Family Heirlooms: A Thing of the Past

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

Grandma’s antique clock and Aunt Minnie’s parlor lamps are orphans in the family of millennial design.This generation has a life style that does not include heirlooms passed down from Boomer parents or Greatest Generation grandparents.

heirlooms, heirloom silver, silver dining servicePeople live longer; creating a sandwich generation of downsizing. The hope is that treasured family heirlooms like heavy furniture, ornately patterned china and endless knick-knacks will find new homes with children and grandchildren. The harsh truth is; nobody wants them.

Millennials are minimalists. They are nomads living in small spaces with no room for sentiment and stuff.

Heirlooms: Thanks…But No Thanks

So it was with my mother’s china. She offered it to all of us when she was alive and no one put their hand up, including me.

The ornate design clashed with my all-white-all-the-time dinnerware and I felt certain one of my sisters would take it—but none did.  When Mom died and Dad moved to assisted living, I packed it up and brought it home.

Grandma's heirlooms, yard saleWhen we moved, I could not bear the thought of giving her dishes away. Fifty years of holiday memories were stored in the tea cup I held in my hand; the dishes moved with us to Florida. I am determined to use them, even if it’s just a piece or two.

Mom’s dishes are my connection to family gatherings. Although I do not love the color or the pattern, I love the memories they hold. As a young girl I was invited to join the grown-ups for dessert and drank tea from one of those bone china cups. It is one of my most treasured memories.

Treasures and Memories

Heirlooms and memories are deeply entwined. My husband and I had treasures from both families, as well as our own, but was time to let them go. We downsized and committed to taking less. That meant finding homes for things that weren’t making the trip.

Our kids took small things but left the rest. We held an estate sale, hoping the new owners would love our antiques just as we had. A twenty-five-year collection of green Depression glass brought great joy to its new owner and reassurance to me. I kept three pieces that were carefully selected for our new home.

Trash or Treasure

Family heirlooms connect us to our past.  Regardless of how old we are, heirlooms evoke memories tying us to generations before us. I feel this connection through things, but millennials do not see the need for possessions to remember their past.

Trash or Treasure, heirlooms,They are more Ikea than antique, and likely live in an apartment rather than a house.  Limited space is not taken up with their grandparent’s bulky furniture and mom’s Hummel collection. Theirs is a digital world; storing memories in the cloud or an iPhone.

What we see as treasure they see as trash. When it’s time to pass it along, nobody wants it.  Sentimental value has no place in the itinerant millennial life.

Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Last weekend found me snowbound up in Boston. I took full advantage of the weather by joining two of my besties in Maine for an extended pajama party until I could get a flight home.

We stayed in my friends newly purchased condo. They bought it from an elderly woman and are renovating it. The family handled the sale, offering the contents to their family and friends. To them, everything was disposable. What remained was heading for a dumpster when my friend asked to go through the leftovers before their final journey.

The kitchen cupboards held antique china plates without so much as a utensil scratch, along with vintage glass bowls and serving pieces. The sunroom had old-fashioned heavy wicker furniture—not the lightweight resin you find today. Each room showcased the owner’s hand-painted artwork. Though she was gone, her presence lingered in things left behind.

A Surfeit of Sentiment

At first, I struggled to fathom why these beautiful items remained; then a sharp reminder of moving my Dad to assisted living jolted me out of sentimentality. Sixty years of living around the world filled his home. When Mom died, he began ‘collecting’ things, refusing to part with any of them.

I get it. After spending weeks sorting through the house, offering items to siblings, relatives and friends, I was ready to call the junk truck and be done with it. Turns out it was four junk trucks and by then I was emotionally numb and exhausted. I went from sentimental to not caring.

There is only so much you can do. Though she may not realize it, my friend gave the owner’s children a gift by offering to go through their mom’s possessions, and she kept much of what remained. Not because she wanted to spare these items the fate of the dumpster, but because she genuinely loves and appreciates each piece.

Love It or Leave It

In the right set of circumstances, anything can be discarded. Space constraints, external pressures, and the enormity of the task turn sentimental into disposable.  Deciding what stays and what goes becomes deeply personal. Heirlooms that meant something to someone else may not mean something to us.

Love it or leave it, heirlooms, Boomer generationI could not take everything but lovingly touched each piece before I let it go, remembering the joy it brought. I kept items that were small and useful; reminders of people and places. Items I did not love or could not fit into our downsized life were released.

The millennial trend is high tech, sparse and clean. They remember the generations that came before them differently. Overfilled and cluttered rooms are a thing of the past.

I am learning to accept that in our children; they want to hear stories, see photos and gather around the table to share family recipes, which I happily pass down.

When the time comes, each of us makes our own case for what is kept, what gets passed down and what and how we let go.

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