Friday, March 27, 2009

(Distant) Family Tensions: What Should I do With Great-Grandfather's Sword?

UPDATE: The votes are in! 66% of voters said I should give the sword to my nephew.

When I visited my Great Aunt Jackie a few weeks ago, she made a request that left me feeling a little confused and disturbed. How do you say "no" to the 95-year-old Great Aunt who more or less raised your father?

Here's the story: We were sitting on the couch in her family room. Frink and Aunt Jackie's daughter, Annabelle, were conversing at the oth
er end of the small room, and Annabelle's 30-something son (Lawrence) was sitting in an easy chair listening to both conversations. (It was the first time I had seen Lawrence since he was 7 or 8.) A few minutes earlier, Lawrence had opened up one of the glass doors of a book case and showed us "his" pipe -- an elaborately carved German pipe from 1800 that used to sit on great-grandfather's mantel. Aunt Jackie is leaving the pipe to Lawrence.

Anyway, my Aunt and I were chatting along, reconnecting after not seeing each other for more than a decade, when she sighed and said, "I wonder what ever happened to my f
ather's Knights of Pythias sword."

"Oh," I said. "Dad gave it to me." Aunt Jackie, I
should note, gave the sword to my father 35 or 40 years ago. She was at my wedding 25 years ago, where the sword played a small part in the ceremony.

"I would so like to have it back," she said. "When I gave it to your father, I didn't have a grandson. I would so like my grandson to have it."

I looked up and noticed that Annabelle and Lawrence were listening with keen attention. It was obvious that they had all talked about this before Frink and I arrived.

I stammered out that the sword was one of the only things dad owned that had belonged to his grandparents.

"I sure would like it to go to my grandson," she repeated. "I didn't have a grandson when I gave it to your father."
The object in question is an elaborately etched silver ceremonial sword like the one in this photo. Such swords were widely used by fraternal organizations in their rituals from the late 1800's until WWII. It's not worth much -- $250 at the most. But it belonged to my great-grandfather. I have always intended to pass it on to my nephew, who shares his grand-father's and great-grandfather's name. (For the story of how dad changed his name when he was 6, choosing the name of his beloved grandfather, see the related posts below.)

The sword is one of only 5 or 6 of my
great-grandparents things that was passed down to my dad, and through him, to my sister and me. Everything else--antique furniture, silver, china, artwork, scrapbooks, photo albums, and so on -- went either to my father's sisters when his mother passed away or will go to Aunt Jackie's daughter and then to her children (including Lawrence.)

I know this sounds complicated, so here's a little family tree:

This conversation left me deflated and disturbed, casting a shadow on an otherwise wonderful visit. I stand in the same relation to my great-grandfather as Lawrence does. If I were a male, I wonder, would Aunt Jackie make the same request? If my father were still alive, would she ask him to give the sword back? Would my father reply that he wanted it to go to HIS grandson? (Knowing him, probably not. He would think it, and he would be very hurt, but he would probably give it to her.)

Thirty-five or forty years seems a long time. At what point did the sword cease to be Aunt Jackie's and become
my father's? I think back to the gaudy diamond cocktail ring another aunt left me a decade ago. It wasn't my style, so I gave it to a distant cousin I hardly knew. If I could do it over, I'd give it instead to one of my nieces. But I can't imagine asking for it back.

We saw my Aunt, Annabelle, and Lawrence again at brunch the next day, and the sword didn't come up. But the whole matter tarnished my visit a bit, and left me uncertain about what to do. My sister says it wasn't fair of Aunt Jackie to ask for the sword. But how do you say no to a direct request from the 95-year-old Great Aunt who practically raised your father?

What would you do? Cast your vote in the sidebar at the top of the page.

Related posts:
The Party Grandma
Stumbling Down Memory Lane
Willa Cather and my Grandfather's Peace Pipe


  1. Donate it to a museum. There the whole family can enjoy it. A gift is a gift and no one has the right to ask for it back.

  2. Oooh. That is a serious toughie. Saying no to the elderly is like drilling/pulling teeth! But part of me really thinks that your family should have some family artifacts. I voted that you just give it to your nephew. It would definitely be a hard thing to do. Yes, she raised your dad, but that should've been something that she did out of the goodness of her heart and an action that came from the love she had for him. It shouldn't make you feel like you're indebted to her. Of course that does not mean that you don't appreciate what she did. I also LOVE history so I would seriously keep it for myself if this situation were to be happening to me. If the topic were to come up again I would say, "Auntie, I know you really want this sword to go to your grandson, but my family has not received as many family artifacts as the rest and this sword means a lot to me already so giving it up would be incredibly difficult and I don't think I can do it!" Harsh? Maybe but all truth.

    But if you think that giving it back to your Aunt is something that your father would do I think you should be true to him and what you think his wishes would've been. It's a HUGE sacrifice, but I think it would be worth it to know that you're respecting, what you think to be, his wishes.

    Isn't it funny that random bobbles and trinkets that you purchase today can become issues of great distress in the future for your family? I mean even you said that the sword doesn't have much monetary value but the sentimental value can't even be priced it's so much. I remember telling my mom that she HAD to leave a bunch of jewelry that had been passed down for generations to me. She laughed heartily and told me that when she died we (my 2 brothers and 2 sisters) would have to duke it out. She wasn't going to take part in that mess. She just wants to die a peaceful death and be over with it!!

    Good luck with your situation!!

    (Oh . . . and the museum idea? Yeah right!! If that were me I would NEVER give it to a museum. They'd be locked behind glass cages!!! I'm a person who needs to touch things to feel their history!! It sounds like a good last resort right after just using the sword to murder everyone who wants it! But I agree. A gift is a gift and no one should as for it back!)

  3. Ps. That is a gorgeous sword!!

  4. It was a gift to your Dad, and he gave it to you and she should not now expect it back. You also have a sentimental attachment via your wedding and your Dad. For now, if it was me, I would just ignore her request. And if it comes up later, say sorry, but no.

  5. If Lawrence is 30 now and your wedding was 25 years ago, doesn't that mean Lawrence was already born to Annabel who is Aunt Jackie's daughter. Why didn't she make this request with your dad at that time and why now? Just curious!

  6. Lak -- What an amazing insight! That never even occurred to me. Dad saw Aunt Jackie many, many times after she gave him the sword, and after it was used at my wedding. She never asked for it back.

    Le Nez--My mom did something similar with her things: she told my sister and me that we were to take turns selecting items. That was a pretty good plan--there weren't hurt feelings or resentments.

    I am going to give some things that are rare to a museum...things that were Aunt Fern's and Uncle Edmond's b/c that is what they wanted. I'll write about some of those things soon.