Family heirlooms: Give them away at milestone celebrations

The distribution of family heirlooms is a little creepy in my book: someone dies and I get a present. I like presents, don’t misunderstand, I just wish that a family member didn’t have to die for me to get it.

My grandmother is aware of my aversion to these inheritance practices, and so gave me her set of silver as a wedding present. When she gave it to me, she told me the story about the silver and how she worked to make money to buy it, piece by piece, during the 1930s. Had she waited to give it to me after her death, I likely would have had another set already and would have never known the delightful story of how she purchased it. Now, when I use it, I think about her, that wonderful day, and her generous gift.

My advice is to give family heirlooms away at appropriate milestone celebrations. Grandfather’s college ring should be given to a grandchild on his or her graduation with a note about it and a photo of grandfather wearing it. The rocking chair you used in your daughter’s nursery should be passed on to her the day she brings her first child home. When you give her the chair, include a page from your diary when you talked about rocking her to sleep in it and a photo of her in your arms. Don’t hoard your treasured heirlooms, instead give them away at appropriate times with heart-felt explanations of why they are valued.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

12 Comments for “Family heirlooms: Give them away at milestone celebrations”

  1. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    Excellent suggestion!!!!
    The giver can see the appreciation on the face of the receiver (which they can’t do if they are dead). Also, the family history is passed down from one generation to another!

  2. posted by Betsbillabong on

    I think this is a wonderful idea.

  3. posted by Jen C on

    My family has the “Heirloom Gift” most Christmases. It is anticipated with excitement. Each one comes with a type-written card giving the story behind it. Normally, they are given after a chance remark on how much some family member likes it or finds it special. (My remark on how much I loved my grandmother’s match box holder and had been looking for one like it, for example.) Unfortunately, most of the generation these heirlooms are from is already gone, so we have missed the chance to pass them along with the verbal story from the prior owner. My favorite so far (sorry this is a bit gruesome), Chicken Bane, the ax my Grandmother used to use to kill her chickens for Sunday dinner – repurposed for my sister’s cabin in the woods.

  4. posted by Andamom on

    So right on! I wish my family practiced this philosophy. When my grandmother passed away, my aunt packed up a few things for me — but I wish that she would have done so while she was alive.

    The main “heirloom” that I wanted was her photo albums –with notes about each person shown (or at least labels). For years I asked to see albums — but my grandmother wasn’t interested in looking at people who she said had mostly died. The same aunt that saved a few items for me lent me a few albums so that I was able to scan them in — but none had labels so I have no idea who the vast majority of people are. I am going to bring them to my father (who is in a nursing home himself now) to see if he can help with labels.

    While the dishes are lovely, my interest is in seeing what my family looked like in past generations — and getting to see the moments that they felt were important enough to capture.

    If you are in a similar boat, ask your loved ones to sit down with you to name as many people as you can… And, ask to borrow the photos so that you can scan them in if nothing else!

  5. posted by Gretchen Rubin on

    What a great suggestion. Not only do you get the gift at a time when you can say thanks, but you also get the information about the gift that makes it more meaningful.

    Also, for the person giving the gift — sometimes people no longer really have a use for something, but it just doesn’t occur to them to give it away. But when they do, they get the pleasure of seeing it well-used by someone they love.

    Great idea!

  6. posted by Melanie on

    This is great, in theory. But why should Aunt Betty have to give up her rocking chair or Uncle Lou give up his ring, just so the next generation don’t have to wait until they die to get them? If they truly are heirlooms, then the older generation may still using it or treasuring it. And, frankly, if you don’t already know the story behind the item in question, then you probably don’t deserve to have it anyway. Let your cousin, who was willing to listen to the story about the items, have it.

  7. posted by Sentimental on

    Another variation on heirloom gifts at Christmas is a “Something Old” shower for brides, though it could probably be adapted. The idea is that everyone brings an heirloom item and a note about its significance. Maker sure there’s an ample supply of Kleenex at the party!

  8. posted by Monica Ricci on

    I absolutely love this and will definitely incorporate it into my own philosophies and share it with my radio listeners too! Thank you so much for the idea!

  9. posted by Jen / domestika on

    Just a brilliant idea! It lends extra meaning to the heirloom, and removes a once-loved but no-longer-used item from the home of someone who may be looking at downsizing. Thanks for this tip!

  10. posted by amanda lee on

    I really love this idea. I’ve seen it happen already with my nieces–one of them wants to be a ballet dancer, and having danced professionally, she’s always interested in seeing my old pointe shoes, my choreography notebooks, etc. When she started ballet classes, she inherited some of my old books on ballet technique–and loved them.

  11. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    In parting with many of my family heirlooms (necessary due to lack of space), I referred to the process as my “pre-estate sale!” I did indeed sell many items, but I also gave away others to people I believed would appreciate them. I’m not suggesting it was easy to let some of these things go, but it was certainly better than putting them in storage indefinitely where they would be unseen, unused and unloved. Much better to keep them circulating in the world!

  12. posted by no on

    I love this idea, because if there’s one thing I don’t have enough of in my life — it’s CRAP. Yes, please give me some of your sentimental trinkets and miscellaneous crap as a gift so I can try to figure out what the hell to do with it, before eventually throwing it away.

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