Guest article by my mom, Cindy Thomas

What to do with family heirlooms and antiques when downsizing |“You want to paint it WHAT?!?”

When my husband’s grandmother died, our daughter, in middle school at the time, acquired her bedroom furniture. The matching bed, dresser, chest of drawers, and nightstand were solid maple, 1940s craftsmanship that my husband remembered from visits to Grandma’s. Years later, after college followed by teaching in South Korea, Ashley was home for a while and ready to redecorate, incorporating new art pieces from her travels. She planned to paint the furniture black.

My husband was skeptical. “It’ll ruin the value!” To a child of the sixties, it was a sin and a crime to paint quality solid wood.

I personally thought painting the furniture was fine. I’ve painted a few pieces myself. But in relating to our young adult kids and deciding what to do with family heirlooms, I’ve certainly had issues of my own. For example, I felt honored to receive my husband’s grandmother’s silver or my aunt’s favorite piece of jewelry, but the kids don’t seem to care whether they end up with them. I love the cedar chest handmade by my grandfather. They prefer Ikea. I used a family antique baby basket for my youngest child and found it quite practical; nobody in the next generation wants it. I enjoy browsing cards and letters that show the social customs and beautiful handwriting of an earlier generation, but that’s not a big deal for someone who didn’t know the sender or recipient, and many little social niceties have been replaced by text messages.

People my age were taught to treasure things. Some, like the silver, have actual cash value; others have value only for the memories they represent. Either way, there seems to be a cultural shift. The desire for “stuff”—furniture, jewelry, china—has diminished. Even photos no longer hold a place of honor in many homes. The walls and shelves at my parents’ house are covered with several generations, and I have plenty of my own since we were in the photography business and used big prints of our own family as samples. Now, my kids choose just a few favorites and keep everything else digital.

This obviously presents a problem when it’s time to clean out the home of an elderly or deceased parent, or downsize for safety or practicality. What to do with it all? It seems pretty disrespectful to toss photos into the trash can or send Mom’s Christmas dishes to a thrift shop. But keeping it all simply won’t work. Even if you like the things, do the math—several walls of framed pictures or shelves of knick-knacks per generation, and eventually stuff will end up in storage, or else someone’s going to need an awfully big house. People move more frequently nowadays for jobs, and moving boxes is a lot of work. It’s not like the old homesteads that stayed in the same family for generations, with an attic to hold stuff and provide rainy day entertainment.

It hasn’t been easy to wrap my head around the fact that my kids don’t want all my stuff, including what I got from their grandparents, and I suspect from conversations with friends that I’m not the only one. It’s important to realize, though, that this isn’t personal. Not wanting your stuff does not equal rejection of you or your core values. And if they do want it, they may have an entirely different idea of how to use it than you did. (Like painting it black.) Priorities and styles have simply changed. While I definitely think some customs should be kept or resurrected—such as handwritten notes or front porch chats with neighbors—I’ll admit many new preferences are also okay, and even more convenient.

That said, how do we tackle the problem of what to do with all of it? The choices can be summarized in three ways: Use or repurpose it; find a place to donate it that will actually appreciate it, or—gasp—toss it.

#1 – Use.

I had a light bulb moment when I realized my parents and grandparents didn’t buy things to be stored in boxes or, with a few precious exceptions, sit on a shelf and look pretty. They bought them to use. With that revelation, I started unpacking things I actually liked or needed and using them.  Grandma’s silver is prettier than my stainless silverware, so I use it often. (It does have to be hand-washed, but it really doesn’t take that long.) Need a particular size pan or baking dish? Check the cabinet at my dad’s, as my daughter recently did, before buying one. I really enjoy drinking coffee out of my mom’s green Jadite or white Fire King mugs—they fit my hand nicely and they remind me of her. Family quilts from the cedar closet actually keep the bed quite warm or soften up a space as a wall hanging. And the cedar chest itself makes a great coffee table, sturdy enough to withstand kids and pets, the scratches just adding to the character.

