The Tyranny of the Family Heirloom

Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff,” reads the Forbes headline. The article explores how so much of what we inherit from our parents does not get saved, but rather donated, sold, or trashed.

“If you’re thinking your grown children will gladly accept your parents' items, if only for sentimental reasons, you’re likely in for an unpleasant surprise.”

I get it: Most of us aren’t buying fine china to entertain with, and we don’t want to be weighed down by more stuff. But despite this article’s pessimism (“‘I don’t think there is a future’ for the possessions of our parents’ generation”), I have faith that we can find creative ways to preserve the heirlooms that matter—and still donate most of their STUFF to charity.

sharing stories and childhood memories through things inherited

So, which heirlooms matter—and which ones are even ‘heirlooms’?

Just because your parents left you everything in their house doesn’t mean you need to keep everything. Or even half. Or any of it. But while you’re assessing their possessions for potential monetary worth, I beg you to spend some time with those things that hold memories.

Consider the historical value (I'm talking family history here) and the sentimental value (and by that, I do not mean feeling guilty that you should hold on to something, but feeling a poignant tug at your heartstrings when you think of a particular item).

Did your father sit in “his chair” to read the newspaper à la Archie Bunker every day? Was that cushioned window seat your mom’s favorite reading nook? Is the painting on the wall an original passed down through generations?

Many of our things are just that—functional things that make our lives comfortable or easier. Many of our things, though, hold stories. Those, in my opinion, are the best heirlooms.

Find treasures to keep as keepsakes. 

Pick one or two things (more if you’re sentimental) that hold special meaning for you, and keep them. I recommend choosing items that you can keep close in some way:

  • a painting, blanket, or piece of furniture that you can incorporate into your home and use on a regular basis;
  • an item of jewelry, a shawl, or some other accessory that you can wear;
  • or something practical that your loved one used that you can, too—such as their e-reader, favorite books, or a kitchen appliance.

Having something tangible from your loved one’s life nearby can be consoling, reassuring, even healing.

Give new life to old items, guilt-free.

Do you adore your dad’s chair in theory, but think it’s ugly as sin? Love the idea of cuddling in your grandmother’s sweater, but hate the style and musty smell? 

Allison Gilbert had her father’s collection of silk neckties woven into a wall hanging, and her grandmother’s handwritten coffee cake recipe memorialized on an everyday plate. She has made an art form out of transforming our loved ones’ STUFF into something meaningful, and details 85 very specific ways to do so in her book Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.

It’s the memories of the things that matter, after all.

A thing is only special if we have enlivened it with some special meaning. It is an heirloom when it has a story to tell—and someone (you?) tells it for posterity.

So once you narrow your lost loved one's belongings to those precious items that hold some emotional value, do something with them. Check out Gilbert's book for ideas (there really is something unique to suit everyone's tastes and values, in my opinion) or come up with something on your own.

Whatever you do, let the stories of those things shine through.

In her family history book, Kathleen Rath Smith remembers how her father would always read in “his” chair next to the radio. “When he came in, we got out of that chair!” We used photographs to show her parents' home and surroundings, and Kathleen as narrator recounts the stories of her childhood.

In her family history book, Kathleen Rath Smith remembers how her father would always read in “his” chair next to the radio. “When he came in, we got out of that chair!” We used photographs to show her parents' home and surroundings, and Kathleen as narrator recounts the stories of her childhood.

Tell the stories of their stuff.

How can you maintain the specialness your loved one's things convey without inheriting the bulk of all that stuff?

How can you transform their things into cherished family heirlooms?

Take pictures of the items before donating them.

Why not consider having your most special items professionally photographed, whether for an heirloom legacy book or for an impactful wall hanging? 

A professional photographer such as The Heirloomist's Shana Novak can turn an artful lens on everyday items, imbuing them with a graphic punch that can be surprisingly emotional. Check out how Bob Woodruff's wife, Lee, turned a pair of her husband's combat boots into a meaningful work of art shot by Novak; or read stories of such seemingly mundane items as a cassette tape, a stuffed bear, and even a set of yellow pencils, brought to life through heirloom photography. The resulting pieces of art preserve your loved one's things visually, and moreover spark conversation so that the stories can be told and retold in the future.

You can now keep these images in remembrance of the loved one you have lost and wish to honor—and unburden yourself of the items themselves.

Don't just capture the stories of your heirlooms, but write them, too.

Whether you jot down memories on an index card and tape it to the back of your photograph or go the extra mile and create an heirloom legacy book from your stories, do tell your stories. We've offered advice on how to use old family photos as memory prompts; so now we thought we'd share examples of how to tell the story of a THING.

Here are two spreads from two different client books, both works in progress. The stories of these things are short vignettes that add insight into the subject's broader stories, but each can stand alone as a short read that honors their memories and begins to create a unique family legacy.

As you can see, the stories of these heirlooms are not really stories of things at all; rather, they are the stories of those who held, touched, and lived with those things. Your heirlooms' stories are the stories of your loved ones.

What things in your life have a special story to tell? What has a deceased parent or grandparent left you that might lend itself to sharing a wonderful story?