Heirlooms: Blessing, Burden, or Bondage?

If you want to start a conversation quickly among a group of 60-year-old women, ask them how they feel about family heirlooms. I guarantee there won’t be anyone in the group without an opinion.

You can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine it seems without finding mention of Marie Kondo’s little tidying up book or the latest craze of Swedish death cleaning-the practice of disposing of your possessions before you die, to save your heirs the trouble. Minimalism is enjoying a resurgence in popularity and Ikea is bigger and better than ever. Everyone wants to show you what to do with all your extra stuff.

But I’ve not seen mention of the specific emotional turmoil felt by so many of us over family heirlooms. As a somewhat gently raised southern girl, I’m here to tell you that those wafer-thin teacups, the twenty-pound lead crystal vases and the brass candlesticks shaped like pineapples carry more emotional baggage than any inanimate object has a right to.

One of my earliest memories was seeing my grandmother go through her china cabinet and carefully place a strip of adhesive tape on the bottom of each item with the name of a granddaughter, daughter-in-law or niece on it. She was bound for a nursing home and these were her treasures, the sum total of her family wealth and she was very definite about to whom each item should go. As I grew up many of these objects resided in that same china cabinet in our home, my mother’s sacred place.

Mother added her own articles through the years, told stories about the various pieces of china and crystal, and generally let it be known that these things were priceless and precious and woe be to the one who damaged any of them.

In short, she gave the objects a value far beyond what any antique dealer might offer and created within her children a sense of family history and the responsibility of stewardship of that legacy.

Unfortunately, she also created a lifelong sense of obligation, one that has not always been easy to uphold.

I began my adult life, living away from my parents, at the age of eighteen. I accumulated the household items and furnishings necessary to life as I could afford them. I once moved to a tiny furnished apartment, from the even tinier one I had been calling home, with two trips across town in my old Ford Pinto. It was accomplished in an afternoon, including packing and unpacking. In the more than forty years since, I have continued to add possessions, with many being items I dearly love. When my mother sold her home to downsize to a senior living efficiency apartment, the full onslaught of heirlooms hit hard and now I have begun to feel that I no longer own them, but that they somehow own me.

I don’t know anyone in my age group who doesn’t wrestle in one way or another with the emotional entanglement of previous generations’ belongings. We are the children of people who experienced the Great Depression with its many scarcities and deprivations. To have held onto a grandmother’s prized soup tureen through those dark times represented an accomplishment. Often there were memories of a mother’s loving hands tenderly caring for the delicate bone china brought from the old country, or stories about the silver flatware that was once used to serve a visiting dignatary, or a battered toy that had entertained three generations of pint-sized ancestors. The objects, as well as the stories about them, become a valuable part of the accumulated family wealth.

But when added to a household already bulging with its own accumulation, emotional conflict is bound to arise. What do you do with it all?

In the days when families were large, it was a simple matter to divide things as fairly as possible and each child receive a sampling of family treasures. But for those of us without a lengthy list of heirs and an entire Swedish death cleaning to get through, it takes on a new light.

My daughter flatly stated that if she wound up with her grandmother’s sacred set of Fostoria berry bowls, she would likely feed her children in them until they had all been broken. It is clear that she holds no sentiment over the family crystal.

A dear friend who is considerably younger than me, simply boxed up all her heirlooms and took them to Goodwill, saying it was one of her finest acts of claiming freedom. Another friend lost her home to fire several years ago and was left with nothing but the clothes she was wearing. She mostly feels relieved of the burden of the heirlooms, but laments the loss of special ornaments each Christmas.

Another loved one recently sold her home just after retiring. I helped her pack. There were easily fifty or sixty boxes of heirloom china, objects d’art, silver serving vessels, and beautiful crystal that she must now find places for in her new home. A large shelf in her garage already holds many boxes of things labelled with her granddaughters’ names, to be given when the girls are established and ready for them. She vacillates between feeling deeply connected to her forebears and in bondage to their posessions. She has let go of many beautiful pieces, consigning them to an anticipated garage sale, with both relief and a large measure of guilt.

So what’s to become of it all? Our children live in a throwaway world of cheap, easily available and beautiful things. They enjoy the freedom of ordering just the lampshade or throw rug to complement their trendy decor, knowing that they can change it all easily when they tire of it.

