If you’re like me, you have things around the house that were passed down from previous generations. I have table linens from my grandmother, crystal from my mother-in-law, a set of stainless flatware from a distant great aunt.
If you’re also like me, you haven’t used a lot of those items in decades. Many are still packed in the original boxes they arrived in. Some are yellowed with age. Others are stored in places that are nearly impossible to get to.
So they sit, year after year, taking up space in a drawer or cupboard yet never seeing our dining table, holding a flower or decorating a mantle.
The rationale for my behavior? I’ve told myself they were too good to use. I’ve imbued them with such lofty status that they’re too valuable for the likes of me and my family.
Those sentiments didn’t come from the givers. No one pulled me aside to say, “Never use this item. It’s much too delicate for you.” Instead, the articles arrived with precious sentiments and hopes that they’d be adored for years to come.
I honestly intended to use all these things. But my thoughts started creating guilt. An inner voice scolded, “What if it gets broken or soiled?” I suddenly felt unworthy. I dreaded that any wear or tear on these heirlooms would prove I was a bad steward of my ancestors’ possessions.
Our casual lifestyle and decor also affected my decision. I sensed that my chunky, whimsical napkin rings overpowered Grandma’s white lace table runner. A silver serving fork engraved with my great-grandfather’s initials seemed out of place next to a platter of barbequed chicken and broccoli.
I even projected my negativity onto items I’d chosen when I got married. I judged that our cut crystal water goblets were too fragile and expensive to ever drink from. Our lovely silver flatware was too nice to press into service.
So these things sat idle, tarnishing and collecting dust, while I continued to ignore them under the guise of preservation.
But who was I kidding? My strategy was nothing short of ludicrous. Not only was I doing some of these treasures a disservice (silver actually thrives under regular use), I was selling myself short and dishonoring those who had gone before me. I can’t imagine my dear grandmother warning me to never soil her lovely table runner. Gram would have told me, “Go ahead and use it! That’s what I made it for.”
Besides, each of these items has a finite lifespan. They’re all, at some time, going to wear out, get broken or be too old to use any more.
Keeping them in boxes may prevent them from being scratched or chipped. But an earthquake, a fire or a careless mover could still ruin them and they’d never have been enjoyed by those to whom they were entrusted.
So I’ve adopted a new mantra: If I have it in my possession, I’m going to use it. I’ll incorporate every pearl-handled cheese knife or frilly tatted napkin into my daily repertoire. I won’t fret if it gets broken or has wine spilled on it. After all, it was meant to embellish a table or buffet, so that’s where I’m going to use it.
I’ll freely commingle articles from the various centuries. I’ll use a tea pot from the mid-1800s with my contemporary woven place mats. I’ll serve crystal water goblets alongside pottery soup bowls.
At the same time, I’ll think fond thoughts about the person who chose me to have it. When I use my china, I think of Grandma Lewis. My Lalique candleholders recall my dear great-grandmother-in-law, Dottie Griffith.
Of course, I never intend to abuse things. I take care in their handling and use. But I refuse to obsess about their safety. I’ll enjoy them in the relaxed manner for which they were intended.
If I don’t use it, I’ll get rid of it or pass it along to someone who will. I’ll release myself of the burden of being the family storage unit and instead free my mind and closets of articles I’m never going to use.
Finally, I won’t worry about saving things for my children. Certain items will undoubtedly survive. Others won’t live to see another generation.
Either way my family and I will make good use of the beautiful mementos we have at our disposal. There will be enough heirlooms for the kids.
Incorporating precious things into everyday life
• Take an inventory. Go through your closets and cupboards. See what memorabilia you have packed away. You may not even be aware of your family treasures. Lay it all out where you can see it, then decide what you can and cannot use.
• Share history with the next generation. Talk to your kids about your family. The stories will create a sense of rootedness and security.
• Store things within reach. Move heirlooms from the attic to the pantry or credenza. They’ll be easier to get to and more apt to be used.
• Consult with other family members. Someone in the family might be interested in things that you don’t want. Let them know your feelings so both your wishes can be met.
• Discard items you don’t use or don’t like. You can try selling items on e-Bay. You can donate some to charitable organizations. Still others might be ready for the trash. Give yourself permission to dispose of it as you see fit.
• Contact a museum. Sometimes we’re given historical items that might be of interest to a museum. The local historical society will help you assess your cache.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com