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.