The Great Taste Divide: Passing Down Your Stuff to the Next Generation, Good Luck & Adios
The holidays are the prime time to set a beautiful table. You bring out the good stuff i.e. the English bone china, Waterford crystal goblets, Tiffany sterling silver flatware, serving pieces and trays, Irish lace tablecloth and perhaps, hint hint, you suggest that you’d love to pass any of this stuff on to your kids. You think they should be beyond thrilled!
They grunt and grimace, politely, of course. However, as a rule, they don’t want your cherished hand-me-downs such as your brown wood antique furniture, upholstered wing chairs, tall case clocks, and brass desk lamps. They might not even want your baby grand or upright pianos.
Ungrateful? We could be profoundly wounded by such rejection. After all, many pieces carry some family history. Aren’t our kids sentimental enough to want the tables and chairs they sat on for years or which your parents did and maybe if you’re lucky your grandparents also did?
There was a time when family heirlooms were cherished. That’s true for most in our generation. But for this younger millennial group, much of our stuff when removed from its context becomes almost irrelevant. “MOM,” they say with capital letter emphasis, “There’s nothing we need, and we have nowhere to put it. We live in much smaller places that you have. Anyway, it isn’t our taste.” “Yes,” we reply. “We get that our tastes are different, but don’t you like the idea that other generations in the family used the items?” we ask looking a bit rejected.
Most objects we own are subject to the ebb and flow of cultural tides, and it’s probably always been true. Maybe, Marie Antoinette didn’t like her mother-in-law’s gold-plated furniture, fancy candlesticks or armoires, but Louis XVI, her husband, probably told her to try to love it. And we know that she had an affinity for cake platters.
We, too, try to reason with our kids, “What if some of this stuff comes back in style? Can’t you store it for when antiques make a comeback?” No, they shake their collective heads. They live in the present. And, they add, who has time to coddle pieces that need polishing, hand washing and fancy dry cleaning. Their inexpensive ceramic dishes, mugs, and stainless flatware go nicely into the dishwasher, thank you very much. And if something breaks, no big deal!
Also, clutter is counterintuitive to the way most of our adult children under 40 live today. They prefer to rent (it’s in the budget, it allows them to come and go as they change jobs more frequently and requires minimal maintenance) and opt for as much open empty space as possible. Minimalism is the path to happiness; they heeded Marie Kondo’s advice about tidying up even before she put it into millions of books. And what little furniture they might have is spare, lean and pared down. No frills or froufrou. An absence of tchotchkes is the rule of thumb unless it’s practical like something to open a wine bottle or a device to keep the wine chilled. “We value experiences rather than stuff,” they say. They prefer to use their limited space to house drinkable good wines, craft beers and specialty drinks, their gaming consoles, smart TVs, expensive coffees and coffee makers and personal care products.
So, here’s the tact Margaret took recently with her kids. She was thinking that perhaps they’d want something small, personal or meaningful to them. “How about a pretty vase, clock, lamp, or quilt? I’m moving to NYC and will be downsizing. Please take one or two items that you might want.”
Margaret is close to getting her daughter to take one set of fine china. Remy works in the wine business and loves to cook and entertain. She has a knack for making the most prosaic food look stunning; she excels in presentation. Remy isn’t totally convinced that she needs or wants the dishes. Time will tell.
On the other hand, Margaret’s youngest son Tommy wants only one thing—and it’s a biggie--the family Steinway piano although he has no place to put it. Should Margaret hang on to it? Put it in storage? Once she moves, she’s looking for someone to foster it until Tommy has room for it someday. If she can’t find a temporary home for it, she might end up having to sell or donate it to a local school.
With her eldest son Adam, she was pushy about his taking her late husband’s parson’s desk. When Adam moved to NYC, she practically thrust it singlehandedly onto the moving van. Adam reluctantly stuck it in the living room of his new apartment. “I think it looks terrific,” she told him when visiting recently. He’s more pragmatic telling her that the desk is a good resting place for a much-needed lamp to brighten the room.
Barbara’s daughters echo similar sentiments. Who needs more stuff? They say in unison, except for a few items. Her younger daughter’s older son is likely to be gifted her Steinway piano that she inherited since he’s already enchanted with music and trying to play at almost 5 years of age. Her older daughter wants her handcrafted mahogany breakfast table and six chairs. Both girls are being gifted Barbara’s and her 99-year-old mother’s good china sets, Tiffany goblets and silver sterling flatware “someday,” whether they like it all or not. And they may want some of her artworks. Each also will take the oil portraits that were painted of them when they were 3 years old. But it’s highly unlikely much else will appeal. Certainly not her collection of more than 200 snow globes that Barbara slowly purchased, or friends and family gave her when they visited new destinations. Iceland! Russia! South Africa!
The message behind all of this is one of simplicity. Our adult children like and cherish their childhood memories but not in the form of stuff. They also have many photos of a lot of the stuff from all the pictures they’ve taken at holiday and family gatherings. Who needs the actual things, they reason, as they digitize almost everything.
We know it’s only fair that they be given the chance to forge their own paths ahead to fill--or not fill--their spaces with what they choose so they can create their own distinctly personal surroundings and wonderful new memories. We had our chances and now they do, too.
What to do with your stuff no one wants?
- Have an estate sale and make a few bucks.
- Put it in a consignment shop and wait for a buyer.
- Try to sell on eBay or a similar site.
- If valuable, offer it to an auction house and see what you can get for it.
- Give it away to friends and neighbors as a thank you for helping you pare down your belongings. Perhaps, some have a son or daughter moving into their first apartment. They might need sofa, chairs, bookshelves or a desk!
- Donate to Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, pet stuff to the Humane Society, computer equipment to your church, musical instruments to a school, books to a library or school and if valuable and historically significant, donate to a museum. In doing so, you’re creating a public legacy in your family’s name. Know that certain organizations won’t take certain items such as mattresses, so check first
- Toss what you can’t sell or give away. Some residents of Barbara’s town leave it on their sidewalks with a sign, “please take me.” Check if that’s permitted.
And don’t feel bad. Know that giving up stuff might hurt in the short term, but you’ll feel so much lighter and freer with less stuff to care for—dust and move.