I was talking on the phone to my mother this past weekend. She had been talking with one of her cousins -- her youngest cousin on her mother's side of the family (who is now in her mid-60s). Youngest Cousin had mentioned that she has an apron that belonged to their grandmother (my great-grandmother), and that got them wondering about different things that had always been at my grandmother's house (which had also been my great-grandmother's house, originally).
(I titled this post "The family jewels," but we're not talking anything truly valuable here in terms of money -- although some of the antique-y stuff might be worth a little something. Most of the actual value would be sentimental.)
My mom & sister took some things home, when they cleaned out my grandparents' old house, and then their apartment, after they both died. My uncle & his family took other things. I have a few precious keepsakes here myself. But there are other things that seem to have vanished. What happened to them? Who has them now?
And then my mother posed the question: what's going to happen to these things, once my mother and her generation of cousins are gone? Who will it all go to, eventually? And will those who inherit them realize their significance, know the stories behind them?
My mom & her brother have 10 cousins on that side of the family. Of those 12 cousins total (including my mom & my uncle), 8 had children -- 18 in all (including me & my sister), most of whom are now in their 40s & 50s. Of those 18, just 7 have had kids. (Youngest Cousin's two kids are the youngest of the 18 -- 27 & 30. There's still time for them to have families, although my impression is that the daughter is not interested.) And, as my mother remarked, not all of the 7 who have kids have shown much interest in the family history or in getting to know their extended family. The "stuff" probably wouldn't mean as much to them.
It's a variation on the old "who's going to want my stuff when I'm gone?" question that plagues the childless (and that I've written about here several times before)... and I hung up feeling slightly irked that my mother had (unintentionally -- or not?) reminded me of my failure to provide her with grandchildren.
But our conversation brought home to me a couple of important points.
First, everyone -- whether you have kids, and maybe ESPECIALLY if you don't! -- needs to have a will and powers of attorney. I'm not sure whether I've mentioned this here before, but dh & I (finally!) had our wills drawn up about 10 years ago. A will doesn't have to be a complicated thing. The lawyer told us he didn't need a detailed accounting of our assets, or any accounting at all, for that matter. He just needed to know who we wanted to leave our estate to, in what proportions, and who we wanted as executors. For us, that was a pretty simple matter.
I did ask him about "stuff." Most of our estate will go to our nephews, but there are certain little things -- like the things I have from my grandmother's house -- that wouldn't mean anything to them, but might mean something to one of my cousins' kids. I was told I could draw up a list of who should get what, and that could be attached to the will. (I still need to do that!) I have already started giving some "heirloom" items to some of my cousins' kids. In one case, I was disappointed with the lack of acknowledgement/appreciation; a second gift to a different cousin's daughter was better received (and she did message with me thanks after her mom messaged me first, as I noted in the linked post). (I guess I know who to leave some of my other things to now, right?)
Second, if we want people to appreciate the things we want to leave to them, we need to make sure they understand their significance. Not everything is going to be meaningful or valuable to them -- we have to realize that -- but they'll be more likely to find our things interesting and worthy if we take the time to tell them the stories behind them -- to talk about about the people who originally owned them -- and explain why we think THEY should have them. To help them make that connection.
And finally, I think all of us, childless or not, have to realize that not everyone is going to be as interested in these things as we are. It helps when you have a connection to the things and to the people who originally owned them. But once we're gone, it's out of our control. I'll never know for sure whether the crystal candy dish that my mom's cousin sent me from Ireland as a wedding present finds its place on a family member's Christmas dinner table or gets sent to the thrift store.
Plus, it's seriously impossible to keep everything -- and not everything is worth keeping. (I realized this when I had to downsize my possessions before moving into a condo that was a whole lot smaller than the smallish house we'd lived in for 26 years.) A few well-chosen keepsakes with stories and meaning behind them will mean a whole lot more than a lot of random junk.
I'm still thinking through these issues, but I'd love to know what you think!