the stuff series | stuff with strings

Marian ParsonsDecorating, Organizing47 Comments

I loved reading all of your comments in response to my “Purpose of Stuff” post, the first installment of The Stuff Series.  It really is interesting what an engaging topic “stuff” is.

So, now that we’ve talked about the purpose of stuff, let’s go right to one of the most sensitive stuff categories…

“stuff with strings”

When I started typing this post, I thought it would be pretty straightforward, but once I got into the thick of it, I realized this is a tricky one and I don’t have all of the answers!  So, take this post or leave it.  It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution to a dicey dilemma.  And, if you have some wisdom or experience to offer, just leave it in the comments below!

So, if you have stuff with strings in your house, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  Usually it’s stuff you’ve been given by family that comes with some sort of caveat like, “you can never, ever get rid of it” or “you can’t paint it”.  In most cases, you’re okay with these terms when the item is given to you, but you come to resent those qualifiers when that thing doesn’t fit your current decorating style or you move or you just don’t like it any longer.

Here’s what I would say about stuff you don’t want that has strings attached…

Those strings need to be cut.  Take a huge pair of scissors to them and have an imaginary string-cutting-ceremony.  You don’t need stuff with strings attached.

 When something is in your home, unless you’re borrowing it (or you stole it, but you’re not that kind of person), it belongs to you.  And remember what we said about your stuff?  It’s there for you!  When other people are dictating what you can and can’t do with said stuff, it’s no longer there for you.  It’s there for them.

And, if it’s there for them, it should be in their house.

If you’re stuck with a piece with strings, I can’t advise you on how to best navigate those potentially choppy waters, but I can tell you what I would do (and have done)…

I would have a loving conversation that goes something like this.  “You know that hutch you gave me?  I really appreciate it and I have enjoyed it, but my style has changed and I am trying to be intentional about what is in my home.  I know that it is an important piece to you, though.  Would you like to have it back?  Or, is there another family member who might want it?  If not, then I would like to sell it or donate it.”

I know that conversation might go swell in some cases or it might result in tears and a mom who won’t speak to you for a week in other cases.

The bottom line is that your home is not their storage unit or museum.  It’s your home.  And they need to respect that.

If you’re someone who has given stuff with strings to other people, please call or write them and cut those strings yourself.  Free them from any obligation to you or to long-lost relatives.

Now, I do acknowledge that there may be a few reasonable exceptions to this black & white approach.

I think an acceptable string is – If you find that you do not want this someday, please return it to me.  When we brought Sebastian into our home, he came with that string and I was totally fine with it.  (I know that Sebastian isn’t “stuff”, but he was a good example!)

This was also the case with some pieces passed down to Jeff and I from our family members.  When I wanted to get rid of a family piece, I always asked if the person who gave it to us would like it back or if anyone else in the family wanted it before I would donate or sell it.  I think that’s reasonable, because it’s not a string that saddles you with the item for always and eternity and there aren’t negative emotions tied to that scenario.

I also think there is something to be said for preserving a family’s history for future generations and showing respect for things that have been passed down.  But, that can be done with a carefully curated box of photographs, documents, and precious keepsakes or a few select pieces with real significance.  It doesn’t have to include every stick of furniture and collection.  And, if you are the designated “keeper of the stuff” in your family, there is a need for limits.  (I’ll write a post to all of you later in the series.)

And lastly, all families are different and people are more important than things.  There are times when trying to communicate about “stuff with strings” to your family will cause real hurt and division.  While I wouldn’t suggest shying away from a loving and honest conversation just because someone might be offended, I do concede that sometimes it’s better to just put the piece in your garage until a good solution presents itself.

Whew!  That was harder than I thought!  I think that is why “stuff” is such a polarizing topic.  It’s tied to our home, emotions, family, friends, and memories.  It’s hard to talk about the stuff without talking about all that comes with it.

