An Olympic Gold Medal and a Wooden Cane

I am a sentimentalist.

I have a wooden cane that belonged to Robert Thacker, a man born nearly two hundred years ago in 1819. Into that cane are carved two upwardly spiraling serpents and, at the top, a small closed hand. It’s an elegant but simple cane.

Robert Thacker was my great, great grandfather.

That cane was in my boyhood home and I acquired it when my dad, also Robert Thacker, died nearly twenty years ago. I treasure that cane. It connects me to my dad, like it probably connected him to his dad. When I hold it, it reminds me of home.

I have several other items to which I attach significant sentimental value: I have two plain gold wedding bands that my mother promised to me when she was dying of cancer (I have worn one of them on a necklace for over 33 years).  I have handwritten letters of a great, great grandmother of mine from the mid-1870s as well as some original photos dating back to that time. I have many books from my paternal grandfather (also Robert Thacker) which are over one hundred years old and a c. 1920 mechanical calculator that he used. And I have several other similar family items.

Those items have little monetary value (maybe the cane might fetch ten or twenty bucks in an antique store?) but they have tremendous sentimental value to me. They are items that were held and used by ancestors of mine. I’ll never know much about my great great grandfather Robert Thacker but I have held the very cane he walked with over 120 years ago.

What made me think about these items of mine was an article I read in Minneapolis Star Tribune last week.

Bill Christian and his son, Dave, who both lived just 20 miles from me in rural northern Minnesota when I was a kid, are selling all of their hockey memorabilia.  No, they are not memorabilia collectors who have decided to sell their collections.  They are former hockey players.  And they are selling their own stuff.  And by “stuff” I mean Bill Christian’s 1960 Olympic gold medal in hockey and Dave Christian’s 1980 Olympic gold medal in hockey (he was a member of the “Miracle on Ice” team that defeated the Soviet Union), along with their Olympic jerseys, rings, and other items (including items from Dave Christian’s career as a professional hockey player).

When I read that, I was dumbfounded.  Yes, they will reap a fair amount of money (Dave’s 1980 Olympic gold medal, in particular, has a current auction bid price of $300,000) but what about the sentimental value of the items?  Mightn’t their kids and grandkids like to have those things as mementos of their dad and grand dad?

That lovely old cane of mine is no Olympic gold medal but I cannot imagine parting with it, at least not selling it.  It’s part of my life.  It was part of my great, great grandfather’s life, and of my great grandfather’s life, and of my grandfather’s life, and of my father’s life. So why would something that is so closely identified with the Christians not hold a similar value to their children and grandchildren?

But, the more I thought about it, the less jarring the sale of those items seems.

Someday, my cane, my mother’s two gold wedding bands, and all of the other items that I value so greatly will have zero sentimental value to anyone. Each of those items will eventually either be sold or discarded.  It is inevitable.  Generally, the sentimentality attached to physical family items will, at most, last a few generations.  Consider this: Going back one generation, a person has two parents; going back two generations, a person has four grandparents; going back three generations, a person has eight great grandparents – after ten generations, a person has over 1,000 great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents.  How much sentimentality can you attach to a person who not only lived many generations before you but who is merely one of more than 1,000 people who are similarly related to you?  You couldn’t even remember all of their names, let alone know much that is meaningful about any one of them.  By that time, those distant ancestors are simply a foggy blur in a long ago past, if they haven’t already become completely lost to history and forgotten forever.

So, what would happen if Dave Christian kept his gold medal?  One of his kids would get it.  And then one of his grandkids would get it. And then maybe one of his great grandkids would get it.  Eventually, it would end up in someone’s hands who didn’t care about it and it would get sold, and probably for a lot less than it will sell for today. Why might it sell for less in the future than it would sell for today?  Well, in 100 or 200 years, the 1980 Olympic victory will be less relevant to American life than John Adams is to today’s school kids.  By that time, most people won’t even know the Soviet Union ever existed – and certainly not that Soviets once lost a hockey game!  Hell, how many people today know anything about the Ottoman Empire – and that empire collapsed less than 100 years ago after World War I?

Years ago, I remember reading a prediction about the great physicist Albert Einstein: In ten thousand years, Einstein will be a mere footnote in history, even though he was one of the greatest scientists to have lived in the last two hundred years.  How much less will that 1980 Olympic hockey game be remembered?

When viewed in that light, the decision by the Christians to sell their hockey memorabilia isn’t so stupefying.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy having that wooden cane of Robert Thacker.  What happens to it after I’m gone, I cannot control.


3 thoughts on “An Olympic Gold Medal and a Wooden Cane

  1. Sally says:

    …and maybe one of the Christians will be a storyteller (like you), tell that story and record it. Future generations might be inspired and motivated by the stories of their ancestors more so than a token that is one day, forgotten.

  2. As much as that cane or the gold wedding band that I am now wearing on a necklace means to me — and they mean a lot to me! — it’s ultimately the personal connections a person makes with others in life that really matter and part of that, as you said, are the stories you tell.

  3. Corey says:

    Very nice musings. I’m a sentimental one myself. Although I’ve found as I get older that pictures of items work almost as well as the items themselves. Of course, that could be because I’m almost out of room!

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