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My Family Heirloom: Fife chaplain’s brass matchbox reignites memories of his Chicago past

The unique bronze match holder - complete with a written instructions from his great-grandmother - occupies a place at the heart of St Andrews University chaplain Bill Shackman's family home.
Nora McElhone
Image shows Bill Shackman holding his Everyday Heirloom, an early 20th century matchbox.
Bill Shackman with his family heirloom, his great-grandmother's matchbox. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson.

University chaplain Bill Shackman remembers his great grandmother’s brass box holding matches for lighting the cooking stove when he was a child growing up in Chicago.

The heirloom is one of many objects that connects him to a very different place and time.

“Our home is full of mementos from our family, mostly objects that are worthless in price but mean everything to us: my grandfather’s pocket chess set (Shachman means chess-player), my great grandfathers’ pocket watch and leather tools, his father’s cigarette case, my grandfather’s pen knife, recipes from our grandmothers, our grandparents’ books.

“I cherish these objects because they remind me of those who loved me and whom I still love. They remind me of the things they used to say or do and specific episodes from my past. My grandfather used to tell a lot of stories. These objects all tell a story, told through the passage of time.

Image shows: an old black and white photograph of Lena Shachman, Bill Shackman's great-grandmother. Lena is standing at the back of the picture with two women and a young child in front of her.
Bill Shackman’s family with his great grandmother (standing back), Image: Shackman family.

“Our middle child is named after my great-grandmother, Lena Shachman; Our family all called her Bubby, Yiddish for grandma.

“I remember Bubby’s old house in Rogers’ Park, across from my favourite playground. Before she moved into a care home, she labelled every item in her house with a note explaining who she thought should inherit it.

“My father got a row of ceramic ducks that sat in a plant pot.  I received a small wooden box, in which I now keep my heirlooms.

Image shows: the back of the match holder, with Bill's great-grandmother's hand-written note about who should inherit it.
The reverse of Bill Shackman’s match holder with the instructions his great-grandmother. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson.

“A bronze match-holder that sat above the stove, to light the gas hob, went to my grandparents, Joe and Lil. Our oldest, Jasmine, is named after Joe.

“The match holder has a note in Bubby’s handwriting glued onto the back of it reading, ‘My dear Joe and Lil, I hope you will keep this in good health as many years as I did, Amen. 4-24-80.

“Then it goes to Bruce and Liz [my parents] When they will reach my age also in good health, it should go to Billy [me] Love, Ma and Bubby’

A revolution, a depression and two world wars

“Bubby was 86 years old when she wrote that note. She lived to be 100. She lived through a revolution, a depression, and two world wars. My parents are still alive, and nowhere near as old as she was, but when we moved out of our family home, they passed it on to me.

Image shows Lena Shachman in bed, surrounded by her family including great-grandson Bill Shackman, standing beside her.
Bill Shackman’s family with his great grandmother Lena (in bed). Image: Shackman family.

“Like me, Bubby loved the water. She swam in Lake Michigan every day. She wrote journals in which she kept an account of her days, her grudges and her dreams. She was a big believer in dreams.  She was sharp and intelligent right up until the end. I have an old letter from her that describes President Reagan as a clown.

“She was from Mikolaiv, a Ukranian city next to Odessa on the Black Sea. In high school and later at uni, I studied Russian so that I could speak with her and her friends.

“She spoke Yiddish to my grandparents when she didn’t want the rest of the family to know what she was saying. And she spoke to me in Russian when she didn’t want anyone else to know what she was saying. Our family was like that.

Bringing the memories home

“When we moved here from Utah, we weren’t sure how long we would stay or where we would ultimately end up. I packed up my heirlooms into a box that I stored at my dad’s house.

“My dad has all of Bubby’s old journals and a decorative papercut made by my grandfather’s grandfather with his signature, Samuel Shachman, son of Raphael.

“Our youngest, born at home in St Andrews, is named after him. The summer after he was born I brought my box of memories home. Scotland is our home now.

Image shows: bronze match holder dated 1912, which Bill Shackman inherited from his great-grandmother.
The match holder lives in the kitchen in Bill Shackman’s home, despite the fact that they now have an induction hob. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson.

“Now it holds matches in our kitchen, even though we have an induction hob. My wife makes a point of using it when she lights scented candles in the kitchen.

“Like much of our tradition, it is a place holder to the past, not always useful for its intended purpose but serving another function by joining us to our history. It is a tangible piece of who I am, passed down through three generations.

It is a tangible piece of who I am, passed down through three generations

“I hope that at least one of our children will, God willing, move out and get a place of their own. It will make a meaningful housewarming or wedding gift.

Match holder mystery

“There is one mystery about the match holder. An engraving on the front of it reads, M. Einhorn 1912. A google search shows there was a Michael Einhorn who died in Chicago in 1912. Is this his? Who was he and what was his relation to my great-grandmother?

“Where did this object come from; what was its significance to her; why did she want it to be preserved for generations?

“Like so much of the past, its significance is shrouded in mystery.”

Bill Shackman is the Interfaith, Environmental and Digital Chaplain at the University of St Andrews. He is originally from Chicago and has lived in St Andrews for 14 years with his family. He loves playing music with friends and paddle board surfing at West Sands. 

Do you have a Everyday Heirloom that you would love to share with our readers? If so, please email Nora McElhone with details of the object and why you love it so much.