The Half-Life of Family Heirlooms

Recently, when I served dessert to women friends around my grandmother’s dining room table, we described our uneasy relationship with the objects the women of our families treasured.

Now when we have homemade cookies, we store them in Mimmie Shriner’s Depression glass instead of saving it for good.

Women of the Greatest Generation, like my mother, cared about “good” china, crystal, and real silverware. They hoped to get full sets of it as wedding presents, and they cherished their mother’s and grandmother’s things. For them, the hope chest tradition was alive and well. They collected china and linens before they married and instilled that value in my Baby Boom friends and me. But our Millennial kids don’t want to fuss with handwashing goblets or ironing tablecloths. Not that I blame them. I don’t either. Nonetheless, my friends and I are distressed about what to do with the tableware and linens we’ve inherited. Let alone the quilts, furniture, and photographs.

We were brought up to value them, but the tableware really doesn’t make much sense in our lives. Where do you keep it between holidays? Wouldn’t holiday meals be less work if all your dishes could go in the dishwasher? And yet, this stuff mattered so much to our mothers. How can we just donate it to charity? But people do—Goodwill is full of 12-piece place settings with dainty floral borders. I’ve seen Waterford crystal goblets there too.

Articles like,No One Wants Your Stuffhave taught me to rethink my assumptions. The popularity of books like The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaningand The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up make clear that either I can purge my stuff or my kids will.

Mimmie Shriner’s table where she served her out-of-work relatives on Sundays during the Depression

I’m becoming reconciled to the half-life of memories. When my siblings, first cousins, and I—the last people to remember Mimmie Shriner or Grandma Pleitz—are gone, my grandmothers will become “ancestors” instead of the vivid people they are in my head. Mimmie’s dining room table will just be an antique table, and Grandma Pleitz’s crystal goblets will just be wine glasses. Their significance is in my memories; my sons and any future daughters-in-law don’t have those associations—they never knew my grandmothers.

Many evenings, I sip wine from one of Grandma Pleitz’s eight goblets.

Yet the objects are a visible reminder of past generations—hardworking, loving women who wanted pretty things in their lives. How can I honor the memory of these women without feeling burdened by their stuff? One way I’ve chosen is to use the good crystal and china even if it isn’t a holiday. When it chips or breaks, I throw it out. That way my grandmothers come to mind and are more present in my life. If their tablecloths get shrunk or stained—so be it. At least they got used and enjoyed. Likewise, I honor my grandmothers by keeping a few things I really like so I can look at them often. Finally, I remind myself that heritage doesn’t reside in the objects alone. It’s also passed down through our family’s recipes, traditions, stories, and values.

Mimmie put hairpins in this small handpainted dish. I never put salt Grandma Pletiz’s salt cellars, but I still like them.

I accept that my sons and future daughters-in-law may not care about my stuff—whether inherited or chosen during 30+ years of marriage. If they do, they will have different memories than mine. I hope they only keep what they care about.

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10 thoughts on “The Half-Life of Family Heirlooms

  1. This is such an important topic. When my beloved grandmother passed, I was blessed to receive her mahogany hope chest, along with her china, silverware, a beautiful bedspread like piece with a scene of the Virgin Mary hand painted on it that I have no idea what to do with. I also have all of her photo albums beginning with when she and my grandfather married, and a large painted portrait of her and my grandfather in their middle years. To my astonishment, her own children, my father and aunt, didn’t want any of it. My father only wanted the hope chest so he could sell it, but thankfully my great aunt stuck up for me and said she heard my grandmother say she wanted me to have it. I also have her parents’ (my great-grandparents) giant trunk that they packed their belongings in when they came over to America from Sicily. It’s up in the loft in our garage doing nothing, but I cannot bear to get rid of it. I cherish all of these items and I will never get rid of them. I will think carefully about who to leave them to, though admittedly once they are in someone else’s hands, what they do with it is out of their control. Like you, I use the china on holidays or when I have dinner parties, but I have to admit I can’t deal with having to clean the silver so I avoid using it.

    • Your grandmother probably believed her special things were her main legacy, though of course, it is much wider than that. Wonderful that you respect and treasure her things. Think of all the stories behind the objects!

  2. I like your idea of actually using your mother’s treasured heirlooms. It’s a way of honoring her and being practical as well. I still have the china set I got when I was married, and lots of other old dishes that belonged to my relatives. But I also use them whenever we have large family gatherings. Still, the only thing that makes them precious is the memories associated with them. So if I can’t remember who gave me something and I don’t use it regularly, I do get rid of it.

  3. Such a timely post as I struggle with what to keep and what to let go of, made more challenging by the day as two loved ones in their 90s are passing on things to me that they hope I will once treasure as they did.

    • Taking their feelings into account makes the project so hard. They want someone to love what they have loved. I think they consider it to be part of their legacy, and of course, we want to honor that. When I was dealing with my mother’s things and her sister’s belongings, I tried hard to keep in mind that their lives and legacies were so much more than their things. It was hard though. A lot of angst and tears.

  4. This was a tough one for me, given my parents’ lives as collectors of beautiful things. I kept my favorites, but it was overwhelming. Their estate sale drew people around the block. With no one to pass things onto, I understand Ellen’s sentiments. Luckily, my family used our old stuff for everyday, even silverware. This essay resonated with me on many levels. Thanks! ❤️

    • Your parents had SO many wonderful things. I’m glad you kept your favorites. Letting go of the stuff is hard, but for me what’s even harder is accepting that my sons don’t have the memories to draw on.

    • I still do like the idea of making the table look nice, but I’ve broadened my sense of what occasions call for it. However, I agree with you about losing something of value when we let go of fine things–sometimes convenience is over-rated.

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