'The Tyranny of the Heirloom'

bronwynsmomJune 26, 2008

This article, about how nearly impossible it is to get rid of something from your family, even if you hate it, ran today on the front page of the Home section of the New York times...I don't know how to add a link, but here's the web page:


It speaks for itself!

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ok, here is the link. It was interesting.


Here is a link that might be useful: here is the link

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 3:08AM
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Thanks for sharing. Great article, but it made me feel very stuffy, like I want to go downstairs and get rid of that old vanity set right now. Can't because I'm too busy. But maybe in my "down time," I can plan its exit from my house.

The article refers to a book. I requested it on inter-library loan. I'll let ya know what I think in the "book recommendation" thread.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 8:14AM
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Boy, does my sister need to see this article.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 10:48AM
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Great article!
The funny thing is...a few days ago I went to Goodwill to donate stuff, when I got there I pulled out a tray and a crock bowl and cover that were my MIL's. I forgot I did that until last evening when I went to use the trunk and remembered I had second thoughts of "throwing away my MIL"

Why are we so attached to our families things?

Who knows...maybe I could store my stockings or something in the crock...like tally sue! Sure glad I kept it! I know I needed it for something!

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 11:55AM
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I went through a little of this recently. My mom had ''collected'' some ugly blue plates in the 1970's and saved them for us. I had way too many of these things, and don't use blue anywhere in my home. My sister was happy to get them for her kids, (do you see a pattern evolving here?) and I could get rid of them. I displayed them for a couple of years, before I finally put them away for good. My mom asks about them once in an while, but you know, that was her collection, not mine.

A friend of ours is also having some difficulty with this. Her husband wanted to do a basement room over, and they've spent some serious money getting it just right. The only thing that's creating disharmony in the room are some chairs he got from his grandmother that don't fit the serene quality of the space. They keep moving them around, hoping to make them fit, but there's no way they're ever going to. They're not chairs anyone wants to ever sit in, and his ''memory'' of them isn't serving their reality well. I say take a picture, and then adopt furniture that feels great to use because you actually want to use it.

I liked what the article said about having furniture that made someone an undesirable roommate! We also have some dead relatives that would make sense to take a photocopy of, so we can lose the actual picture. I'm never going to give them valuable wall space in my home, but it would be nice to preserve the picture in a more ''habitable'' way.

You know, I went through a little of this went I got rid of some of my own stuff I'd had for years at a yard sale I had last year. My memories are what kept me holding on, yet they didn't really fit my current life anymore. The thing is, I don't miss them, but what I would miss if I'd kept them is how much more efficiently I can manage my life now.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 1:00PM
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"My memories are what kept me holding on, yet they didn't really fit my current life anymore. The thing is, I don't miss them, but what I would miss if I'd kept them is how much more efficiently I can manage my life now."

That is a good thing to remember and will have to remind myself of it often when I need to get rid of something that is grabbing onto my heart strings. If I no longer use something it is just blocking me from putting something that I do use and enjoy using in its place.

Thank you!

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 2:12PM
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I sent this along because it went right to the point for me, too.
At the risk of sounding a little sniffy, I will tell you that my family has been in Virginia for eleven generations, but of course after the Civil War (my mother calls it the War Between the States, one of my grandmothers called it the War of Northern Aggression, and my great-grandmother is said to have called it the Late Unpleasantness...), none of us had anything left except one or two good pieces of furniture and some china and silver and a few portraits. Some families still have their gorgeous property and fine plantation houses and all their contents, but we were all scholars and preachers and didn't have much to start with. My mother often says they barely noticed the Depression, living in the creaky old house the church provided and her father's tiny vicar's salary with the same old stuff and lots of books and a piano and a talent for making their own fun.
So why am I going on about this? Because that history absolutely soaked every single possession with meaning, and about five or six years ago, when all the old ladies in my family on both sides either died or moved into little retirement places, I had a big house and a basement and a reputation in the family for stewardship, and so I became the repository for everything.
I have finally distributed most of it, but there is much more to be done, and it has taken this long for me to separate myself from the sense of curatorial responsibility and family history that allows me to keep on with the process.
If only it were all gorgeous Antiques Roadshow treasures...but it isn't. It's just old, and was cheap make-do stuff a hundred years ago.
Over those years, I have spent $11,000 on storage for things that would probably bring $4,000 on a good day at auction. That realization was the last piece of the puzzle, and now I am on the road to finishing the job. But, oh, brother!
For those of you in the same situation...move on. Let the stuff find another home. Make someone who shops at the thrift store very happy. I am living proof that it is better to rip off the band-aid than to peel it slowly in the hope that it won't hurt. Slow hurts a lot worse!

