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The Sentimental Curator

Whenever I present a Nest Building workshop, the most frequently asked question comes from someone suffering under the burden of inherited possessions and the obligations that accompany them.

One of the exercises in my Nest Building book helps to determine how present a person is in his or her space by taking an inventory of the objects in a room, their origins and the occupant’s feelings towards them. It is surprising how many people are, in fact, simply custodians of other people’s stuff!

We live in a culture of 'too much’—an inevitable consequence of the efficiency of the Industrial Revolution that gave birth to manufacturing and mass production. Generations that preceded that era didn't have the luxury of casually disposing of goods to replace them with newer versions just because they felt like it. They appreciated the possessions that were passed down from their parents and, in turn, passed them on to their children.

We certainly aren't immune to the sentimental and traditional value inherent in bone china tea services and silver serving platters. However, we don't know how to integrate these items into our lives, or even if we want to.

"This belonged to your great, great grandmother"… is that a loving inscription on the gift card attached to the huge dusty box brought down from your parent’s attic, or a guilt-ridden obligation being handed over because you’re the next in line?

You cannot live your best life in a shrine devoted to the stuff of other people's lives. You have to learn to create and curate your own memories and treasures, ideally integrating elements from your past without suppressing your own emerging story.

So, burdened by heirlooms and custodial obligations, what can you do?

-You could wait to pass them on to your children—i.e. do to them what was done to you.

-You could sell the items or donate them to a good cause or secondhand shop, but a sibling or other relative is bound to look at you and say, “how you!”

-Or, you could go for the out-of-mind, out-of sight option by dropping them from a mountain top, or putting them back into storage and accidentally forgetting to include them in your next house move.

But, what about a compromise?

Keep the sugar bowl or a couple of teacups from the 40-piece tea service and get rid of the rest. By culling this way, you will have something special to treasure instead being bogged down by the overwhelming feeling you get when looking at the entire set. It’s easy to accommodate and enjoy one or two pieces and still keep your sentimental attachment and sense of duty intact.

Another option is to use these things for the purposes they were originally intended. They become far less onerous once assimilated into daily life. You get to enjoy them instead of resenting or fearing them. Things may get chipped or worn, but that’s what they were originally intended for. By taking them out of the bubble wrap you give grandma’s old rolling pin and granddad’s old shaving bowl a new lease on life. You also give yourself and your family a more tangible and richer connection to a past that cannot be experienced if everything you deem ‘special’ is relegated to a neglected box in the attic.

But, don’t forget that whatever the object—regardless of its provenance—if you really don’t like it, move it on to someone who will … keep the memories in your heart, but let the Chippendale go.

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