Next time, we’ll talk about something a little easier…

the stuff series | stuff with strings

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47 Comments on “the stuff series | stuff with strings”

  1. Marian, you are so right about emotional ties to stuff! Just returned from visiting my sister, who lives a two-plus-day drive away and is going to be moving much farther away. I will probably never see her again. She is purging her possessions, and gave me stuff. One of the items was our mother’s sewing machine. I used to sew quite a bit, but never had the money to buy a good sewing machine like Mom’s. When she died, said sister took the machine. Apparently, it has been sitting in her closet for 25 years! Before I left sis’ house, I mentioned that, if she didn’t have a home for the machine yet, could I please have it? No problem! Had I asked for it years ago, it would have been a different story; I think it was a memory and tie to Mom for my sister. Now, she is willing to let go of stuff. The hard thing for me will be to “let go” of her…

    1. So great that you have the machine now. 🙂 Yep, those personal things are tricky. I was having trouble letting go of my music repertoire books, even though I haven’t used them since college. But then I’ll sell my dining room table without a second thought!

  2. I understand stuff with Strings. When my daughter and family (5) moved in with me and husband, many ‘stuffs’ had to go. Incuding my grandmother’s vintage dining table. It broke my heart. We live so far from family and a monthly storage fee wasn’t worth one piece of furniture. So I donated to an organization for the needy. My only consolation was, I think my grandmother would have wanted that instead of donating to a thrift shop or consignment store or a garage sale. My heart still aches for that table that held a vast field of memories, emotions and love. I can only hope that the same is being built around that table now.

    1. I’m reposting part of my comment from below since it relates to yours…….and yes, I do still think of all the meals eaten around that table, many of which included me:

      Speaking of “grandma’s dining room table,” about 15 years ago I sold my grandparents solid maple 1940s dining room table and chairs at one of my garage sales. We had been using it, but not anymore, so out it went. Well, last fall LO AND BEHOLD there it was in one of our local thrift shops!!! It was the identical table, I knew all the marks (in hidden places) and there was no possibility of otherwise. It was far more beat up but generally the same, and only $25. I wondered, “Where have you been for the last 15 years?” I put my hand on it and thought that here is my chance to get it back in the family, but it had zero appeal. My daughter was with me and I asked her the same question, and she hated it. So on it goes to someone else!

  3. …and then there is that stuff that you parted with and wish you hadn’t many years later :(……. Or that sister who ‘borrows’ things from your home (because she loves em) and you need to put the rules down….’that comes back to me when your done’….funny thing that stuff is!

  4. So hard to figure out what to do with stuff later. I have a large collection of Hummel figurines which are not worth what I have paid for them. At one time they were on display in my home; now they are on a closet shelf. Both my grown sons have no interest in them. What to do? And for years I collected Christmas ornaments – I don’t even put up a big tree anymore. Time to purge! Love this thread.

  5. My mother was a gifted painter and when she died we faced a massive ton of art to divide up or sell. We each took some and we sold most of it. I’m about to take several of her items to a consignment store, including a table I had her make for me when I was a teenager and that at one time I loved. These things just feel like a weight to me nowadays. They are beautiful, but a weight. So they have to go for someone else to enjoy! My siblings have piles of their own pieces to deal with so I know that they don’t care.

    And speaking of “grandma’s dining room table,” about 15 years ago I sold my grandparents solid maple 1940s dining room table and chairs at one of my garage sales. We had been using it, but not anymore, so out it went. Well, last fall LO AND BEHOLD there it was in one of our local thrift shops!!! It was the identical table, I knew all the marks (in hidden places) and there was no possibility of otherwise. It was far more beat up but generally the same, and only $25. I wondered, “Where have you been for the last 15 years?” I put my hand on it and thought that here is my chance to get it back in the family, but it had zero appeal. My daughter was with me and I asked her the same question, and she hated it. So on it goes to someone else!

  6. Great advice, Marian. I’m guilty of giving something to my son and his wife and not giving them permission to paint it. A couple of weeks later I called them and apologized…. I let them know I no longer wanted the piece and it was theirs to sell, paint, or return…. whatever they wanted to do. My feelings wouldn’t be hurt no matter what they decided. Because they’e done none of those things… I think I need to tell them again they are free to cut the strings I thought I cut a long time ago.

