Do you meet the definition of a “family historian”? Are you passionate about your family’s history? Do you have family heirlooms in your home that were either handed down to you or given to you for safekeeping by a relative? Do you collect family photos, obituaries, death certificates, and marriage licenses? Have you been entrusted with your family’s genealogy works?
If this sounds like you, then congratulations — you’ve earned a place of distinction among your fellow family historians.
Family historians are eager to assume a variety of responsibilities. One of those is the privilege of serving as the family repository, the place where treasured family heirlooms, photos and other genealogy materials are safely kept. If you accept this role, you must also be prepared to carry out what is considered the most difficult task family historians will ultimately perform— letting these items go.
After-all, we are talking about valuable pieces passed down from generation to generation: Family Bible, furniture, handwritten memorabilia, family photos, collections, a handmade quilt, vintage clothing, military medals or a flag that draped a soldier’s coffin, steamer trunks, embroidered linens, china or silverware, musical instruments, and so much more.
Why We Keep Them
There are a number of reasons why we hang on to family heirlooms and genealogy materials. For some, it’s a way to stay connected to a loved one or establish a connection to an ancestor never known. Family pieces are imbued with history and represent a glimpse into the lives of our ancestors. Many items are exquisitely handcrafted, like quilts and furniture. Other items are saved for sentimental reasons, such as memorabilia of a service member killed in action.
Regardless of the reasons why we keep them, everyone understands we can’t keep them forever.
Facing the Handoff
Eventually, there will come a time in your life when it will become necessary to make the handoff. You’ve probably already given it some thought. Who will take them? Who will cherish them? Who will see their “real” value?
Ideally, we would like to pass them down to any children we may have or other relatives, someone who will cherish them as much as we do.
But what happens when there is no one available or interested in accepting them; or they can’t take it all.
A Different World
The world and people’s attitudes about material things are different today. More people are living a minimalist lifestyle and there is no room for clutter or “stuff.” Everything is disposable, antique furniture is out; what’s in is cheaply made, unassembled furniture shipped to your door. It’s a digital society, where things like a printed photo and a paper file are rare.
It’s “Just Stuff”?
Recently, I was speaking with a friend whose grandmother had just passed. She was cleaning items out of her grandmother’s house so it could be sold. Naively (with my family historian hat on), I asked her whether she was setting aside keepsakes that should be saved to preserve and honor her family’s legacy.
I was totally dismayed by her response. She said, “No one wants this stuff. My sister and I are downsizing, we don’t have a place for it.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but what really puzzled me was the absence of any emotional connection to “things.” That’s where I often get stuck.
A Joyful Handoff
It took some time to really process what I had heard and witnessed that day. I even told another friend I couldn’t believe what Sue was doing— putting all of her grandmother’s belongings out on the curb for just anyone to take.
Finally, I came to realize she was right “it’s okay to let go.” Instead of fretting over who was going to take what, I decided to come up with some creative handoff ideas. The goal: Bring joy to those who receive the items; and be grateful for having had the privilege of taking care of them.
14 Handoff Ideas
Hopefully, these 14 unique ideas will be helpful in making the handoff a positive and memorable experience for you.
- Prepare a book. It’s a challenge, but condense your main family research and photos down to a book that can be shared with family members. Select the family line(s) that will be most meaningful for future generations.
- Take photos. Take pictures of anything that holds a memory, then let go of the physical object. Release it to someone else that can get use from it.
- Share the story. Let’s say you have a table you would like to pass on to a relative. But family members seem reluctant to take it because “it doesn’t fit with their modern décor” or it has no meaning to them. The key to getting them to gratefully accept it may be the story behind it. Write down its history, who owned it, maybe a photo of when it was used at a family gathering, a photo of the original owner, etc. Share the story with a loved one, and then give them some time to think about what you have said. Then, at a later date, ask them if they would like it.
- Donate to an archive. Historical societies and museums will sometimes welcome collections, such as letters, photos, and documents. Just ask.
- Speak with a local museum. Museums are selective on what they will accept and might say “no thank you.” However, if you have something of historical value, they may be interested, especially with the historical provenance related to the original owner.
- Military museums. National, state and local military museums are interested in artifacts from all wars. They are particularly interested in items used by Americans either in combat or while working their military jobs. You will need to speak with curatorial staff to determine which items they are accepting.
- Shelters. Homeless shelters often need kitchen items. Your grandmother’s plates could be used to serve needy homeless families.
- Starters. Do you have a grandchild that is just getting started or have a young couple in your family that is setting out on their own? Perfect, they need tables and chairs and dishes, and they generally aren’t picky when starting out.
- Weddings. Gifts don’t always need to be new to be treasured. Box up grandma’s china set and give it to the happy couple, along with a letter telling the story behind them.
- Family reunions. Bring a family collection to the reunion and invite family members to take what they want. Taking one tea cup set may be manageable, where accepting an entire collection of tea sets is not something everyone can or is willing to do.
- Share a setting. Do you have a collection of wedding china, silverware or Depression glassware? Invite your children or relatives over for dinner, even if it’s just takeout. Serve the meal using the dinnerware and tell them the story behind it. Then offer each family member a place setting to take home.
- Photo collage. While a box or binder of photos is not always welcome, a framed photo collage that can be displayed on a table or wall might be. Perhaps the artwork is titled “Grandmothers,” which includes a special photo of each grandmother, with their name in the caption.
- Shadow boxes. Rather than keeping an entire collection, choose one item from it to keep. Purchase a shadow box and display the chosen object with a photo of the person who originally owned it.
- Be generous. Donate practical items such as furniture and glassware to a charitable organization.
Share your thoughts in the comment section below on other ways to joyfully let go of sentimental items.