Over the past several years, there have been many articles written about how grown children aren’t interested in keeping the older generation’s stuff—the family heirlooms, the furniture that family homes were built around, the items with sentimental value. It often causes trauma for both generations: the kids feel bad but don’t want to be saddled with things they don’t want, and the parents/grandparents are hurt that the items that they have held dear aren’t valued by their loved ones.
While I don’t have any sure-fire way to avoid this situation, I do think that some of the disconnect comes from a failure to communicate. Too often, the older generation doesn’t take the time to tell their offspring why an object is important to them or to the family’s history. At the same time, the younger generation too often doesn’t take the time to truly listen even when the history behind item is told to them.
So here are my suggestions to parents and grandparents to bridge the great divide:
Pick out the items that are the most important. Obviously, not everything has the same family history or sentimental value. This is important to recognize. If you lump together the things that have family history value with everything else, it will be hard to see those items that really ought to get more attention. The trunk that came with your great-grandfather when he immigrated to America from Ireland probably holds more family history value than the lamp that you bought from a chain department store in the 1980s because it matched your sofa.
Make a note of objects that you think might have monetary value. This is often harder than it sounds. If you’ve watched Antiques Roadshow, you know that we have a tendency not to know the true monetary value of antiques and collectibles. So tread carefully with this. If you can, you might want to have an appraiser take a look at those items that you think might be financially valuable. But keep in mind that these markets change all the time.
Put it in writing. If you want your kids or grandkids to know what material articles you think are most important, don’t just tell them verbally—which you still should do!—but help them out by putting it all in writing.
Record the stories behind the objects. It is so important that your kids or grandkids know the stories that are connected to your items with family history value. This way, rather than seeing an old quilt, your kids will recognize it as the quilt made for their grandmother when she was a baby by her own grandmother, using fabric pieces from old clothes because it was the Great Depression and they didn’t have money to buy a new blanket. You can record the stories in whatever way you want. Write them down in your own handwriting, type them up, or create audio recordings. Just make sure your family knows about the stories and where to find the record of them.
You might want to put together a “treasures” album. If you have a good number of treasured objects or things with family history value, you might want to create an album to keep them all together. You might even consider photographing the items to prevent confusion.
Consider making several copies of the album to share the stories. Once you’ve recorded the stories, you might find that you have created a wonderful resource for your family. After all, the stories—the links with family history—are probably even more priceless than the objects themselves. So when you are done with putting together your “treasures” album, you might find that you would like all your children and grandchildren to have a copy. You can make photocopies, of course, or look into printing a booklet via a print-on-demand publisher. Make it as simple or as fancy as you’d like.
If you need help, consider consulting a personal historian. A good personal historian can guide you on this undertaking, can help you record your stories, or can step in when and where you need assistance. Call someone to see how they can help.
Be understanding. If your kids and grandkids are unable to keep all the things that you are hoping they will, try to understand that their capacity is limited. Remember, a “treasures” album preserves the stories connected to the items, which is almost as good as keeping the original object in the family.
For the children and grandchildren, here are my suggestions:
Listen and ask questions. When the elders in your family talk about special items, take note. Pay attention to what they are saying and, if they don’t tell you why something is important, ask them.
Encourage the stories. Remember that your parents and grandparents have homes full of memories. Encourage them to share those memories.
Help them record the stories. Give your time to help your loved ones make lists and tell their stories. Do a recording session where you ask them about each treasure. Type up the audio records. Take photographs. Put the album together. Walk through the process with them. I think you’ll find if you take the time to help your parents or grandparents, you’ll understand and appreciate the treasures and their stories even more.
Respect the treasures. Even if you can’t personally keep everything, make an effort to rehouse the items whenever possible. Would a library like the collection of books? Would a museum be interested in some of the artifacts? Would an archive possibly like to add some of the family’s documents or photographs to their collection? You never know until you ask. Again, a personal historian can help if you need it.
It may take some work to bridge the divide, but with some time and effort, you can keep treasured belongings and their stories in your family for generations.