Keepsakes: Legacy or Liability?

Mom's punch bowl, usually used for fruit, is being used here for pecans.

Mom’s crystal punch bowl, usually used for fruit, is being used here for pecans.

I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had with a garage or storage unit full of stuff they inherited from a loved one. These items represent a mix of emotions – memories good and bad; guilt over wanting to reclaim the space they occupy; fear that they will accidentally discard a priceless heirloom. They are paralyzed with indecision: Am I betraying my loved one if I part with this? Will I forget them if I don’t keep all their stuff? (I promise you won’t!) How, and where, can I get rid of it? How, and where, can I keep it?

Some clients’ homes are decorated with grandma’s artwork and accessories, which are not reflective of their own taste. Some are seeking moral support during box-opening time, not knowing, or not remembering, what’s in the boxes and anticipating an unwanted flood of emotions. Once the last flap is lifted, though, often as not, the reaction is, “What the heck is that?!”, and laughter ensues rather than tears.

cedar chest med

Mom’s cedar chest contains my own memorabilia, and doubles as a TV stand.

Just imagine if you died today without having yet de-cluttered your life, and without leaving instructions about what goes to whom, and for what reason. Someone else – probably your kids – will have to decide. And they’ll have to do it in the midst of their own grief. How are they supposed to know that you hated the painting that always hung in the living room, and only kept it because YOU inherited it and kept it out of guilt? Or that the miscellaneous box of linens, knick-knacks, and clothing in the garage was packed up and stored away because you simply never got around to deciding what to do with it during your lifetime?

And what about your photos? How many of your precious digital memories are mixed in with terrible and redundant photos that you didn’t bother to delete, and spread across all your electronic devices? What about those printed photos hidden in a box under the bed that are also all mixed up and unlabeled? Save your photos while you have a chance!

One thing that I feel strongly about is that one should USE inherited items, REPURPOSE them, or DISPLAY them in a place of honor. That is, only the things that you love, and that have meaning for you. If it’s so special, why is it out in the garage, in a box, where it may be deteriorating, and you can’t even get to it, much less enjoy it? The things you don’t love, and that have no meaning, should be GIFTED to others, DONATED to charity, RECYCLED or TOSSED. Rescue your keepsakes from the dirty boxes in the garage. Honor your favorites by using them and displaying them. Let the rest go. Take a picture first if you want to keep the memory but not the thing. Then save the photo in a special folder, or print and frame it!

Mom's sewing chest being used as a side table

Mom’s sewing chest being used as a side table

I’ll use myself as an example: My mom died in 2001. Among the things I inherited were her cedar chest, crystal punch bowl, and sewing chest. She used the cedar chest as originally intended, to collect items for her wedding trousseau (personal and household items collected by a bride-to-be in the 1950’s). I use it to store my own memorabilia, and it doubles as a TV stand. The punch bowl – when am I ever going to make punch? – I use as a fruit bowl, usually, and at the time the photo was taken I was using it for pecans from my tree. The sewing chest holds my own sewing supplies, and doubles as a side table in my living room, with a hidden stash of remote controls inside.

sewing box med

Mom’s sewing chest contains my own sewing supplies and hides remote controls!

The point is that I USE these things and enjoy them in my everyday life. They are not languishing in a hot, dirty, critter-infested garage or storage shed. I do have a bin full of my mom’s possessions that do not suit my taste in décor, and that I am not currently using. But it is not so much stuff that it impacts my ability to live a clutter-free life, or banishes my second-most-expensive possession (my car) to the mercy of the elements.

So….this goes both ways:

What have others left you? Are you honoring these items by using them or displaying them? Or….?

And, what about you? Are you leaving a legacy? Or are you leaving a liability?

Please share by leaving a comment below!

Related products: The Keepsake Clutter Flow Chart & The Photo Clutter Flow Chart 

Copyright 2010-2016 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. Great post. I so wish my brother could read some like this and be moved to let go of all that is in his front room, which despite it’s sunny aspect gets used as a store room for Mum’s stuff. She died 15 years ago. He hung on for years incase he married and his wife wanted some of the goodies. Well she has taken bits and pieces but would rather have the room but still he won’t let go. He uses the excuse of a busy life now. She will probably only be able to let go when he dies, if it is before her. Very sad.

  2. Thanks, Cherrie! You could easily forward this post to your brother for motivation. And my Keepsake Clutter Flow Chart (see the link above the egret logo) provides direction for deciding and letting go, but (as you know) he’s got to want it. Hard to tell what his motivation is, or what will help. I promise he won’t forget his Mum (or disappoint her) if he clears that room out so he can have a better life with his wife!

  3. My most treasured keepsakes are my dresser (which used to be my mom’s) and my nesting tables (which were my grandparents’), both of which I use and enjoy every day. I know I have other keepsakes tucked away (such as Grandma’s fur coat) which are perhaps questionable but I’m not quite ready to part with them yet.

    • I have a bin of other keepsakes which are really just stuff that my mom once owned, or even things she gave to me but I didn’t like very much. One day I will be ready to part with them.

    • It’s too bad when the day comes when the stuff is meaningless (think an old family photo album found in a thrift store), but that’s still no reason to clutter up one’s own life. Thanks for your comment, Meaghan!

  4. Hazel – such great points! My personal hot button is a garage filled with *stuff* and cars on the driveway that belong in the garage so this is my favorite line:

    “But it is not so much stuff that it impacts my ability to live a clutter-free life, or banishes my second-most-expensive possession (my car) to the mercy of the elements.”

    Love your mom’s sewing chest! 🙂

  5. Our stuff is such a legacy, isn’t it? I just had a conversation with a client yesterday. The grandmother didn’t want to get rid of x, now the mother doesn’t want to get rid of X. They said we’ll just leave it for the gapranddaughter to toss. Really? Is that something you want to saddle your children with. It’s a gift to declutter now. One another note, I love how you have repurposed the sewing chest, so clever!

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