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 4:03PM
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bronwynsmom...what a story...I get chills everytime I read it. My heart goes out to you.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 5:01PM
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Man, I need to do this, bronwynsmom! The stuff I'm "curating" isn't even that old.

I keep thinking that if our house burned down, there isn't anything that I'd miss other than the living creatures in it. Everything I really need and use is replaceable to some extent. Okay, important papers would be a pain to lose, but not for sentimental reasons.

The family things (old pictures and papers) are interesting to look at, but I wouldn't be heartbroken if it were all gone.

Another reason not to buy so much stuff in the first place.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2008 at 5:13PM
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Bronwynsmom, I can't relate to that but I do know so many people that do hold on to things because someone else loved it. I do feel for you because I can't imagine what a tug of w-a-r that is. The more people that die in their family the more things they get that they don't love.

My mom recently died and we went through some of her stuff last weekend and going again tomarrow. The only things that I really wanted was my grandmothers ring (she died 12 years ago) because it reminds me of her and my mom has two little angel ornaments from the 50's that I always loved. To anyone else the angels would have went in the garbage. My mom does have some nice things but they were her choices and not mine and I really won't miss them.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2008 at 10:57AM
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I've been getting rid of some "heirlooms" too. Example: some pretty hand-embroidered pillowcases my mother made (and some I made) which aren't being used because (1)they require ironing, and (2)they're too small for our pillows. Solution: ran across a woman on another forum who makes cute little-girl clothes out of them. I didn't even ask if the offspring want them, as I know for a fact they have no interest at all in "family heirlooms." It's a start.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2008 at 12:05PM
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Great ida nan nc...to check over on a craft forum and see if they would want some of our handmade stuff to create something new. That would make it easier to give them away for me than to just donate them to goodwill.
Thank you for the idea.

Also I wanted to say this post title is also on the Decorating forum incase anyone would like to see what other folks had to say on it!
Actually I found one of the posts very interesting about a gal who wishes they had more from the DH grandfather and only have a deod. and an aftershave bottle which they treasure.
Two sides to every situation!

    Bookmark   June 28, 2008 at 2:23PM
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Some could almost call it "The Curse of the Heirloom" and I can relate to much of this. I have in my possession a platform rocker that is probably going on 140+ years, and has been passed on for 5 generations now from daughter to oldest daughter. I have two daughters, and neither one shows an interest in it. It's no longer in the best of shape, and it doesn't "go" with anything else I have, but I am the designated curator of it, being the daughter in my generation. I'd like to donate it to a museum, if one would take it. I also, being the daughter in the family, have all the "good china" from both grandmothers, and am trying to send one set on to someone - a male cousin's daughter turned it down "because we don't have room in our little apartment, and I want to pick out my own china". Smart girl! So that gets donated to the upcoming church rummage sale. I wonder if this is just a problem of the modern age - so much accumulated "stuff" that just piles up and piles up and gets passed on as a cumbersome inheritance of sorts. Do we place too much meaning and importance on material things nowdays? (Don't even get me started on my one sister-in-law's home - I think she has china and linens from every woman in her family - and mine - for 3 generations back - - in fact she recently gave me a crocheted cloth that some unknown aunt of mine had made decades ago, thinking I needed it because it was my relative, not hers, and the craft idea sounds good - or the Goodwill. Hope that doesn't sound too heartless!

