Tough Sell: Thoughts on Unloading a Parent's Possessions

Disposing of my mother’s cherished belongings seemed to disrespect not just her wishes, but her.

After my mother passed away—it’s been 10 years now—my sister and I combed through her home retrieving personal items that she’d held dear. Given her meticulous nature, we weren’t surprised to find a list with instructions as to who got what. To my brother, her hulking late-model car, still parked in the garage; her big-screen TV; some furniture suitable for a man; and cash from her safe. To my sister, a set of rare Meissen china and some jewelry. I, the youngest of four, received her collection of high-end designer handbags and silk scarves, a few vintage dresses, her diamond ring, and a slew of fur coats. Mom was fashionable—Jackie Kennedy had nothing on her—and I understood from her bequest that she wanted me to be, too.

The sad truth is, most of the handbags have sat in their original boxes on my closet shelf for a decade. They are still as stylish as they are classic, but stiff, the latches complex, the handles too short to throw over a shoulder. The beautifully patterned scarves have formed a square pile in my bottom drawer, while the furs—mink coats, a sable jacket—have hung as they were: in satin bags, a packet of mothballs strung on each velvet hanger. I wear the ring on special occasions, and when I look down upon my hand, it is hers I see.

My pantry and dining-room breakfront are crowded with other artifacts from my parents’ home, mostly ornate silver serving pieces that graced their formal table at holiday meals. The components of a complete coffee and tea service, meant to share a large tray, have been stuffed onto multiple shelves, and a massive lazy Susan, its compartments topped with intricately carved lids, has occupied the top rung of my pantry, where cereal boxes might otherwise have stood. Twelve place settings of sterling-silver flatware have sat unused in their wooden case. These were gifted to me before her death, no doubt because she wanted them safe, but also, I suspect, because they were as idle in her home as they later became in mine.

Over the years, I have flirted with the idea of selling the silver, purses, and furs. To do so, though, seemed to disrespect not just her wishes, but her. I have no use for most of what I inherited, but guilt has stood in the way of unloading heirlooms that have, finally, turned into clutter. At what point do things cease belonging to someone else and become your own?

An article I came across in this magazine describing an auction of high-end merchandise was serendipitous. I immediately invited the appraiser to come view my mother’s treasures. A few days later, the gentleman, obviously sensitive to entering folks’ private domains, carefully sifted through the cherished possessions.

I had dusted off the handbags I selected to sell, keeping a few favorites, and lined them up on the fireplace hearth. Some of the silver pieces I displayed on my dining-room table were completely unfamiliar; I had never removed the heavy champagne bucket or floral-etched candy dish from their tarnish-proof bags. The silver flatware rattled softly as I lugged its heavy, felt-lined chest to the growing exhibition.

We started with the handbags, which he examined, inside and out, remarking on the excellent care they had received. I could still see my mother stuffing each one with tissue paper before replacing it in its original box. Those purses never resembled my own, whose contents could pass for the remains of a flea market. No candy wrappers for her, or dusty pills at the bottom of a cosmetics bag. I probably didn’t deserve the expensive bags to begin with, and now here they were, on their way out, something she never would have wanted.

New brides, I am told, no longer select “good china” for their registries.

The remorse rose in my throat like bile, and I felt like I might be sick when the polite appraiser opened the case of silver and pronounced: “Grand Baroque. Worth more melted down.” At that, he removed handfuls of elaborately carved forks, spoons, and knives and placed them, clattering, on a scale. I stood by, horrified.

Recognizing my dismay, he said, “How about I put them on eBay, and we’ll see what we get.” Having not just fallen off a turnip truck, I realized that an online buyer would likely want them for their meltdown value as well, but I preferred to picture a genteel lady stirring her tea and lifting a lavish fork of sweet cake to her red-stained lips.

The fact is, our lifestyles have changed. We do not live at Downton Abbey, and there are no servants—thank heavens—to polish trays and tip silver teapots. New brides, I am told, no longer select “good china” for their registries. The one set they want comes from Crate & Barrel and is suitable for family and dinner guests alike. According to the appraiser, silver-plated trays like mine, no matter how beautiful, usually fetch barely $20 at auction. No one wants the out-of-date finery any more than I did.

I am certain that my children are not interested in treasures from generations past. I tell myself I am sparing them the burden of extravagant items. In a semi-serious conversation about wills and estates, my younger son, who would rather face morbid eventualities with humor, joked that the only things he wanted were my silk plants, which he had mocked for years. At that, he gathered up a few fake Boston ferns and marched out the door.

My closets are emptier now, but so is my heart. I earned a few bucks, which soon dribbled away: at Target, the supermarket, the dry cleaner. I told myself I’d take the “windfall” and purchase a fashionable purse or objet d’art, an item of which my mother would have approved. But I didn’t. In a decade or two, I’d only end up bequeathing it to a granddaughter, leaving her to wonder how to honor me and, at the same time, clear off a much-needed shelf.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

This article appeared in the August 2013 issue.