In our mobile society, the connection to generations past is fractured, all but destroyed. There is no wonder to be experienced over a beautiful wooden bread bowl used for decades by their great-great-great-grandmother, or the crocheted bedspread made by their great-great-grandmother with love in every stitch. They have no memories of sitting at a table elegantly set with the treasured finery, and so they lack sentimentality about its disposition. So we, those of us in the last third of our life, must come to difficult and painful conclusions about what is to be done with it all.

I have made the decision that I’ll not stay in bondage to a collection of items, simply because someone who contributed 1/16 of my DNA once had it upon a shelf in their home. And I am struggling to break with the tradition of treasuring an item simply because my mother did. I plan to find new homes for these items among my nieces or perhaps the daughters of friends. It is time to allow someone else to love them, and put them to use rather than to hoard them in a cabinet and dust them once a year. As I anticipate simplifying and streamlining my life and preparing for a move to smaller quarters, it is a necessity.

But I’m keeping the bread bowl and the crocheted bedspread, and perhaps the crystal lemonade set as well. I can find a place for them, wherever I go.

5 thoughts on “Heirlooms: Blessing, Burden, or Bondage?

  1. First off, I loved the article (and I miss your veggies, especially the pears!) but as the child of an unrepentant hoarder…. all this gets even more real. I want to remember the things of value, the heirlooms that actually mean things about my family, the craft pieces that mom created and continues to create. But I can’t. There’s just a looming sense of fear of what will have to be done when ‘the time’ comes and the house has to be liquidated and, I guess, cleaned out.
    I have allergy/asthma issues too (not unrelated to said hoarding) so it will literally be hard and/or impossible physically, not to mention the mental stress that will come with it, to do what needs to be done. Honestly, the hoarding is causing the house to become a derelict anyway, simply due to shame and lack of access for all but the most superficial of maintenance of repairs. Maybe that’s a good thing and I’ll literally (and I don’t mean figuratively) take a torch to it and just walk away after the most basic of walk through for what is there, despite the fact that the most valuable, both fiscally and emotionally, are likely closer to the back and the bottom of the pile(s).
    What causes this? Have people always tended towards the accumulation, even at the cost of health and relationships and burdens on descendants, but didn’t have the means to accomplish it? We live in a consumer based economy that puts forth the idea that more, newer, and replacement things are necessary and that’s part of the problem, but there’s more too, as you so succinctly state in your post above.
    By the way, the recidivism rate of people who clean up the hoard is similar to that of heroin addiction/addicts. That makes it complex, to say the least, but it doesn’t change the fact that it hurts when the elder in question is choosing, actively choosing, to deny descendants any consideration in the big picture. I mean, not the least among the losses for everyone is the fact that my kids, their grandkids, will never stay overnight at their grandparent’s house like I did.
    I find that an immeasurably sad trade off for the ownership of simple things, be it a stack of non-stick pans, antique chamberpots, books, or crafting materials, even a stack of important pictures or handmade quilts isn’t worth it. Plus the folks that made those quilts decades ago bear consideration too, they deserve for those things to be enjoyed, not cached and hoarded for god knows what reason.
    That’s enough. I’m out. Thanks for posting and reading the venting I’m doing here.

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    1. Wow. Clearly I touched a nerve – a raw one – for you. And you bring to life such a sad reality for many. I’m so often reminded of the old biblical adage about sins of the father being visited on the child. I’m of the opinion that many of us children of Depression-Era parents have at least a touch of hoarder in us, and for some it takes deep root and becomes pathological, as in the case of your parent(s). We are infected at an early age with the virus of poverty consciousness, a fear of lack, of scarcity. My own mother had an issue with hoarding food staples, stemming from the days when a stocked pantry meant security. I find myself feeling an ease and comfort after a big grocery shop, no doubt a holdover.
      The sadness in your “rant” is so apparent and I’m sorry your children won’t have the experience with grandparents as you did (and I remember well your mentions of those times). But they will have other good memories and the security of fine, loving parents.
      When “the time” comes, I hope you’ll be able to hire help with the clean out and rescue those treasures you could them imbue with family history, turn them into a treasured legacy for your children, and rescue a bit of yourself in the bargain. Miss you guys more than you know. Thanks for reading and responding.❤

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  2. Damn it. I had 5 paragraphs on this and Lost them when my phone went to sleep. I’ll try again this weekend because you’re right! I have a lot to share on this painful subject. Being the mention one who had a fire 🔥 and Lost much, but actually saved the most precious by giving them to other family members before the fire. The memories will only be lost is not shared with the younger generations, and I have been lacking in that aspect. I need to up that game as do my brothers!
    Major family reunion needs to happen with all generations!

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