Passing On Our Possessions

This article originally appeared on the Support4Change website, and is reposted here.

Discover how one family had great fun in deciding, while their parents were still living, what the children would inherit.

I’m so glad I’m alive to watch our children choose the paintings they want.
—Comment of my father as his children were deciding what items we wanted to inherit

fallIf you’ve never had the pleasure of choosing the things you want to inherit from your parents while they are still living, you’ve missed a great opportunity. Fortunately, I had that chance more than ten years ago when my parents were going into a retirement community and needed to pare down their possessions.

During a family reunion, my three siblings and I divided almost everything they owned into separate categories, such as kitchen items, tools, paintings (both were amateur painters), furniture, etc. The idea was to make selections of what we’d like to have for ourselves and for our children. We’d be able to take with us those things they had to get rid of right away and would mark other items we’d receive after they died.

The process was very simple. We decided which category we wanted to start with first. Then we each chose a different colored removable circle sticker. Mine was red. Next we drew straws to see who would go first, second, etc. in making his or her selection in the first category.

We began with the paintings.

Many were still hanging on the walls and others were taken out and stacked around the house. The person who got to go first would make one selection and put his or her color sticker on the back of the painting. Then the next person would select a painting and put a sticker on the back of that one. The third and the fourth sibling would do the same. Then the first person would get go choose again.

I think someone also wrote down our choices, but I don’t recall that clearly. I do know that before selections began we all had our eyes on certain paintings we particularly wanted. If you were the fourth person in line, you would hold your breath and hope someone else hadn’t chosen the one you wanted. But in this way everyone was assured they would get at least one of their first four choices. As we got farther and farther down the pile of remaining paintings, we weren’t quite so concerned about our choice. But you’d be amazed at how important it was to be able to make the selections yourself rather than have someone decide for you.

After selection of the paintings was done, we’d take a break (this all took place over a couple days, what with the sorting into categories and all). Then we’d start on the next group of things we could inherit, perhaps the furniture. The person who got last choice in the previous round would get first choice, so no one would always get first pick. With about four categories, someone would always get to be first and select what they were sure was the best of that category.

We had different ideas of what was “best”

The truth was that what was “best” was highly subjective. For example, I noticed that I would pass up something, forgetting it had been used to fix a thousand meals in the kitchens of our childhood. When my sister would chose it (she went for most of the sentimental rather than practical items), I’d suddenly wish I had selected that one instead of the item I’d just chosen. But for the most part I was satisfied.

Were there problems? Only a few. One happened over a cupboard I had previously asked my mother if I could inherit when she died. At that time I didn’t know we would be going through this selection process. It had been a tall piece with several coats of paint that she’d rescued from the basement of a church where my brother was minister. After she’d worked her magic on refinishing it, it was absolutely beautiful. I had thought for several years that it would look perfect in my house and knew exactly where I’d put it.

Unfortunately, my brother had always assumed it would be his because it had come from his church. He simply hadn’t been as forward about asking as I had been. I realized with sinking heart that he probably should get it. But I did insist he use that piece for his first choice when selections began for furniture. It didn’t seem fair that he’d get the prized cupboard without having to choose it, meaning he’d get two good pieces.

Yes, I could have been more magnanimous, but considering the emotions that often divide families as they’re dividing their parents’ possessions, all and all we were quite friendly about everything. Well, there was that matter of Grandmother’s stained linen napkins that should not have been part of the dishes and silverware in the first place and …

But you get the point. This can be a lot of fun, although I will admit that some families I know are so contentious and competitive that this system wouldn’t work. However, when it is possible, it’s a great way to share the treasures and memories of one generation with the next.

© Copyright 2002, Revised 2012 Arlene F Harder, MA, MFT

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