by: Michael Kabel

    Ma Ma put the velvet box into my hands. "It's for you," she said. Her silver lioness mane of a head was backlit by sunshine through the kitchen window. "I got one when I was your age." At the table next to her, my father sipped his coffee and stared at me. 

    He'd driven me down to Houma to visit my grandmother for the afternoon. We went straight south and turned off the highway where the river rose higher than the road, blocked by the shoulder of the levee. Mau maw warmed some shrimp etouffee on the stove and brought out the gift box from somewhere in the house's deeper rooms. 

    "You'll be makin' the first communion soon, won't you?" she asked me, settling herself down again at the table. Her hot kitchen smelled like cigarette smoke and peppermints. "You'll need that. It's from the cathedral."

    Inside the box was a slender hoop of silver and black beads with a pewter crucifix hanging delicately off its end. I thought it was a necklace and slipped it over my head. 

    "Mickey," my father said. "It's a rosary. It's not jewelry. Come on, now." 

    Ma Ma shook her head and counted out the beads, showing me how the decades were to be recited, in what order. Wholly Cajun and devoutly Roman Catholic, she was attempting to pass on a part of her heritage at a turning point in my upbringing. That I didn't recognize the rosary as a religious icon must have embarrassed my father, making him wonder about the money he'd spent sending me to Catholic school back in Baton Rouge. 

    The gift was given to nudge me into my heritage, to remind me that I was catholic from a family of Catholics. Months later, when I took the sacrament for the first time, the rosary I'd used in preparation made the event a family event as much as my own. 

A sense of ancestry plays a powerful part in grounding children's identities, giving them a sense of lineage and responsibility to the generations that came before them. In my grandmother's case, her gift of rosary beads was meant to create a keepsake across generations. 

Heritage gifts, when done with taste and sensitivity, are more than just gifts. They become keepsakes that families hold on to, whether you’re a blood relation or just a friend of the family. Such presents offer the opportunity for family members to grow closer to one another and to tap into a sense of history they might otherwise be too preoccupied to consider. 

If you're considering giving a gift meant to evoke a baby's heritage, take care to do research before deciding on the gift. Make subtle inquiries concerning the parents' thoughts about their own heritage, and determine which gift conveys your respect for their culture and legacy in the most tasteful manner. 

Many online stores offer heritage gifts as part of their catalog, some with special sections divided by type (Irish, Asian, et cetera) and gift wrapped with respect to a group's traditional good luck colors and designs. Such gifts also come with special poems, stories, and histories that illustrate the meaning and history of the gift given and how it relates to the culture of a particular people or group, as well.