    1. Good for you! I can even think of things I’ve given to people with some strings attached and I later had to go back and tell them they can do whatever they want with it. I think it’s easy to do when we see value in something!

  7. “Stuff with Strings” can be tricky because it brings so many emotions with it. I think you really covered it well and how to best approach it. No one should be shamed or made to feel guilty into taking something they don’t want because it belonged in the family.

    My husbands late grandmother gave us a beautiful star quilt she made back in the late 20’s when we were married 30 years ago. We displayed it on a guest bed for years but we went to a more coastal look in the guest bedroom so I packed it and stored it in the closet.

    After her death in 2009, we asked one of the great grandchildren if they would like the quilt. We told them to come by anytime and pick it up if they would like it. Long story short, they have never came by or mentioned it again when we have seen them so we took that as a subtle hint they weren’t interested.

    We would like to keep it in the family and pass it down to the younger generation but will not force something on another family member. Instead, we contacted the county historical society where my husbands grandmother lived and they are going to display the quilt in the county museum on loan until we want it back.

    1. A star quilt from the 20’s sounds like it’s right up my alley. You can adopt me into your family! 🙂 Just kidding. I hope someone from the next generation claims it, but it’s a great attitude you have about it.

  8. I have loved reading your stuff articles. They have helped me to begin purging my stuff. I too have family furniture that was given to me to keep by family no longer here. This article will help me in relinquishing the items that no longer work in my current home. Thank you!

  9. thank you for this post. my mom is 93 and lives in her 13 room house that my grandparents bought 60 years ago, where we all lived when i grew up. over the years, i have asked for a few things that mean something to me. my grandparent’s 1912 wedding portrait and the last thing was the coat rack that was in my grandparent’s front hall. i broke one of the brass hooks when i used to climb under the heavy wool coats to smell them (– weird, i know) and knocked it over when i was a kid. it was the only time i ever saw my grandmother really mad at me, lol. i designed my addition around this coat rack and my sister is still furious that i have it even though she knows it brings me great joy. she’s not thrilled that i have the portrait, either.

  10. I’m struggling with this very thing…when my grandmother passed away, she had not designated who got what and my mom didn’t want anything. My aunt acquired most of grandma’s things and she gave me a bowl with a lid. It is hideous! I have been keeping it since my aunt gave it to me, but my grandmother never specifically willed it to me. I really want to get rid of it, but I’m concerned over family drama. Now I also have mom’s china and depression glassware. I don’t want to foist them off on my daughter if she doesn’t really want them. It’s harder on me letting go than I thought it would be.

  11. Many things can have strings, things like a beloved family member who has passed possessions. Sometimes we keep them till we can emotionally let the items go.
    I see “strings” as emotional attachments. I’m an artist and each one of my paintings is attached by strings. When one is sold , I miss it as I put my heart and soul in its creation much like you must feel Marian when you sell a piece you have labored over. I feel like strings are warm and fuzzy feelings about things we hold on to till we can let them go. Then we eventually feel better and someone else can enjoy them.

  12. First of all, I am the last one left in my family, and if I want to know where it goes or profit from it, I have to be the one to do it.
    My late Mother in Law was great at trying to ‘give you things’. When I declined, she would say, ‘Oh, don’t you want it?’, and when I would, in return say ‘no, I want you to have it’. I learned to say no. She would offer me terrible things like off color afghans, etc, that she won.

  13. It’s amazing that you have posted this article dealing with “stuff” at the same time I just had a conversation with my husband about this very subject. I have drawers full of linens that were hand embroidered by my grandmother as well as other “keepsakes” from my and my husband’s family. I know my daughter may want some of it but I want to offer in a way that does NOT have strings attached. I feel the need to purge! Some of the “stuff” has memories only for me and would mean nothing to my children. What do I do with it? Throw it away, donate it, try to sell some of it? It can be a real quandary! Your post has given me a much needed shove to do something!!! Thanks Marion! 🙂

    1. You could use it! Much to my MIL’s horror I sleep on the heirloom pillowcases etc. Yes, some of them do eventually wear out, but I’ve enjoyed them for years before that happens!

