26 March, 2015

Who will inherit my things when I have no kids?

My mother-in-law is 91, her husband a few years younger and increasingly immobile, and they need to move house. They need to down-size, but they can’t bring themselves to do so. A major barrier I think is the effort of sorting out her possessions. She has collected small treasures on her travels, and some lovely wedding gifts. Her possessions are not worth any money, by and large, but they are valuable to her personally. She walks around her house, and sees her life reflected back at her. And she’s not ready to let go of that.

She worries aloud, “who will want my things when I’m gone?” She worries that her precious belongings will end up at the tip (landfill), thanks to the unthinking son who told her that’s where most of her things will go. (Men!) She understands that the younger generations have very different tastes these days, and knows that we won’t value her things in the same way she has. Or that we will value different things. And she feels bereft, even before she gives anything away, knowing that the meaning of these possessions will die with her.

She has four sons, four daughters-in-law, and seven grand-children, and still feels this way.
Ironically, perhaps, I am the only one of her sons or daughters-in-law who has any of her things. Years ago, I discovered she was going to give away all of her crystal bowls and (not many) glasses. She assumed that none of her daughters-in-law would want her crystal, perhaps because we haven’t purchased any ourselves. But her crystal is beautiful, most of it wedding presents, though a beautiful lamp is a gift from a previous beau. She has never really used any of it, not being much of a host, and she came from the generation that thought you should save beautiful things for special occasions. When she told me she was going to take it to an op shop (thrift store), I was appalled. “Don’t you dare!” I cried. So that day, I found myself going home with several boxes filled with crystal.

A year or two later, the same thing happened with some of her tea settings, and once again I headed home with a full cargo of delicate tea cups and saucers, silver trays, and teapots. Most recently, she was caught puzzled what to do with all her table linen, most of it still in its original packaging, unused. This last time, I contacted my sisters-in-law and adult niece, sending photographs of each item, and arranging to give them anything they wanted.

It is strange though that she either assumes we won’t want her things, or she has a disconnect and just doesn’t think of her daughters-in-law as family members, people she’d want to pass her things on to. But perhaps it’s not that strange. She has found it easier to give away the beautiful things she has never used, than the tiny items she bought in Europe in the 1960s or in Thailand visiting us in the 1990s. They are the objects that seem to hold the most importance for her. And that’s what I’ve learned from all this. Her things are important to her, but not necessarily anyone else.

When I think about it, I actually now have more memories of using her beautiful crystal and silver than she does, and they’re part of my life more than they ever were of hers. A dinner party isn’t complete without using at least one of her pieces of crystal, and I think she likes the fact that I use her things. Christmas dinner features her silver trays (filled with nuts, or stacked with mince pies), crystal bowls (at least one filled with berries and another with whipped cream), and in the future perhaps her table linen. They’ve become part of my Christmas tradition, as they were never part of hers. My nieces and nephews know these things because I use them, not because they once belonged to their grandmother.

Last year, a blogging friend did what my in-laws can’t bring themselves to do. She downsized to move into a small home in a retirement community. A year on, she has some advice on the process here. She made two very important points: 

  1. Remember that you are not your possessions.
  2. Trust me when I say that most objects, once you let them go, you will never miss.

And, in a reminder that this is not just an issue for those of us who don’t have children, she said, “Don’t foist your treasures on your descendants. … Taste in furnishings is not necessarily transmitted in the DNA. Don’t take it personally.”

It is inevitable, even when we No Kidders try not to, to think about our old age and death. Aside from the perennial unknown – who will take care of us? – we also often ask the question “who will want my stuff?”

I have possessions that are important to me, that make me smile every time I see them, that bring back memories of adventure or happiness or friendship or love but are meaningless to anyone else. They may well be more important to me than they are to my husband. Even if I had children, there is no guarantee that the things I loved would be the things they would love. I’m sure I love different objects of my mother’s than she does, and I’m sure my sisters love different things again. We, all of us, love different things for different reasons; we have different emotions, different memories, different tastes, and as a result, value different things.

I accept that my stuff is important to me, but not necessarily anyone else. That makes the thought of parting with these things someday all the easier. I feel at peace too with the knowledge that, after I’m gone, there is no-one to inherit from me. I understand and accept that my nieces and nephews might not want any of the things I’ve inherited or acquired in my life-time. Maybe they will, in the way I love my crystal. Maybe they won't. It doesn't really matter. After all, as Lali said, it’s not personal.

Some of my (mother-in-law's) table linen, tea cups, silver and crystal.


  1. Beautiful tea cups & crystal.

  2. My husband and I jokingly say the we are going to pack our house with incindary devices and give the code to one of our nephews, when we die he can just dial in a code and all our stuff will go up in flames. Save them the hassle of dealing with our stuff after we die. Cremation for all of our remains...

  3. So many good thoughts here. I feel for your in-laws. As we age, dealing with change and making decisions--any decisions, no matter how trivial--becomes more and more stressful. It makes sense to look ahead and take action.

  4. good that you can find some use for her crystal and linen anyway. Seems a shame to have such beautiful things but never use them.

  5. I've never thought about my things after I go (oh, good, you've given me something new to worry about!) except the things of value. Some are going to the twins, others to nieces. But I've only designated the things of value. I'm sure, as I age and as people express their want of something, I'll give away the things of low-monetary value. After all, I sort of like the idea of being alive and knowing someone is enjoying something of mine. But the rest of the stuff... I feel sad thinking about things like my ketubah (Jewish marriage license, but it's also a piece of art) at the bottom of a dump. But I also don't know if that piece of art will mean anything to anyone else. I can't remember ever seeing someone else's ketubah displayed in a house (meaning, I have no clue what happened to my Grandmother's ketubah, but my mother doesn't display it).

