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.