I'm thrilled to feature a guest post today written by my friend Karla Holley of the blog Small Town Rambler.
The internet is a lonely place at times but it can also lead to some wonderful moments of connection. A set of mid-century modern chairs (walnut Krueger Matrix chairs to be exact) first brought Karla and I together when she reached out to me as a mid-century modern design specialist, and in the time since that first contact, I'm proud to consider Karla a friend and very grateful she has chosen to share her experiences here.
Karla's account of what she learned through the process of deciding what to keep following the passing of both her grandmothers reminds me so much of what I witness with my appraisal clients. As a USPAP-compliant appraiser, I am bound by confidentiality in my work, so I am especially delighted to be able to post Karla's first-person account.
I encourage everyone to go check out Karla's blog Small Town Rambler, which features a mixture of inspiring DIY tutorials, interior design, and Karla's impressive refinishing projects (I'm in awe of her prowess with power tools!)
I especially love how Karla empowers her readers to envision new ways to style antiques and heirlooms rather than sending them to the dumpster and buying new mass-produced furniture, which is a topic close to my own heart as an appraiser. Best of all, she's one of those genuinely kind individuals who are always delightful to encounter in one's journey through life.
Deciding what to keep when a loved one dies can be a difficult decision. Going through belongings that hold many memories or have value can bring up a lot of emotions, which can make the task even more difficult.
I lost both of my Grandmothers in the past five years (both of whom were widowed) and my husband was the Executor of my maternal Grandmother's estate when she died in 2012. My emotions were all over the place when she died because her death was unexpected, so I had a hard time letting go of her things. I didn't want to let go of my Grandparents (I was very close to both of them), so in my mind, holding on to them was holding on to their "stuff." We use most of the things we kept but I realize now that when my emotions are making the decisions, I tend to go overboard and I held on to some things that I didn't know what to do with or that didn't serve a purpose.
When my other Grandmother passed away over the summer, my prior experience put things in perspective and I was able to give more thought to things that were important to me, and ask for those particular items. My paternal Grandparents had a lot more children and Grandchildren than my other Grandparents had, so many of their things already had a home to go to, which was nice!
Since this experience is still fresh in my mind, I'd like to share a few things that I feel are important questions to ask yourself before deciding what to keep AND some ways you can use these things in your own home. I hope you find this helpful!
1. Will you use it?
Will you REALLY use it?
I ended up with some things I thought I would use, but never used them. I don't even drink wine and took home two corkscrews. I didn't really need another set of nylon cooking utensils. I also never really had any interest in sewing, so the hundreds of spools filled with thread just became clutter. More to dig through in the kitchen drawers and threads and scissors, and scissors, and more scissors in my craft area. I used the pinking shears once while making a neat pattern at the edge of some craft paper for a project, but that's it. Anyway, you get the picture. The thought of letting go of my Grandmother's sewing supplies felt like I was losing that part of her but I never really had an interest in sewing. I've decided I'm going to use her sewing cabinet as a record cabinet and the spools, scissors, and outdated fabric have to go.
If I had asked myself that question five years ago and really taken the time to think about it, I wouldn't have so much to sort through now and had things in the way all this time. I think it's okay to have a few things just to display for decoration that you may not use, but if you're taking things that will become clutter or that you have to store, you'll definitely want to think about the answer to this question.
I'm one who loves dishes and using a mix of pretty pieces when I entertain company, so taking my Great-Grandmother's china set was a clear decision. I loved the pattern and I am able to nicely display it in this vintage display cabinet, which was also passed down to me. The silver set inside the cabinet would be an example of something I wouldn't use but enjoy displaying because it was one of my Grandparent's wedding gifts.
2. Can you use it to decorate or repurpose?
I really loved this old rustic gate I found at my Husband's Grandparent's farm and wanted to use it somewhere in the house where it could easily be seen. It was sitting outside in one of the buildings and no one else wanted it. I was so happy when I found the perfect place to display it! I knew it would make a pretty decorative piece and the simple silk huckleberry wreath was a nice touch.
The glass pitcher holding the fresh tulips is also displayed on the china cabinet above. I've used it as a pretty vase for my fresh-cut flowers and it's a nice way to remember my Grandmother.
This turquoise table was in such bad shape that the auctioneers wouldn't even take it when they were clearing out the rest of the furniture from my Grandparent's house. I loved it because it stored my Grandaddy's butchering equipment and I thought of it as a special piece, but how could I use it? I refinished the top with stain and outdoor polyurethane and the bottom part with an outdoor paint and now we are using it as a serving buffet and grilling station on our deck. It's wonderful for outdoor entertaining!
3. Is it functional?
My Grandfather's butcher block is a very special piece but I did not want it sitting in a dark corner of the basement just to say I have it. It did sit in the basement for a year or two until I convinced my husband that it would make a nice kitchen island. It's very functional for extra storage underneath and the wood block on the top has been the perfect place to prepare food. What makes it so special is the story. It was my Grandfather's first butcher block he used when he was a butcher at the old A & P grocery store in downtown Waynesboro. Having a piece of family and local history in our kitchen makes a nice conversation piece, and it's usually the first thing people notice when they walk into our kitchen.
4. Does it hold a special memory?
Is there something in particular that reminds you of the time you spent with your loved-ones, or that brings back special memories? I knew right away that I wanted these floral wing-back chairs that my Gramma purchased when her kids were small. She had them long before I was born and we have so many family photos with these chairs in the background. Blue was her color, so that is a nice reminder as well. I have so many memories of my Grandparents' attached to these chairs and I am so thankful I have them, I even bought a blue and white duvet cover for our bedroom just so it would match with the chair. We have the other chair sitting in my husband's music room. I love these chairs and I hope they stay in the family for generations to come!
