Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The family jewels

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! 


  1. It is true that some things have more meaning because I knew the person. I knew my great grandmother, therefore, I love wearing her ring daily and using her candlesticks on Friday nights. I have an apron she sewed for my mum. All these things, I'll pass along to someone else in the future, but none of those people will have ever met my great grandmother. I'll somehow need to convey why I love still having this connection to her. I also took stuff from Josh's grandmothers when his parents were moving. He didn't know if he wanted it, but I wanted to be able to pass it along in the future.

  2. My mom called again today asking me for help in uploading an old family photo of her uncle to Facebook in honour of Remembrance/Veterans Day. She was asking me if I'd ever seen any photos of him in uniform and I said I was sure there were some photos in one of my grandmother's photo albums, which are in a box in the crawl space at my parents' house. I said, "Next time I'm home, we can pull those out & try to do some organizing" -- and that got her lamenting about who's going to want these photos, who's interested? One of her cousins' daughters has shown an interest in the family history, but she's the same age as me and also childless (& unmarried). "So that's another dead end," my mom said. (Yes, she actually said that!)

    I didn't say anything and I think she might have realized that she put her foot in it, because she finally switched the subject! lol

  3. The thing is, we can never figure out what some people will want and what they won't, either. My mother-in-law could never accept that her children wouldn't want absolutely everything in her house! It's been interesting to see what the grandkids want, and it has NOT been what we expected.

    It is sad to think of the lost family histories, but these happen with or without children.

    And I've just read your comment - my jaw has dropped. Mothers don't always say the right thing, do they? Hugs.

  4. I have furniture from my grandparents' house and paintings that my aunt painted and china that was my grandmother's that we never use. I try not to have too much stuff, and my daughter will get it all. But it will have a completely different context to her than it did to me. She might appreciate the vintage 1970s smiley face glasses, but she won't remember drinking from them at anyone's house, because they've been sitting in the china cabinet since before she was born. She might want my mom's jewelry...or she might sell it for the scrap value. Either way, she won't really remember the story about my mom's petty behavior in that one ring design. Sigh...

    Oh well, when she gets the stuff, I'll be dead and won't care. It's her mess to deal with. I should let her know what the semi-valuable stuff is though.