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Keepsakes of the Heart

My husband and I stopped at an estate sale a couple of weeks ago. The house was a pretty, well-maintained colonial–a family home. As we walked up the driveway, I noticed a multitude of flower stakes that dotted hibernating flower beds. A small table and two wrought iron chairs sat waiting for a warm spring morning to hold a cup of coffee and a plate of breakfast scones. Beyond the designated side entrance, several green dumpsters loomed awaiting their final meal of discarded treasures.

Entering the kitchen, we walked around people sifting through tables of vintage kitchen and dining-ware. “Would you take forty dollars for this set of china?” someone asked a teen-aged boy supervising the area. The elegant service for twelve was carefully packed in foam sleeves; one complete setting sat next to it for inspection. It was marked at $200. I picked up a cup and found the “Lenox” mark–a steal at the asking price, larceny at the offered price. Although I love a bargain, I hoped the answer would be no.

“I’ll have to check with the daughter,” the young man said and called to a middle-aged woman. “Susan” approached the table, and for a moment, she didn’t say anything. She ran her finger over the rim of a plate and said, “Sure.” I couldn’t tell if she was angry, sad, or simply resolute.

I continued through the house in search of books, my go-to at any store or event. The shelf-lined study was a gold mine. I picked up several leather-bound classics and a first edition Stephen King book. I was thrilled. As I waited to pay for my finds, I noticed a hand-carved frame with a picture of the family. The daughter’s face was recognizable as a child. I picked it up and added it to my purchases.

I passed Susan on the way out the door. “Thank you,” I said at a loss for the appropriate words. Remembering the picture, I pulled it out of my bag.

I think you may have missed this,” I said pointing to the photo. I attempted to loosen the backing of the frame when she stopped me. “I have several copies; you can just put it in the garbage. This has been the hardest part. Disposing of my parents’ things has been emotionally overwhelming. At first, I wanted to keep everything, and now, I just need it to be gone.”

On the way home, I thought about the woman’s words. I couldn’t imagine people walking through my home, going through my things, wondering if a dollar was too much for a box of broken arrowheads or a priceless souvenir fish covered with tiny seashells. Exactly what was the difference between an heirloom and a keepsake? Would these tiny gifts of love, worth more than money, be deemed junk to my grandchildren?

Of course, I knew the answer. I could form an emotional attachment to a rock. I had a lot of work to do to keep the “what do I do with Grandma’s junk” from happening to my own family.

I decided I would do a deep purging; I needed to be ruthless with my culling. I delegated one large rubber bin per adult child to hold the objects I found to be emotionally or financially significant. I started a notebook with information regarding the contents and why it should not be devoured by a hulking dumpster or examined by bargain hunting strangers.

I arranged all my first edition books by my favorite authors in one section of my bookshelves. One of my children would need to incorporate them into their libraries. The idea of a stranger folding the corner of the crisp, unmarred pages made me cringe.

I pulled out my cherished Royal Doulton china purchased by my parents in 1962. My mother had used the dishes once or twice. Like her, I had never used the beautiful dishes for fear of breaking a piece. What was I saving it for? When I asked my daughter if she would like to have it someday, she asked if it could go in the dishwasher. As I took the gold gilded plate from her hands, I vowed to use them at least once a week. It would make my meatloaf look fancy and taste fabulous.

The backs of old photos were labeled and neatly stacked. I’m sure I have a couple of decades to organize them into albums. Or, maybe, I will leave them “as is” inviting my family to discover their ancestors as they sort through the pile.

Milk glass candy dishes, expensive crystal vases, and the Hummel figurines that were gifted to me by relatives were boxed for donation. It was time to find them a new home where they would be displayed and appreciated instead of being just a pleasant memory.

At the end of the week, both containers were half-filled leaving plenty of room for the treasures to come. And, I had free space that hadn’t seen the light of day in years. I had spent hours re-reading old letters and remembering the past. The anxiety over my life’s collection of special moments had dissipated.

Was it a keepsake or heirloom? It didn’t matter. I had unconsciously saved the objects that mattered to my heart. My children will choose what touches theirs. They will choose well. It’s in the genes.


  1. It’s a very hard thing to do— to get rid of the souvenirs of a life and then of lives before yours. One thing my late father-in-law did was bring one of his treasures each time they came to visit. And usually they were very nice heirlooms. It was so smart of him. Later after he died, my mother-in-law didn’t give anything away until someone begged her for something and of course those were the nicest things and they ended up with the boldest of her kids. (not us) LOL When she passed, a brother asked what to do with the junk. We said to hire a truck and send it on up to us. LOl At first, I was dismayed when the load was unloaded, but you know what? Over the years, my kids have sorted through those unwanted treasures and taken things home with them. One never knows! One man’s junk is another man’s treasure!

  2. Love this story. Although it’s easier for me to go through items wondering if it should be kept or donated it gives me an opportunity enjoy those long ago memories.

  3. Love, love, loved this! So coincidental; I too have been purging, trying to decide what to keep, what to share, what to donate or discard. I can relate to every single emotion you have experienced and shared. Love your way with words; so “down to earth” and “of the heart”!

  4. I went through this process when selling the house barns and sheds of a farm that had been in the family for nine generations. The acreage had dwindled to eight acres and buildings built in 1790 (house) and 1860 (barn) needed repair. The realtor said everything must go. A big job. Eight dumpsters and a two day sale it was ready to put on the market. Some of the things I brought to my house ended up in the garage, not enjoyed but still in my possession. One day I’ll be able to to let those go too.

  5. Love this story. I’ve done several purges. After my husband passed and when I sold several homes. What to keep? And will my stuff be wanted my my kids? Thanks for the reminder!

  6. A lovely read indeed and oh so timely as I have not completely culled my husband’s things after he died nearly 4 years ago. Neither have I pared my own stash of @stuff”. It is time.

  7. You certainly covered an idea and emotions common to all us. Its a human trait but you are to be commended that you acted on it. Some of us havent quite to gotten to that point or
    not yet.

  8. Wow! I couldn’t have written this (even though I can’t write☺️). So true I have had all these emotions in the not so distant past. I kept remember cleaning out my parents and in-laws home and decided to spare my kids 💔. Your best piece ever and you had some really good ones.

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