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A word on Heirloom Guilt

By October 25, 2011 No Comments
My grandmother’s pot inspired
my home’s orange touches

“For you, [Bea] you are on a different level, ‘Zero waste’ means you have to eliminate even mementos and pictures. To each their own, but it’s not a road I am willing to go down.” – Sam.

Come on now, let’s not exaggerate, I have reduced mementos, but have not eliminated them, and especially not pictures! I cherish them so much that I have even scanned most of them to keep them safe from deterioration and loss.
What I did eliminate from my life though, is heirloom guilt, that is the guilt associated with letting go of heirlooms by fear of:
  • Forgetting our ancestors,
  • Disappointing our ancestors,
  • Not conforming to the tradition of passing down,
  • Erasing a family story,
  • Lowering one’s financial worth (“I can’t sell it for what it is worth”).
I believe that we do not need things to remember our lost ones. But everyone is free to do what feels right. I feel right having chosen not to hold onto anything that belonged to my grandpa, even though I loved him dearly. I get reminded of him everyday when I get lost into the blue of Max’s eyes, when I see Leo’s “derriere” that sticks out (a family trait), and when I wear my boots with metal heel plates (he wore them too and I can hear my grandpa walking in my shoes).
As with everything else, I applied the 5R’s to guide the way I deal with heirlooms:

Refuse: Say no while you can. Being proactive is a big part of our lifestyle. Thinking of outcomes and addressing them before the time comes (in this case a family death) is key: My living parents already know that I am not interested in inheriting their stuff. I have just what I need and I like what I have. End of story. A hundred years ago, it might have made sense to pass down a good set of china to support a struggling young couple. But with today’s consumerism, that same set of China no longer supports, it clutters.

Reduce: Stick to one box per family member. Letting go of the pieces you can part with, helps keep the amount under manageable control. Sell the coin collection and take a trip with the proceeds. Wouldn’t your mother agree? In the hospice, dying people do not mention regretting leaving their coin collection behind, they regret not going after their dreams (Bonnie Ware, who worked for years nursing the dying, wrote about a great article on “5 Regrets of the Dying“). Maybe their unfulfilled dream can fund or kick start yours!

Reuse: Use Your Heirlooms. I do not need to store my grandmother’s pot, I can actually use it (it even inspired my home’s orange touches!). I think my grandmother would be happy to know that I have not let the pot clutter my life (stored for safekeeping somewhere, using up expensive real estate), she would be thrilled to know that I am actually using it. After-all, it is not the stuff that she left behind, but the memories and the stories that we share, that matter.
“The last thing I want is for someone else to have to throw away my junk! I’d rather leave only memories and skills behind” – Anonymous.
Recycle: Turn worn-out items into something else; make bulk bags out of an old sheet for example or plant flowers in your grandfather’s boots. All my kitchen towels are made from an old linen sheet from my grandmother. I am using her thrifty ways (a skill that I did happily inherit from her) to use every inch of it.
Rot: If I run into another lock of hair, it’s definitely going into the compost!
I can affirm that for me, the biggest advantage of living a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity has been a great improvement in quality of life, but also freeing myself from heirloom guilt. I believe that when parents pass something down, they do not mean to burden us or instill guilt, they just want to make a gesture that they think is mandatory. But once it’s yours, it’s your choice to do whatever you want with it. It’s a free country, right?!
Do you feel burdened by heirloom guilt?
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