I am about to get rid of a family heirloom. It’s a large Persian carpet, 8’6” by 10’6”, woven for the British market at the start of the twentieth century. My grandparents probably bought it new at the start of their married life together in 1915.
My parents inherited it from my widowed grandfather, probably around the time of their marriage in 1956. Their home was an old one and the carpet lay over uneven floorboards in their drawing room. Years of footsteps wore the pattern away in faded straight lines where the floorboards met in warped ridges.
After my parents’ divorce my father kept the house and the carpet. He was not a fastidious housekeeper, and as coarse grime collected in the carpet’s fibres it acted as an abrasive, rubbing away more of the colour.
By the time he passed it on to my wife and me in 1993, to furnish the first house we owned, it was already threadbare. Since then it has been with us in three subsequent homes. Time and our own erratic housekeeping have further weathered it and now it is so worn that chair legs catch in its loose strands. It’s time to say goodbye.
It’s not just its passive presence under the feet of three generations of my family that makes it an heirloom. This carpet has played a rather more active part in the life and death of the family. Some years ago I was showing an aunt a photograph of my wife at home, when the aunt exclaimed, “Oh! It’s that carpet!”
One June evening in 1950 my grandmother was doing a bit of spring-cleaning in the family home in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire. She decided to roll back the heavy carpet – this carpet – to sweep up the dust underneath it. My grandfather had a wooden leg and couldn’t help. As she crawled strenuously across the floor on her knees in the act of rolling it up, she suffered a massive heart attack which killed her in the instant. She was seventy.
My grandparents, Eleanor May Castle and Frederick Gurney Salter in the garden of Little Hill, Nettlebed, Oxfordshire in the 1930s
The story goes that my grandfather, realising that she was dead and that nothing further could be done for her, went to bed as usual that evening. He reasoned that the chores and consequences of death could keep until morning. It sounds heartless, but perhaps it was just pragmatic.
I had heard the story long ago, and never suspected that the carpet in question might have remained in the family. But I never knew my grandmother, and even after learning of its role in her death I have kept the carpet so far: even that morbid connection with her is precious. Perhaps my father and grandfather did so for the same reasons. Or perhaps they were just pragmatic. A carpet is still a carpet, whoever rolled or walked on it.