Are your keepsakes a legacy, or a 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.

Have you inherited keepsakes you don’t know what to do with?

I can’t tell you how many of my clients have had 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 secretly 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 item? 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?





Will you forget your loved one if you don’t keep all their stuff? (I promise you won’t!) Click To Tweet

What keepsakes have you inherited?

Sometimes clients’ homes are decorated with grandma’s artwork and accessories, which are not reflective of their own taste. They seek moral support and permission to declare something clutter and part with it. Quite often they don’t even know, or remember, what’s in their boxes. They anticipate an unwanted flood of emotions. Once the last flap is lifted, though, often as not, the reaction is, “What the heck is that?!” Or, “I can’t imagine why she kept that,” and laughter ensues rather than tears.

cedar chest med

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

What are you leaving behind?

Just imagine if you died today without having yet de-cluttered your life, and without leaving instructions about what goes to whom, and why. Someone else – 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 — unless you tell them — and that you 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 those everyday things during your lifetime?

And what about your photos? How many of your precious digital memories are mixed in with blurry 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!

What can you do with keepsakes?

I encourage you to use your inherited items, repurpose them, or display them in a place of honor. Do this with the things that you love, and that have meaning for you. If it’s so special, why is it out in the garage, where it may be deteriorating, and you can’t even get to it, much less enjoy it? Rescue your keepsakes from the dirty boxes in the garage. And don’t stack your boxes; use shelving to protect them from getting crushed, and to make them more easily accessible.

The things you don’t love, and that have no meaning, can be gifted to others, donated to charity, recycled or tossed. 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. Tell the story — after all, what’s a photo without the story? Then save the photo — and the story — in a special folder. Or, print it out and frame it!

Take a picture before donating, if you want to keep the memory but not the thing. Click To Tweet

What do I do with my keepsakes?

Mom's sewing chest being used as a side table

Mom’s sewing chest being used as a side table

Among the things I inherited from my mom 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.

I use the punch bowl as a fruit bowl – when am I ever going to make punch? 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, that I am not currently using. But there are not so many items and bins that they affect my ability to live a clutter-free life, and they do not banish my second-most-expensive possession (my car) to the mercy of the elements.

Honor your favorite keepsakes by using them and displaying them. The rest is clutter. Click To Tweet

So….this goes both ways:

What keepsakes have others left you? Are they really special, or just everyday stuff? Are you honoring these items by using them or displaying them?

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

Please share by leaving a comment below!

Related Clutter Flow Charts: Keepsake & Photo

Copyright 2010-2019 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life.
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  1. cherrie on February 22, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    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. Hazel Thornton at on February 22, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    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. Natalie Gallagher on February 16, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    Yes, yes and yes Hazel! I always nudged my clients to think about how to honor those keepsakes by incorporating them into their daily lives. I love how you did this with your Mother’s possessions

    • Hazel Thornton on February 18, 2016 at 2:05 pm

      Thanks, Natalie!

  4. Janet Barclay on February 17, 2016 at 10:11 am

    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.

    • Hazel Thornton on February 18, 2016 at 2:04 pm

      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.

      • Janet Barclay on September 30, 2019 at 9:06 am

        My dad passed away last year, so now I have even more keepsakes. My husband has the chest of drawers which matches my dresser – and I’ve learned that the whole bedroom suite once belonged to my paternal grandparents, so they’re even more special.

        My sister had the foresight to ask our father about the history of some of the furniture, and that was very helpful. I now have his old desk – which was “just a desk” but he bought it when he started his business, so I feel a connection there – and a table which was always around but I never knew it was a gift from his friends when my parents got engaged. So asking (or telling, depending which side of the table you’re sitting on) is very important!

  5. Meaghan Kahlo on February 17, 2016 at 11:54 am

    Such practical advice to repurpose keepsakes to fit your life today! Possessions passed on and preserved should have special meaning to us. Thank you for sharing!

    • Hazel Thornton on February 18, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      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!

  6. Sherra on February 17, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    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! 🙂

    • Hazel Thornton on February 18, 2016 at 2:06 pm

      I know, right? (about the garage) Thanks for stopping by my blog, Sherra!

  7. Andi Willis on February 18, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    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!

  8. Sabrina Quairoli on September 30, 2019 at 10:28 am

    I love that you used the word “honor.” Not every item is an important piece that you display for a good reason. Expressing which items are the pieces you cherish is super helpful to your loved ones. My mother indicated in her will that I was to have her jewelry, my brother was to have a silk rug she valued. When she passed, my brother didn’t want the area rug, so he gave it to me. Spelling out what you love in your Will will genuinely reduce the amount your family needs to decide on when you are gone. They will truly appreciate it.

  9. Seana Turner on September 30, 2019 at 11:26 am

    I inherited a sewing chest as well, Hazel, and I have it in my dining room. I actually keep sewing things inside of it – crazy, right? Although there are two side compartments that I think would have held yarn, and since I don’t knit, those are empty. Your point is such a good one… don’t keep an item and then simply store it away where you never see it and where it simply deteriorates. I’ve told my girls they can get rid of anything that is left when I die… no guilt!!

  10. Linda Samuels on October 1, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    You made me think about the Swedish “death-cleaning” concept made popular by Margareta Magnusson. You ask what would your loved ones do with all of your “stuff” if you died suddenly. Would they feel burdened or obligated to keep things? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially since I was the one that had to do the clearing out of my parents’ home of 57+ years. I do edit and clear on a reasonably regular basis, but there is much more to do.

    One thing I know is that my daughters watched (and even helped) me work through my parents’ house. So they know the thinking process I went through, what I did with all the stuff, and that I kept only a select few things that were meaningful. Hopefully, I will live long enough to do my editing so that our girls don’t have to. But if they do, I know they’ll be able to make good choices and only keep what is meaningful to them.

  11. Ronni Eisenberg on October 9, 2019 at 10:06 pm

    Hi Hazel!
    What a treat reading your latest article about keepsakes. It brings back so many memories of my mom‘s beautiful items and how my sisters and I had to divide everything up equally.
    It also reminded me of my own children, who, by the way, aren’t interested in anything. I’m talking about my grandmother’s gorgeous china. Silver and crystal, part of the family heirloom, were at the bottom of their I want list. Way too much upkeep for their generation.
    I do think you’re right. If you love it you should definitely display or use it. In my home, it keeps the memories of many loved ones alive.

    • Hazel Thornton on October 21, 2019 at 8:06 am

      Glad you enjoyed it, Ronni! Thanks for chiming in.

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