Unwanted family heirlooms

June 2024
Phyllis Shragge

“My kids don’t want any of my things,” my friend says, her voice quavering.  She’s obviously not referring to the clothes buried in the back of her closet, relegated to that spot because they are now too tight.  And she’s not talking about her extensive book collection, mostly novels, nor anything else she’s accumulated in recent years.

She’s lamenting the things she treasures, the family heirlooms and wedding gifts from so long ago, special things that hold a place in her heart. These items mean so much more than their monetary value.

She describes the bone china dishes she inherited from her mother.  “They’re pure white and trimmed with gold, simple and elegant,” she says.  “They’re fragile and need loving care.” 

She recalls her childhood, when it was taken for granted that the fine bone china would adorn the dining room table for weekly Shabbat dinners and for every holiday meal. The dishes signified the meal as a celebration. Of course, the food was delicious, she recalls, especially her mother’s crispy and tender roast chicken, but the presentation was equally, if not more important than the food. Once the dining room table was set in all its splendour, the family knew to respect the tradition of these special dining experiences.  

Respect also meant dressing nicely for the occasion.  My friend laughs when she remembers her brother turning up at one Shabbat dinner with bare feet.  “All it took was a glare from my dad.  He didn’t do that again.”

My friend is in her late 70s.  She’s healthy and active.  Yet, she is realistic about the time she has left.  She’s been thinking a lot about what will become of her things, after ... after, you know what.  

“I asked my daughters if either one would want my bone china when I’m gone. Both said they weren’t interested in dishes that needed to be washed by hand.  And when I asked about my sterling flatware, they said they didn’t want to polish all that silver.  These things are special to me.  They don’t seem to care.”

Why does this make her so sad?  Is she unique in her feelings?

I check with other friends. It’s like opening the floodgates. These women babble on and on about how their children don’t appreciate the possessions they hold dear.  These women want their things to be valued, to be passed down through the generations.  

One friend is fortunate to have antiques and fine jewelry.  Her children have no interest in her antiques, especially the furniture.  Her jewelry now sits in a safe deposit box at a bank, retrieved for the occasional wedding or party.  Her daughters wonder why she bothers with all that rigmarole. They are practical.  Down the road they likely will question the need to hang onto these pieces. They’ve grown up in a throw-away society. They’re so used to buying things that aren’t designed to last. Quick to buy, quick to discard. 

One woman, who points out her treasures are only precious in a sentimental sense, is equally distraught. She worries that her special things will be tossed out or sold once she’s gone. What about the family photos, she wonders. They’re now preserved in albums. Will they be thrown away after they are digitized?  How can they be keepsakes if they can no longer be held?

The concern is consistent. The objects of concern vary. A unique painting may have been purchased in a faraway country and tucked into a carry-on bag with tender loving care. A collection of Inuit art may be especially treasured because it was handed down by a parent. An assortment of pottery mugs may have tickled a woman’s fancy as she scoured galleries to add to her collection. A collection of small dolls from various countries may have been inexpensive to buy, but they are a treasure to its owner.

Each of these things has value that goes beyond the concrete.  Is it unrealistic to expect our kids to appreciate what we hold dear?  Perhaps it is. We want them to treasure what we treasure, when perhaps the most important thing is that when we’re gone, they treasure our memory.