by Susan Caplan McCarthy
When I cleaned out my parents’ attic, I was astounded by the 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 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 don’t have a clue. If the items were special, why were they hidden? Had my parents thought that if they displayed the items, they would have been 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 when wrapped in newspaper and tucked into boxes. 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.
Displaying and Storing Heirlooms and Sentimental Items
1. Display the Item - If you love an item, don't hide it in a box. Set vintage jewelry on a tray or in a bowl. Put the vase on a shelf, even if that shelf is in your closet. If you don't want to display an item, consider if it is truly important to you.
2. Write Down the History of a Sentimental Item – My husband kept a ceramic piggy bank that his mother had received as a bridal shower gift because she had included a note about the life of the woman who had given her the item. 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.
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.
3. Don’t Create a Burden – Just because something was important to your mother, doesn’t mean it has to be important to you. The same goes for your treasured items. Don’t demand that someone else hold onto them – they are filled with your memories, not the future recipient’s memories.
4. Share an Heirloom Now, Not Later – If your daughter or son is setting up their home and you’d like them to have your or your mother’s wedding china, offer the item now (provided you aren’t actively using the it). Explain the history of the item and why you’d like to pass it along.
You may have a taker, you may not. You can then decide to hold onto the item or see if someone else would cherish the item. If you’d like to, take some photographs before you pass along the item.
5. Question Why You Are Holding onto Items You Have Packed Away – Do you have boxes of special items stored in your attic or basement? How are you honoring their significance when you aren’t making a place for them in your life? Are you holding onto items because you feel obligated or because they truly are special to you (not your father or your grandmother)? It can be difficult to acknowledge that an item isn’t as important to you as you think it was to someone else.
6. Create a Memory Box - If you have an assortment of small pieces that you don't want to display, create a shoebox-sized memory box that you can pull out when you are feeling nostalgic. You could even put a label on it indicating that it should be tossed upon your death as Margareta Magnusson suggests in her book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.
If you consider an item important enough to keep, are you showing that importance with the way you treat the item?
Most of the things my parents packed away in the attic were either tossed or given away because my brother and I could only judge the items based on the way they’d been treated – packed in a box for 30+ years and surrounded by other boxes filled with towels, blankets, and old magazines.
Please share your story below of how you preserved or released sentimental items or heirlooms.
Susan Caplan McCarthy
I'm a professional organizer-coach with 26 years' experience as a teacher. I believe that an organized home isn't your destination but a step on the path toward the life you want to create. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; and speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.