The Dilemma of Family Heirlooms

Honestly, I had already been trying to help my mother “go through stuff” for three years. She did well, letting go of things that were obviously of no use or that someone else could put to better use. I knew the final clean up would be somewhat of a nightmare when the time came. It was. On top of funeral arrangements—“My funeral is all planned and paid for,” the realization that it was not paid for, or planned; cutting six huge pine trees that were encroaching on the neighbor’s property, and all the shocked relatives who came from various parts of the state—we methodically went through her things. My brothers and I worked together every other weekend during the summer, giving up our lives in order to bring closure to hers. It was painful, tiring and emotionally draining.

I prefer not to go through that again, but as I said earlier, she collected things, angels, saints, books, cards, kitchen gadgets, and more food than anyone could eat in five years, plus all those file drawers of internet articles on politics and the dark future of this country. I had to stop reading at one point. But I understood more fully why she was so fearful and angry. Her country had changed dramatically. Her church had changed dramatically. Her friends had mostly abandoned her to her misery. All she had left was her family, and, of course, we were all busy with our lives….It’s a lesson we have to learn over and over again.

People disappear if you don’t pay attention. She was gone. Her things remained. My brothers and I attacked her stuff with both tenderness and aggression. We felt she was watching with a slight smile on her face. She knew we knew what was really important.

At first I said I didn’t want anything that was hers. “I’m trying to get rid of stuff myself. I don’t need anything else.” But there were exceptions. We had talked about it many times in the last few years–who gets what, and what belongs to whom. She had an onyx ring and a sliver bracelet that she always told me was mine after she died. She said my grandfather made them for her and thought it appropriate that I be the next one to wear them. When she knew her time was near, and before she stopped speaking, she gave them to me, “so no one else takes it.” At that point, I felt a responsibility to take these things, to take care of these things.


One day she opened up her jewelry boxes, of which there were many, to me and my daughter. With hand gestures and facial expressions, she told us to go through them now. We did. We separated out the costume jewelry from the fine jewelry, claimed a few things for ourselves and put the rest away. Then when the time felt right, we shared it with the cousins and grandchildren. Everyone got something if they wanted it. Some were simply not interested. I still have three of her jewelry boxes with jewelry I will never wear. It’s mostly gold, and for some reason I have never liked gold. A woman came to the yard sale this past weekend and said she would love to see it. “My sister got all my mother’s jewelry.” I thought it was fate that she had come that day. I said yes, then called her back later and said no. I’m not ready to let it go just yet.

No one knows another person until they go through their stuff. And that brings me back to my journey toward simplicity.


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