If you are currently in the process of sorting through your loved-one's things or if it's something you will do in the future, I hope you find this to be helpful. My heart goes out to you because it is not an easy thing to do and our emotions are just part of the process... and that's normal! Just take the time to consider these questions and realize that if they do not have a special memory attached or you cannot use them in your own home, then they are just things. Even the things you can sell to turn a profit are just that. I have a few things from my Grandparents that might be worth a fair amount of money but I have never been interested in pricing them because to me, they are priceless, and are not for sale.
"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." William Morris
Many thanks to Karla for kindly sharing this! All of the images featured here belong to Karla and can be found at Small Town Rambler.
This is a brief snippet of a much longer monologue that runs continually in my head as I work professionally in the world of things and help guide people through the process of dealing with material objects.
I'm writing this on Black Friday, which here in the United States has become a cultural celebration of consumerism that has eclipsed Thanksgiving. It inspires mixed feelings in me--as a small business owner, I am well aware of how important Black Friday sales are for the survival of small retail businesses, but I also sense the imbalanced dynamic of our society's relationship with things.
I'm not posting this to chastise you for purchasing something, or to give you a lecture about why you should boycott Black Friday. I don't feel like I don't have any business dictating your consumer choices. Using Black Friday sale coupons for items you were planning to purchase anyway can be an important tool for keeping within your budget and maintaining your financial health, and I respect that.
What I do have to share is my perspective as an appraiser, one gleaned from many years of studying the materials, construction, and design of things, and also from my role documenting what remains after someone has passed when I have to write an appraisal report for estate purposes.
Often I am one of the first people outside the immediate family in a home after someone has passed, and it is simultaneously unsettling and humbling to have the responsibility of documenting the objects they left behind in death. It usually takes me several hours to calm down from it afterwards--the closeness, the sense that the departed has just gone out for groceries and will be back soon. I can't imagine how much more wrenching it must feel for family members.
The household contents vary in each situation of course, but more often than I would like I encounter estates stuffed full with a dizzying volume of mass-produced consumer goods, some unopened in their original packages, and grieving family members who feel like they are drowning under the weight of trying to handle all that stuff in addition to healing from the loss of their loved one.
I see many parallels between the ubiquity of fast food and how it has overshadowed the ways that people traditionally cooked and prepared food and the ways that "fast consumer goods" have infiltrated our homes. Both are highly processed and full of artificial ingredients, are made elsewhere by anonymous workers we never meet and have no relationship with, and are acquired mindlessly at an alarming rate in our current culture.
Early in my career I worked at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (on the curatorial and research sides, not the costumed interpreter side, to answer in advance the people who inevitably ask) and they had a resource there called the York County Records Room that was full of probate inventories from individuals who lived in York County, Virginia in the 17th and 18th centuries. These probate inventories were the historical versions of what I write now in my appraisal firm: a listing of the worldly goods belonging to someone at their death. What was so remarkable about reading through them and now comparing with the context of our own window in time was how few items people owned, even the most affluent members of the community. Probate inventories were typically only two or three pages--for everything someone owned! I suspect most of us would take two or three pages to list the contents of a single room in our homes. People now like to laugh about the trends of minimalism and tiny homes like they are something radically new but in reality it is more accurately a return to how humans lived for thousands of years before the last century.
When I was a college student at the College of William & Mary, I took several classes with Dr. Charles McGovern, a former curator whose scholarly specialty was American consumer culture of the 20th century. I found his lectures fascinating and enjoyed them, but it was only years later in my appraisal career that I began to fully comprehend the totality of what he taught us about how carefully engineered corporate campaigns over decades succeeded in shifting our attitudes and relationship to things. (Thank you, Charlie!)
Despite the presence of hundreds or thousands of items in a home, there are often very few objects that could be described as "heirlooms," and in fact it is typically those simple, beautifully made, useful objects I encounter all-too-rarely in my appraisal assignments that end up being the ones that bring comfort to heirs and that they'd like to keep. People are drawn to the objects with embedded memories that remind them of the late loved one, not the closets packed with designer clothes or hundreds of collectibles.
It is with this perspective that I view Black Friday, and the gift-giving expectations of the holiday season in general, and wish that people could apply the lessons I've learned in estate appraisals to their planned purchases. I am not against things. I LOVE things. I wouldn't be an appraiser if I didn't have a deep appreciation for things. Time and training has honed my taste, however, to love particular sorts of things: those that are well made of quality materials, will last for many years, and will bring joy for every day it is part of one's life. Beautiful design and a light environmental footprint are also important to me.
Sometimes the very best gifts aren't tangible objects at all but are instead time spent with loved ones or helping to further a mission that is close to someone's heart. It would thrill me if more people could expand their vision of the possibilities of the American consumer and gift-giving season. By all means participate if you want to, but try pausing before doing what you think you're expected to do and consider what you want to do.
Another option is to give your heirlooms now. People frequently have a mental list of items they wish to bequeath to loved ones after their passing, but I can assure you that this can become very messy and ugly and leave a bad taste for what should have been a happy remembrance. It can be so much more positive to give some of your cherished items to a loved one while you are still alive--they have the memory of you giving it to them and explaining why that thing was so important to you and why you want them to have it (these beautiful stories are so often lost in death), and you also remove the chance of family members fighting over belongings and your wishes not being carried out.
Regardless of how you celebrate the holidays (or if you don't celebrate at all, which is fine too), my wish is that my perspective as the person who is there when the story ends can help others make choices that will lead to happier endings of their own stories, and add an extra nuance to your enjoyment of things now that comes from a much deeper and older place than a reaction to a corporate marketing campaign.