    Bookmark   June 28, 2008 at 6:56PM
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I also have some crocheted tablecloths my grandmother made; my other grandmother's cedar chest (she ruined it..put mothballs in everything; but it's useful as a TV stand in the bedroom); some costume jewelry Mom gave me;, a four-drawer box of buttons and sundry items, some VERY old; and other assorted tidbits that no one else could possibly want except a serious button collector. Got to get rid of them!

    Bookmark   June 28, 2008 at 8:19PM
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I don't really understand why people hold on to things that they don't even like because it belonged to so and so. The only problem with that is your children will have to keep it because you did and on and on.

Is it that you feel that it is disrespectful or you are giving away part of _______?

It is just a thing when you look at the whole picture. I do have a few friends that have that issue with things from relatives and they can't part with it. Why?

    Bookmark   June 28, 2008 at 9:12PM
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I don't get it either!

Certainly when your ancestors bought__________ (fill in the blank), they did NOT intend that purchase to be such trouble for future generations.

I would think they would be upset to know that their relatives are so stressed about it....

Use it, or bless someone else by getting rid of it!

    Bookmark   June 28, 2008 at 10:05PM
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I like everyday things. I don't have any interest in my mother's jewelry that she never wears because she's saving it for "good". It is meaningless to me.

My favorite "heirloom" is two blue ceramic mixing bowls that went with her electric mixer. They were always in use, and have good memories attached. Now my children use them, too. I will be sad when the inevitable happens and one of them gets broken.

My mother thinks I'm a little odd. :)

BTW, I'd LOVE that tin of old buttons someone mentioned. It wouldn't take up much space, and I'd enjoy getting it out and searching through them occasionally. In fact, I think I'll ask my mother if she has such a thing. Just so she can think I'm even more odd.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2008 at 12:13AM
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nan nc...Don't get rid of the buttons! Looks like susan would love them and my thoughts were crafty people would love them too. We had a shop that made pins and things out of old buttons and they were lovely!
Find some one who would treasure them!

    Bookmark   June 29, 2008 at 9:35AM
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Here's another thought: divest some of the cherished stuff stuff too!

I'd been curating (love that concept) a doll made for my mother in the late 1950's by nuns, on the occasion of her being discharged from their hospital after gall bladder surgery. The nuns joked she just didn't look right leaving without a baby in her arms after going 9 for 9. Enter lovely "raggedy Mary" with yarn braids, cross stitched face and her name embroidered on the hand made clothes. When my mother died in 1984, that was the thing I took and kept. Comforted me through several rough times.

Preparing to travel out east recently for a neice's baby shower, I got the urge to pass the ragdoll on. Tossed her in my suitcase, and my sister and I spent an evening washing, repairing and restuffing her, etc. She did need a serious freshening after sitting on a shelf here for decades!

Way cool to gift baby Anna her great grandmother's doll.

And not a dry eye at the shower.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2008 at 11:26PM
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I am getting better at realizing - my family is not their stuff. I have gotten rid of family junk recently and been happy to. I haven't regretted any release yet. I just wish DH would do the same. He still has his grandfather's shirts - who died in 1982 and the shirts didn't fit him in the first place! He also has a rusty old cabinent that was his grandmother's in the basement - it's too rusty to store anything but there it sits.

Remember - the STUFF is not the memories. The STUFF is not the people. The STUFF is just STUFF.

My mom recently offered me a washbowl & pitcher that was my grandmothers. It was "antique" but was UGLY the day it was made & the years hadn't helped. I declined - just told my mom that I don't have room. That washtable set is not my grandma - it's just her STUFF.

My dear friend who is 97 years old has a tiny 1 BR appartment. She has very few posessions - but such a spirit of peace that people are drawn to her. When she goes to her reward, she won't be burdening her family with a lot of STUFF. She is my hero!

    Bookmark   July 5, 2008 at 11:35PM
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So many different ways at looking at the same "stuff." I myself am attached to and surrounded by my family's old stuff, so I don't understand the "just stuff" attitude. My house is full of stuff, a lot of which I use all the time, a lot of which is stuck in boxes. They aren't even heirlooms, just things that have accumulated - crocheted tablecloths, sets of china and crystal, odd plates and bowls won by my grandmothers at Bingo 60-70 years ago!

