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:
- Remember that you are not your possessions.
- 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.|