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How to decide what heirlooms to pass down

How to decide what heirlooms to pass down

Recently I was giving a presentation about social history and telling the stories of our ancestors. Those stories can/should include the heirlooms we inherit. One of the participants asked, "how do I ensure my grandma's china remains in our family?"

Good question. We all have that question. The automatic answer is probably, "you can't." No matter how much you love a treasured family heirloom you can't control what happens to it once you shake off this mortal coil. That's just reality. We all treasure different material objects and assign meaning to some while viewing other things as disposable. However, this is a subject that weighs on us, especially for the family historian who has seen countless articles and books in the last five years about downsizing your life and what your kids want and don't want to inherit.

My take on this subject is simple. No one wants to inherit something they need to store long-term. Your children or other family members have their stuff; they don't have endless storage space for your stuff. So what does that mean for your treasured items, and how you decide what to do with them?

I think people are more likely to keep and treasure something that has meaning for them, no matter the inherent or perceived value. What does this mean for grandma's china (or apron, jewelry, furniture, etc...…)?

If it's not fragile and falling apart, use it. People will treasure what they see. That means they need to know the item, so display it, use it, tell stories about it, so they can build memories to it. When I consider my "treasures," it doesn't matter that an inherited item means a lot to me. It needs to mean a lot to my kids who didn't know my grandparents or have any memories of them.

I use my grandma's china. I need to use it more, but I use and display it. Could I accidentally break a piece? Absolutely. I'm surprised I haven't. But it's there for my family and me to enjoy. It does us no good hidden in a cabinet. Despite using it, my kids may not want it when I pass. That's ok. I won't be around to give them my opinion. I’ll write down what my wishes are and approach the person I think would want those pieces. I would love for my kids to want the china, but in the end, I need to enjoy using something that brings back memories of my grandmother, who I dearly loved.

Is there any guarantee that a treasured heirloom will remain in the family? No, nothing is guaranteed, and as life changes, so do people's attachments to specific items. People have circumstances that dictate what they keep, like, etc. Taste changes (if it didn't, there wouldn't be antique or thrift stores). But when something is meaningful, it is more likely to be kept and treasured. Telling the stories of our ancestors should include the treasures that remind us of their lives.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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When I talk with audiences about this topic, I recommend they divide these large collections of china, silverware, etc and give one item (one teacup and saucer, one teaspoon, one goblet) to each heir. Everyone has room for a single item, especially if the item comes with a family history story! Also, this means multiple heirs in the next generation will know the stories and have a piece of family history to pass down in their lines.

I have been on recently and I have been thinking about how certain objects/heirlooms end up in certain places. Depending on the object, a local or state museum or archive may be interested in having it if family are not interested (or they may know what to do with it). Perhaps do the groundwork and ask the institution if they are interested in the object if it eventuates that the family decide they don't want it or can't keep it. I would then put it in the Will and state the institution's name & contact details - anything to make the transition easy. Don't just think of your descendants, think of family historians in the broader family who may be interested too. Even a collector of the type of object would appreciate it and they would have the history of the object with it which is so important. I am deciding whether to eventually give an heirloom to the Australian War Memorial (museum) and another to a golf club amongst other decisions. Lots to think about.

Good advice. My husband and I have both received items that have past down through our families. We have made sure that we know where and from whom they have originated. We have taken photos of these items and recorded the historic information. This file is kept with our wills so that the family have the ease of knowing which family members they should be passed down to. We don't have specific people to inherit the china, jewellery or whatever - that's for them to sort out !

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