Pillowcase Curtains |
Curtains made from vintage hand-embroidered pillowcases

While cleaning and sorting at my dad’s house, I found a stash of my mom’s beautifully embroidered pillowcases. I’ll never need that many pillowcases, but with a fold here and a few clip hooks there, voila! Cute, unique kitchen window curtains.

One of my friends created a jewelry storage shelf using her grandma’s dainty teacups. Those huge picture frames from our photo studio are perfect for showcasing a collection of smaller wall art, like this. If you really love an item, you’re bound to find an idea on Pinterest for a stylish way to use it.

#2 – Donate.

For things you really can’t use (or if you’re honest, you don’t like but felt guilty about it), turn to Google for places to donate them. uses old yearbooks to supplement their databases. People who do still use their family china might want yours, to expand their set or replace broken pieces. Watch for tearooms and coffee shops opening in your area—collections of mismatched mugs and vintage wall art are popular décor. Community theater companies are often seeking vintage clothing for their costume collections.

I kept my mom’s old Avon bottles for years because they were cute, but they weren’t doing anyone any good wrapped in tissue in a box. After determining online that none of them were the really rare ones worth a lot of money, I gave a few to a friend decorating a beauty salon and the rest to a thrift shop for devout collectors to find. If you do have something worth more money, sell it and put the money toward a specific goal. (Think how much your loved one would enjoy knowing they helped you take a vacation or a grandkid pay down student loans!)

From my husband’s dad, we have tools and more tools, since he was in the remodeling business. And my husband has tools of his own. His dad and grandfather enjoyed working with wood as a hobby, not just as a business, but my husband admits that if he has leisure time, woodworking isn’t his first choice. He prefers photography or a round of golf. Once he realized it was okay to enjoy different hobbies than his dad and grandpa, he tackled the project of selling tools, keeping just enough for maintenance and repairs at home.

My weakness is books, and I inherited that tendency from my parents. My late mom had piles of Christian fiction and classic American literature; my dad has Bible commentaries and study materials he can no longer see well enough to read. Some I’ve taken to a resale/trade outlet, either for cash or for new books to use as gifts. I also read about a minister who lost his entire study collection in a fire. He was grateful to be offered some of Dad’s things. So was our friend who runs a Bible school in South Africa.

#3 – Toss.

Finally, and perhaps the hardest, admit that some stuff just needs to go in the trash or recycling bin. Those boxes of photos? How many of the next generation will remember who those people are, let alone take time to sift through the actual pictures? Some are faded; large prints are yellowed from years of exposure to light and dust. First, sort out pictures still in good condition that a local historical museum might want, and donate them. (A veterans museum wanted some of my dad’s WWII pictures.) Make a few albums or digital files and label them for the genealogy buffs in the family, and then brace yourself for the big toss. Same for kids’ schoolwork, family vacation brochures, and other paper. You’ll feel relieved, trust me. It’s the memory that counts, and you can have that in a much smaller space, such as a digitized scrapbook or a digital picture frame.

My parents—Depression era, remember?—saved old towels, linens, curtains, and fabric. Our plumber was happy to take a bag of towels for clean-up jobs. A thrift shop wanted the vintage fabric to advertise to quilters. Animal shelters need blankets and linens for bedding. After you’ve exhausted those possibilities, face it, some of it might just have to go in the trash or recycling, especially if moths or mice got to it before you did.

Recently I read a devotional from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. It had been awhile since I read the entire passage (or listened to the song Turn, Turn, Turn). Most of us are familiar with “a time to be born, a time to die,” but farther down in the passage, we find “a time to keep, and a time to cast away.” Solomon, whom Christian tradition cites as the wisest man who ever lived, had plenty of money to spend on stuff and a whole palace to store it in, but as he grew older, his perspective changed. Whether it’s using something in a new way or having the courage to toss it, his words can help me accept change, too.

Read about the author’s personal experience sorting through her parents’ possessions in the article “This is Why You Shouldn’t Wait to Downsize”.

Ad for downsizing course series