  6. My (unmarried, childless) aunt moved to assisted living and had a house full of nice furniture and china and crystal and art that she had to dispose of or distribute. I took some of the furniture (more than anyone), because I loved the style. I got the china and crystal because a) no one else had asked for it and b) she wasn't interested in packing it up for auction. It's nice crystal and china, and I use it once in a while. But it was a good process overall, because she got to decide who got what based on who wanted it. Everything else got sold or donated, except for the few things she took with her. And some of those got passed on or donated when she died. It was a long process, and I hope (even though I do have 1 child) that I have the presence of mind to start passing things on long before anyone else has to decide what to do with things.

  7. The process of dealing with "stuff" is such a hard one for everyone. We all become attached to items as they provide a physical reminder of an event, period in our lives or even retain emotions. It's painful even as a young adult to part with objects as we become so attached.

    And yet, the process can be very cathartic. To go through items and say goodbye allows for transition. We did this with my grandparents before they downsized and I know that giving them both that closure helped on so many levels.

    As painful as it may be, it may be helpful to your MIL to sit down with family and make the downsizing a group effort. Closure is never easy, but there could be treasured memories and stories that come out of this process.

    And the crystal and tea cups are lovely. I'm glad you use them regularly.

    1. The "group effort" will be me (and my husband perhaps). I've helped my MIL with various tasks as she's gradually gone through her things, and have talked her through the process we would use if we can ever convince them to move out. The task seems so daunting to them now - they've left it 15-20 years too late - and making any big decisions is almost beyond them now. It's all a good lesson to us, as we won't have people helping us if we leave the decision too late.

  8. I'm glad you have been able to put some of your MIL's things to use. My parents are starting to make noises about downsizing to a retirement condo, which is kind of scary, as they have tons of stuff to go through (not just their own stuff, but stuff they inherited from my grandparents & others). My aunt has her name on the waiting list for a seniors home, and has started trying to downsize. Last time I saw her, she was mourning to me that none of her kids is interested in all her pretty china, crystal, etc. And she is not alone... I just read an article somewhere about how baby boomers are downsizing en masse and trying to pass along their possessions to their kids, who are mostly uninterested in heavy wooden furniture and Royal Doulton figurines, etc. -- or even the scrapbooks, christening gowns and other keepsakes parents have saved for them.

    I'm not sure I would want any of my aunt's stuff myself. For one thing, getting it here would be a pain (which is why so much of my own stuff is still at my parents' house...!). For another thing, I barely use my own wedding china & crystal -- we have no room in our kitchen cupboards, no formal dining room set to store & display it all, so there it sits in boxes in the basement, occasionally unearthed for a special dinner (usually when my mother visits -- we have a small house and don't do a lot of entertaining). The life I expected to be living as a young bride in the early 1980s turned out to be quite different from the life I find myself living now.

    I do have some things that I would like to pass on -- or at least offer -- to some of my cousins' kids. For example, I've already given pieces of my grandmother's jewelry to my cousins' daughters are graduation gifts, and I have a few things that belonged to my MIL (who died before I ever met her) given to me by my FIL -- some jewelry, some plates, a silver tea service. I've always thought of myself as just a caretaker for those things, and since we have no children to pass them on to, I think our nephews should have them. Whether they choose to keep them or drop them off at Goodwill will be up to them. ;) I was thinking of offering my piano (which is the piano I had as a kid) to my cousin who lives nearby for his kids -- but I JUST saw on Facebook last week that someone beat me to it and gave them a piano they were trying to get rid of. Apparently used pianos are a dime a dozen these days, because everyone is trying to get rid of theirs as they move into retirement homes and condos. :p

    I would like to ensure that family photos as well as my genealogical research gets passed along to someone who would appreciate it. If nobody seems interested, though, I will probably designate those things to a relevant archive or genealogical society, and leave them there to be discovered by a future researcher. :)

  9. By the way, when I was going through some boxes in my parents' basement, I found it helped me to get rid of stuff if I took a photo before adding it to the Goodwill/garage sale pile. The memories remain, even when the stuff is gone.

  10. This is such an interesting thing to think about... I love that you took the things that meant something to you and to your mother-in-law, to make sure they had a home and lived on. My grandmother started giving away things before she passed away this year, and it was hard because we are trying so hard to not have as many things and so I passed on some things because I just didn't know where to put them and truly honor them. If you use the things at dinner parties, they are honored, you know? If you take them and hide them in your basement, you may as well never have taken them. So I took some books and a bookcase and a vase and an envelope full of my grandmother's writing. I don't pity whoever goes through our things, mostly stacks and stacks of books. It is interesting to think that no one else will appreciate/love them as much as we do, and if in the end they're just things, maybe that whole letting go thing is a good thing to practice. Maybe. :) Thanks for the deep thoughts!

  11. My mom, who is in her 60s, is working on down sizing and frequently says about how "no one will want x". My sister & I find this mildly annoying because she doesn't even ask us. But, in some cases, I'm sure she's right. So, even people who 2 kids who they are fairly close to think this way. I think it's a universal thing. I do think about it a lot, but we do have some young people we are close to so I hope to be able to leave them some things.