales from his own life and his upbringing.

On my 12th birthday, I was gifted something that would seem strange to most other kids but meant the world to me. I was given an heirloom and the stories that go with it. My grandfather gave me a pencil box from when he was in grade school. A small wooden box about 10 inches long, with a swing open lid. The top cover is  painted with a  cartoon of a train, and all over it are doodles surely drawn during a boring class. To this day, that pencil kit sits on my desk at home, next to some other important possessions.

I have mentioned the box in conversations with friends, and almost every time I have been asked why a children’s pencil kit matters to me. I think that this indeed stems from the question: What separates an heirloom from any other object? There is nothing specific that separates the two at face value, yet there is something about a family treasure that just makes it unique. 

“The difference between an heirloom and an ordinary object is that an heirloom would have the ‘family connection’ and carry with it a great deal of sentimentality,” said my grandfather when I asked him about the topic. “An ordinary object, although it may be very interesting, would not have the sentimental feel to it. It would not stir up the emotions that an heirloom would.” 

“Stability is something that I think many people tend to look for, so when they can have an item that exemplifies this, it makes sense for them to latch on to it and care heavily for it.”


My grandfather told me that he received it from his aunt as a Christmas gift when he was a child. He held on to it, not necessarily because of the significance of the item but because of its connection to his relative.  It may just be an old wooden case, but the fact that it once belonged to him is what gives it a special place in my heart, just as the family connection had made it special to him.

When looking at psychology, the idea that people get a sense of stability and being connected to someone from these items provides a greater understanding of why heirlooms exist in the first place. Stability is something that I think many people tend to look for, so when they can have an item that exemplifies this, it makes sense for them to latch on to it and care heavily for it.

Casey Lungton, manager of The Iron Crow antique store in Calgary, was able to provide a bit more insight into the topic.

“It comes down to the connection to family for a lot of people.”

He provided an example of a harvest table — a style of dining room table. He said that when people look at the table, they will think about the times they sat around it with family, telling stories and making memories. These thoughts are what create the sentimentality associated with it.

A picture of Zach with his maternal grandmother and grandfather at his high school graduation. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ZACH POOLE

An example like that really puts the entire topic into perspective. The true meaning is not in the item. After all, it is just a pencil box, but the fact that it was a piece of my family’s history is what makes it important. 

When I was born, I was the first grandchild for both my maternal and paternal grandparents, and I remained the only one for nearly five years. Because of this, I spent plenty of time with each of them.

Over the years, I learned many things from these folks, but I gained one specific trait from my maternal grandfather that I still carry with me to this day: My love for history. As a preteen, I spent countless hours working on a family tree with him, sifting through hundreds of records to piece together our family’s story. Unfortunately, we hit a wall sometime in the late 1700s to early 1800s as Newfoundland’s records seem to drop off around then. However, from time to time, I still try to connect some loose ends. Sometimes I look back at this tree fondly and think about all of the amazing things that have happened in the last 300 years.

Regardless of what makes it noteworthy or memorable, an heirloom is one of the most important pieces of a familial relationship, in my opinion. Deep down, I know without a doubt that this pencil box will remain in my family forever. I intend to take it with me wherever life may take me until my own children are old enough to understand the significance of it.

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