The biscuit barrel comes with a handy life lesson.) Bob Brehl

Bob Brehl: Heirloom triggers life-learning memory

  • February 13, 2020

Francis Campbell’s column last week about a 200-year-old teapot, a story steeped in family history and faith, brought to mind a three-decade-old tale about another family heirloom.

This story begins two weeks before my wedding. There was a knock on the front door of our family home.

Standing there was Mrs. Maxwell, an elegant neighbour who lived directly across the street with her husband, a family physician we knew only as “Doctor Maxwell.” In her hands was a box wrapped in grey or silver paper with a big white bow and ribbon around it.

“As you know, the doctor and I cannot make your wedding, but we’d like you to have this gift,” she said with a smile, then turned to head back to her home.

By this point in life, both she and her husband were in their seventies, maybe even eighties, and the doctor was not well.

Our family had a special bond with the Maxwells on many levels so it was fitting to invite them to the wedding. I did not know how ill Dr. Maxwell was, though.

They had lived there when my parents bought our house in 1954. My two oldest siblings were very young and five more Brehl children would appear over the next seven and a half years.

As you can imagine, with seven rambunctious kids under the same roof of a small East York home, there would be plenty of cuts, bruises, sprains and burns. Sometimes Mom marched us across the street for Dr. Maxwell to have a look.

If the injury wasn’t serious enough for the hospital, like broken arms and legs, Dr. Maxwell was happy to help, even putting in a few stitches, if needed. He had the patience of Job.

Both he and his wife had kind hearts, but I remember, as a child, thinking Mrs. Maxwell was a little gruff. As an adult, I’d modify that to say she spoke with candour and directness.

The Maxwells had also lived through tremendous heartache. They lost their only child as a teenager, years before I was born. I remember one time being shown the girl’s bedroom, which they had kept exactly as it was when she died, almost with hope of her return.

Anyway, returning to the heirloom story, as she left our porch and walked down the steps, I shouted a thank you. Then I went into the house and phoned my wife-to-be to tell her.

“Open it,” she said, “and let me know what it is.”

I unwrapped it and saw a picture on the outside of the box of a white thing for keeping coffee hot at the table during dessert. But I didn’t open the box.

“It’s one of those white things with the handle and screw-top lid that keeps coffee hot at the table,” I said.

“It’s called a carafe,” she said. “I’ll write her a thank-you note right away and mail it.”

A few days later, I heard a hard knock at the front door. I opened it and it was Mrs. Maxwell again. She’d received the thank-you note for the carafe. Suddenly, up came her arm and she slapped my forehead with the palm of her hand.

“Idiot,” she said, “you didn’t even open the box.” She was particularly direct that day. I can still envision her hand approaching my head. Just thinking about it makes me chuckle.

Sheepishly, I admitted I had not opened the box.

She let herself in and sat down on the couch and demanded I get the box. When I returned, she ordered me to open it. I pulled something out of the box, looked at it, knew it wasn’t a carafe, but had no idea what it was.

“That is a hand-painted biscuit barrel and it’s more than 100 years old,” Mrs. Maxwell said. “My grandmother in England bought it during the Victorian era and she handed it down to me and I’m handing it down to you.”

Not too many today, or even 30 years ago, would know what a biscuit barrel would look like or be used for. 

The first biscuit barrels appeared in England around 1860 and quickly became en vogue as an indispensable serving piece for society hostesses.

Over high tea or during meals, the biscuit barrel would be passed around the table. 

With Great Britain being an island and ship-faring nation, some think the fancy ceramic or glass dispensers were inspired by the barrels on ships where biscuits were stored. Who knows, but they remained popular until the early 1900s.

And they are unique antiques today and one of the most prized heirlooms we own, even if it began with a different family.

It’s a story sometimes told with the reminder that things are not always what they appear so open the box before sending a thank-you note.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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