by Susan McCarthy
So many items in your parents’ home (and your own) bring up memories of people, activities, and events from the past. However, if you’re not intentional about choosing which items to keep, you can do the items a disservice by hiding them in storage. These five questions can help you decide the best way to cherish sentimental items.
When I cleaned out my parents’ attic, I was astounded by the boxes (and boxes) of tchotchkes – photographs, glass bowls, silver-plated trays, vases, candleholders, etc. that my parents had stored in boxes that were stuck under other boxes containing things like old blankets and bubble gum pink kitchen curtains.
I figured that these items had come from my parents’ parents, grandparents, and probably a few aunts and uncles. Did any of these items have a special meaning for my parents? I didn’t have a clue since my mother had died a few years earlier (and I never remembered her talking about these things) and my father had dementia.
If the items were special to them, why were they packed away and then hidden beneath piles of less important stuff? Had my parents thought that if they displayed the items, they would have gotten broken? Were they concerned that another relative would see an item and demand that it be given to them?
If my parents kept these items because they cherished them, the items lost their identity and purpose when wrapped in newspaper and tucked into boxes for nearly 40 years.
Overwhelmed by so much stuff, I kept a couple of photographs, two six-inch vases, and a few interesting-looking spoons that I held onto because I liked the items, not because they had any significance. I couldn’t muster a connection the items.
Honoring Heirlooms and Sentimental Items
Deciding that an item is important enough to hold onto…and then storing it in a box that gets tucked in an out of the way place in your home...sends mixed signals about what you really think about those things.
It can be difficult to sort out your reasons for holding onto things. Maybe the items were special to your mother or father, and you feel that means you should keep the items even though the objects mean nothing to you.
As always, the decision is yours. And if you are having a difficult time deciding what to keep and what to let go, step back and consider your motive for holding onto an item. You may realize that some things would be better off with others.
And, while it’s more difficult to decide what to do with some items over others, these questions may help you better understand what things in the house matter to you.
Question One: Why are you holding onto items that you are going to pack away? You may be thinking that the things going into boxes won’t stay there forever. This is a temporary solution until you have more time to examine what you’re keeping.
Unfortunately, many items that go into storage (whether that’s your closet, the basement, or a rented unit) stay there. In a way, boxing up the items solves the question, “what do I do with these things?” And with that solution, it can require more energy to go through the contents of those boxes.
To avoid that scenario, put a date on the boxes and in your calendar as to when you’ll go through these boxes. You don’t have to do the work in a single day. You could plan to go through one box a day or three boxes a week. Setting those dates, now, helps establish that the task is not done in a more defined way than simply thinking you’ll sort through these things someday.
And if you already have boxes of special items stored in your attic or basement, create a schedule for going through them.
Question Two: Can you share an heirloom now, not later? Many people decide to hold onto things from their parents to pass them along to their children or grandchildren in the future. If appropriate to the age and circumstances of the recipient, can you give them these items now?
You can always take photographs of the items for yourself.
Question Three: Does the intended recipient want the item? Time and again I hear people expressing the frustration that their adult children don’t want family heirlooms. In some cases, individuals hold onto items because they’re convinced their children will come around and realize that they would love all these things.
This rarely happens. (I’ve never heard of it happening, but I’ll use the word ‘rarely’ because I suppose there could be a chance).
If the person you think should take this item doesn’t want it, take a step back and consider why you feel the item is important. Do you believe that your kids should have mementos of their grandparents? (Perhaps to compensate for the death of the grandparent early in the child’s life or because your children and parents didn’t have a close relationship.)
Remember, our memories are inside of us, not attached to those things. If we don’t have a memory connected to an item, then it’s just a thing.
Question Four: Can you speak about the history of an item? My husband kept a ceramic piggy bank that his mother had received decades ago as a bridal shower gift because his mother had included a note about the life of the woman who had given her the item. For him, the story his mother told made this item special to him.
You don’t have to write a story for every item, but if you know whom it belonged to, note that on a sticker that you place on the underside of the item. (I wish my parents had put some notes in the boxes of stuff up in the attic, so my brother and I weren’t totally baffled by these things.)
If there is a story about why an item it is significant to you, share it; otherwise, someone else will view your treasures as mere knickknacks. The story doesn’t have to be dramatic; it could be a simple anecdote. However, that simple tale explains why you felt it was worth holding onto…and, perhaps, why someone else might want to cherish this sentimental item.
Question Five: Are you willing to put this item on display in your home? Instead of putting items in storage boxes, are there things that you could put on display? This step can really help you clarify the importance of the item in your life.
If it’s not something you’d like to see on a regular basis, would you like to be able to reminisce about it once a year? A less than enthusiastic response may mean that this item isn’t that special. That doesn’t mean the memories associated with it aren’t important to you, just that you have your memories, and they don’t need the support tangible things.
When you try to keep everything, you blur what is really important to you. Remember, there is no set number of items that you should keep. More items don’t show more love. Keeping boxes of items in your attic doesn’t show they are significant to you and your family.
To help you make decisions about items, consider these questions
While it is more challenging to identify the few items that are most important to you, when you can put these items on display and tell others about the stories and memories associated with them, then you will truly honor their place in your life.
Hi, I'm Susan
I'm a former teacher who became a professional organizer (and not because I'm a natural-born neatnik). I live with my husband and fluffy cat on a river in Massachusetts. I crochet, make handmade cards, and love reading young adult novels. Learn more about my decluttering journey here.