I admit I don't know what to do with a lot of it, and since I don't have a "decorated" house it doesn't much matter here. Before "stuff" was so easy to acquire and accumulate everybody recycled what they had until it broke or wore out or they could pass it on. I do get a kick out of using it, though, and once I made a pinfore out of an eyelet lace shower curtain. It was adorable.

I also have a lot of plain old clutter - drawings from my kids and gkids, stuff like that - that I can't seem to get rid of, either. Every time I run across something like that, I get misty. What a nut, eh? My memories are in my head, but I love the jog my memories get when I see the actual item.

I'll quit rambling now. Even my brain is cluttered!

    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 12:02PM
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Bronwynsmom -- thank you so much. I bookmarked the article and will share it with others.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2008 at 7:21PM
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Melissa Houser

Jumping in here, I agree with a few people about some stuff just being STUFF. When my mom died in 2004, I took a UHaul to her house and filled it with whatever my brother (the sole beneficiary, long story) didn't want.

I unloaded it all into my house and spent a couple of months going through everything. As I eliminated either mom's things, or mine, I'd have a weekend give away to other family members. First, I'd call the family members who said "I want __________ (specific item)" and then, if they didn't take whatever was out there, I'd put out an all call to everyone else. Since mom had 17 brothers and sisters who all have grown children, most of that stuff went quickly. Anything left after that went either to charity or the garbage.

I kept a couple of things that mom had verbally promised to me or my sister, but got rid of most of it. The biggest item is mom's china cabinet. She promised it to my sister, who is in Kansas (I'm in FL). I still have the china cabinet and am about to either give it to another family member, or sell it because my sister has made no effort to get the cabinet.

I've kept mom's china and a few other glass pieces, but I plan to build in a set of glass door cabinets in my dining area for that display. I also plan to start using the china and glasses daily now that my children are older. I subscribe to the use it up school.

I also kept a bird's eye maple antique dresser that mom and I found on a garage-saling expedition several years before her death. I have fond memories of her and that trip.

The most useful acquisition from my mom's house has been her collection of kitchen towels. Since I'm not overly fond of paper towels, I use a ton of kitchen towels a day. Mom's ton, plus my own collection, get lots of use.

I also kept a couple of pretties from her house and the living room tables she owned.

Everything else from that 24 foot UHaul went out the door, including mom's full-size sleigh bed and custom made bedding. I sold all of that to an aunt for $100 (long story). Mom was 5 foot 3 inches tall and the sleigh bed was perfect for her. I'm 5 foot 8 inches tall and my feet hit the bottom slat, which isn't comfy for me. My aunt adores the bed and it makes her feel closer to her sister, win win win.

The absolute best thing I kept out of mom's house was something I almost threw away. Mom used two specific perfumes for most of her adult life, Cinnabar and Beautiful. She was the type to dress to the nines daily, including perfume, so many of the family members remember mom's scent first and foremost. For some reason, I kept all of mom's nearly empty bottles...and she saved them all.

Every one of my female relatives asked for one of mom's perfume bottles. I even kept one for me...and that's one item that I'll never give away. The bit of scent that's still on there is like having my mom near me always.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2008 at 10:08PM
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One problem with some heirlooms is they don't "hit" at the right time. So those things get "let go" and then some years later folks are trolling the antique mall for just the same thing, either because it's in style now, or maybe specifically reminds someone of a treasured memory or relative.

I don't have any kind of rant about that; it's just a fact of life. A grandparent may move to assisted living, or die, and the grown children have fully-furnished homes, and the grandkid is still in the college dorm and has no use for furniture or dishes, then, whammo, 4 or 5 yrs later, the kid needs all kinds of "stuff", and maybe 10 or more years later, would finally appreciate "antique" or vintage somethings. In some cases, it would be of no use for the g-kid to have had access to the grandparent's items, because they had no "connection;" other times, there IS a connection, but the kid just has no way of keeping and moving such items at that stage of their lives.

