Reading: Hated Heirlooms: Why No One Wants Your Stuff

Downsizing

Hated Heirlooms: Why No One Wants Your Stuff

If you truly love someone, you can let go of all their crap

By Sara Schwartz

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor

One day, this will all be yours!

It seems like a well-intentioned sentiment about passing the things you love on to your children, but in reality? It’s a veiled threat.

When it comes time to right-size, all those cherished memories wrapped up in your embroidered tablecloths are most likely yours alone. It hurts to say, but it’s true nonetheless: no one wants your stuff. 

“You cannot snowball it forward,” says Marni Jameson, a downsizing expert and author of Downsizing the Family Home: What to Save, What to Let Go. “You have your own full house, your parents had a full house, your kids are going to have a full house if they don’t already. You can’t have three houses full of stuff — the math just doesn’t work.”

Dispersing the Goods

The good news is there are plenty of ways to disperse the goods without dumping everything on your kids’ doorsteps. The bad news is that actually doing any of them can be an emotional roller coaster — letting go is a lot trickier than just touching your candlesticks to figure out how much joy they bring you. Here’s what experts say about how to get into the right mindset.

Be Realistic

The first thing to do is to convince your parents (or yourself!) that what they own isn’t worth as much as they think it is, Jameson says.

“Unless you come from a family with tremendous pedigree and provenance, you probably don’t have much that’s worth a lot,” she continues. “If you liquidated everything in the average home [in] America down to the teaspoons, it’s worth about $5,000. And people think it’s multiples of that.”

Understanding what has worth and what has worth to you is key. When it comes to valuables, make sure you’re keeping items that mean something to you. Phillip Thomas, founder and principal of Phillip Thomas Inc., says that antiques and collections have to speak to the individual who owns them. 

“They have to evoke something from the individual who lives with them. The items can range from the most mundane, such as old glass bottles, to items that are far more elevated, such as tortoiseshell boxes,” he says.

When it comes to selling things, mid-century modern furniture has a big appeal right now, but large furniture from other eras probably isn’t wanted. “I find that larger pieces, such as chests and armoires, from before the 20th century carry little worth as they are hard to place in today’s interiors,” Thomas says.

And what about collectibles?

“Collectible stuff is completely overblown,” Jameson notes. “Whether it’s Lladro, or Hummel or Norman Rockwell, that stuff really is worthless. All the fancy China is pretty valueless.”

Collections, unfortunately, are unlikely to find a home. But you can try. Reach out to first-degree family members, then past that. Take advantage of eBay and Craigslist.

Be Choosy 

When it comes time to decide what heirlooms and possessions you actually want, Jameson recommends picking a few things that resonate. “Incorporate them so you have a connection to your past, but do not feel that you have to take everything,” she says. “I have my dad’s cigar box, I have a painting that my parents had in our kitchen my whole life and I put it in my kitchen.”

And focus on quality, not quantity: “I think when everybody tries to keep everything, nothing is important. When everything seems important, nothing is important. It just becomes so much stuff,” she says. “Go for the precious and few, versus the big: Take the pearls, not the piano.”

Ask if your parents would be open to other relatives taking their items. Don’t lean on your kids to pick up the slack for both your parents and yourself. “Really ask your kids, “Hey, is there anything in this house that when the day comes and I’m no longer here, you would like, and if they say no, believe them!”

Be Patient

When facing a mountain of stuff, a long to-do list, and days of sweating and sorting, it’s easy to lose your temper. But try to remain patient and respectful, recommends Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist.

“If it’s parents who are going through their things and these things are meaningful, it’s really important to be respectful of the meaning that they give it,” she says. This might mean that if it’s integral that you absolutely must take that armoire, take it and deal with it later. “Sometimes you have to wait until they’re gone to get rid of things,” notes Hanks. 

Pay It Forward

This isn’t a directive to toss with abandon, but to be cognizant that you can’t take it with you, and neither can your heirs. If you’re lucky enough to have parents alive, have the conversations needed to learn what will happen with the furniture, jewelry, art, and everything else. Tape notes or create a file that designates who gets what. For the items not claimed that you think have value, find someone who will appreciate them.

“I always think is there someone else in the world who could use this and who would value it more than I do,” Hanks says. “And you know, if it’s shoes or coats or clothes or books, a lot of times the answer is yes, there’s someone in the world who could use this, so let’s pass it on.”

For yourself, declutter early and often. It doesn’t have to be done all at once. Focusing on a room or even a dresser is progress.

“If you Marie Kondo the hell out of your house, then those stories might go away for a future generation,” Novak says (see Shana Novak in Resources, below).

Resources:

For all media, consider Legacy Box, which digitizes everything neatly into a thumb drive (tiny!), DVD, or the cloud. This way, you can also reach out to relatives and combine memories for sharing.

New York City still life photographer Shana Novak has found a very distinct and special way to preserve these memories. She started the aptly named initiative, The Heirloomist, a still life photography concept that takes people’s precious belongings — tennis shoes, No. 2 pencils, a folded note — and turns them into framed pieces of fine art.

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