Bring on the fine china and brown furniture.
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Credit: Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez, Styling: Elly Poston Cooper

There's a clock in my parents' dining room that's older than I am. It's older than my parents and probably my grandparents too. But it still chimes on the hour every hour (and once every half-hour) with a gusto that far belies its years. The clanging chime might even be a little annoying if it weren't such a telltale sign that I've arrived home. That's the beauty of family heirlooms—there's a comforting quality to them, a familiar patina that can't be replicated in things shiny, store-bought, new.

There's also the matter of the hand-me-down folklore that comes with them. In the case of the clock, for instance, the story goes that my great-grandfather collected all kinds of them, gutting broken ones and replacing their innards with working instruments, some of which were anachronisms.

It's this tie to our people and our love of a good story, I think, that binds us Southerners to family heirlooms. They aren't just stuff. They're an extension of the people we've loved and a connection to the generations we never got to know.

My great-grandfather lived to be 93, and on our antique hutch, there's a photo of him holding me as a newborn. Of course, I don't remember him. But thanks to his clock, I've been given the opportunity to get to know him little by little, chime by chime.

Stories tend to beget other stories, and any time the brassy pendulum announces the hour, my dad has an excuse to share larger-than-life tales of the man who first brought the clock home. Beyond collecting timekeepers, my great-grandfather saved newspaper clippings from the sinking of the Titanic, ran a country store with penny candy and fuel pumps, and chewed tobacco up until the day he died. He didn't trust banks, so he stashed his money in a P.O. box, and when the Great Depression hit, he went out and bought two Model T trucks; he drove one and kept the other for parts. I don't hear the clock now without thinking of him.

Heirlooms, then, are just one more way we keep our family legends alive. They're a conduit to the past and a steward of stories. It's the clanging clocks and worn pine tables and tarnished silver that make a Southern house feel like home.