This isn't an advertisement for a family member to become the storage unit, but just to recognize that a handy attic, "spare" room or other place with unused, but usable, things in some kind of hibernation isn't completely useless, at least not in the scheme of conservation of money, effort, and memories. It IS a problem if it discomfits the storing-person, or is actually costing major $$ to store (rented storage or staying in a big house just to house the "stuff"), or if the stuff is prone to deteriorating.

And of course, you will never know just which item(s) will be of use or interest down the road.

So I keep that in mind at say, estate sales; sometimes you can tell the actual home must have been totally cluttered and cramped (still a personal judgement, though something I hope to avoid) vs. a person or family having saved usable furniture, extra set of dishes, tools, whatever, but not crumbling trash-- in the attic or some closets and feeling, hey, it's not bothering me, and I have a reason to keep it for "heir-looms".

It is a good philosophy to look at "things" as though they should be in use, and not just storage, and so we may have an obligation of sorts to benefit someone else rather than hoarding, but it only takes a tweak of that philosophy to get to, I've got these perfectly good whatevers that we ought to use within the family, maybe in the younger generations, rather than spending more money to get something new. So, yeah, storing for 50 years may sound excessive, but likely it didn't start out with that intent.

It's also a commentary on how soon a lot of people these days accumulate all that they may need or want and how we do insist on everything being just our way or our style. That's not wrong at all, but it may be a departure from the goal of conserving family wealth and possesions.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2008 at 10:53AM
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Frankie, that's an interesting take, and I agree about the problem of making sure that the grandchildren will have a piece of family history if they want it.
I have found that my biggest difficulty comes when I hold some thing or other in my hand and ask myself, now, what is the best possible disposition of this one thing? My pesky perfectionism results in a grossly overcomplicated process, and I am then in danger of just glazing over and wandering off.
But you said the most important thing, which is that when keeping things becomes a burden of any kind, let them go, without requiring certainty that you did exactly the right thing with them.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2008 at 11:37AM
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I can SO relate to this thread! My mom died two months ago, leaving behind a four-bedroom house crammed with nice stuff. She was an American pressed glass collector, had family antiques and lots of family pictures, and nice furniture. My brother and I are selling her house so we had to empty it. We gave some of the furniture to local family members and invited them to take whatever they wanted from the house. We hired an estate sale company to sell the rest, but it wasn't a good weekend and there was still a lot left over. My brother flew into Seattle from his home in VA one weekend and we carried everything else to the garage so the real estate agent could do his thing. My brother wanted everything else to go to the landfill, but there was so much usable stuff I couldn't bear to see it destroyed. I made a couple of trips to Goodwill with as much as I could get it in the car, and took some more of it home. Now MY garage is loaded with boxes of unsold glass, family photos, etc. I'm taking more to Goodwill and planning to sell some on Ebay.

My discomfort with this process exists on a couple of levels:

1) I have always tried to recycle and reuse useful items. If I can't reuse it myself I'm quite willing to sell or donate those items to someone else, but dumping stuff in the landfill drove me crazy.

2) I tend to get emotional about family photos. Mom was pretty well organized, but I may not recognize some of the people. However, I just couldn't stand the thought of throwing their snaps away. (I'm hoping I can get over this.)

    Bookmark   July 22, 2008 at 2:14PM
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You will, indeed, get beyond it. I am so sorry to hear of your mother's death. Having to do this in such a headlong way must have been awful, but later you may see it as a blessing.

Keep the photographs. There is no reason not to put them all in an attractive box somewhere, and deal with them later, when it is easier, and you can enjoy it. I have very old photographs and Daguerrotypes of people I don't recognize, too. Throwing them away feels as if you are relegating the last vestige of their existence to the trash, as though they never lived at all. You aren't, of course, but the power of the image of a human face is significant...it's no wonder that some primitive peoples believed that a photograph captured their spirits.
Just give yourself time. It's part of the loss of your mother. Grief takes the time it takes, and does what it does. You are entitled to handle it however you need to.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2008 at 5:12PM
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