    2. Please make sure you ask your kids if they want things (while letting them know you won’t feel bad if they don’t). My MIL took a lot of her mother’s things and now keeps purging them without asking any of the grandkids if they want them. And they do want them! It is sad to hear of them going to Goodwill. Just a thought.

  14. I think it’s important to note that, while painting vintage furniture is currently all the rage, there are many beautiful antique pieces whose age and patina may be destroyed by painting! The painter may regret the decision to paint when, inevitably, wood finishes once again become popular. A 100 year old piece of furniture shouldn’t be irrevocably damaged because one’s “style has changed.” That said, I am not opposed to painting old pieces, but I would advise discretion! In passing along pieces to my daughter and daughter-in-law, my only proviso has been an occasional “please return this if you decide you don’t want it.”

  15. This topic touches everyone in some way. I was reading people’s comments and the emotions attached to items run deep. I’ve been called unsentimental because I am so willing let go of things that no longer serve a purpose or bring me joy.
    It’s not that it’s easier for me but I am realistic to the size of my home and what I really like seeing in my rooms. Have had a storage unit for 5 years this month and I’ve been patient with my husband and children about what they want to keep around but when I see that these items aren’t worth the cost now it is an easier reality to them.
    I just feel that passing on collections or pieces of furniture will give the next person the pleasure I once had in owning it.

  16. Stuff. So hard. A very short time ago my parents needed to downsize quickly bc of illness. I was the one (of three) who stepped into that no win position. Time was of the essence, and money was critically important to my folks. For whatever help this might be to someone else, this is the decision I made: if one of the three of us loved or needed one of my folks’ possessions, we needed to purchase it. Evything was up for sale, and like I said, money was critical to providing care. We needed to sell a large and lovely home, disgorge all of the contents, from family “heirlooms” to tools and everything in between. Every day squeezed my heart, and one of my sisters no longer speaks to me, but my parents are in a lovely new apartment and are being very well cared for. It’s crazy, and heart wrenching, and terribly sad what “stuff” can lead to.

  17. One of my favorite quotes: “your memories aren’t my responsibility”. They didn’t want it in their home, so it was given to us. I just turned 70 and can truthfully say I have let go of others memories/stuff. So nice to be free!

  18. Wise words! I try to keep only things that bring me joy. When my mom passed at a too-young age ( I lost her when I was just 31), I initially kept anything she had ever given me. Over time I realized that I could keep just a few very special things, like her button box, as well as my memories. I feel her presence in my life in so many ways even without all the “stuff.”

  19. Thank you for this advice. I have been struggling with this topic for years now. My mother and father in law bought a dining room table for us when we were married 27 years ago(we picked it out). We dont use it or the dining room much at all and the style is outdated but Im not “allowed” to get rid of it. Your words make so much sense and I will pass them along to my husband!

  20. Here’s an exception: I said yes to a rocking chair from my mother-in-law when we had our first child, and then realized that I didn’t really like rocking in it. She found that out somehow through other family members and said that it was okay to give it back but to not sell it or give it away (it was hers and she had rocked all 4 of her kids in it). The problem with getting it back to her was that they lived 6 hours away, and then we moved half a country away, so it would be really hard to send it all the way back. So sadly, it sits in our basement being unused. I don’t think it would be right to give it away or sell it, and for now, we have space in the basement for it.

  21. This is a huge struggle for me and my husband. I can let go of much more than he can. Seriously, how many paper back books can one house hold? I have some things that my mother gave me as gifts that just don’t fit my style anymore. My husband is dumbfounded that I want to sell them. We, too, have a storage unit filled with stuff we will never use because we will never pay to move it 2200 miles (I’m not joking) to where we now live. My cousin is using some things but others just need to go. When you first announced your intent to sell most of your beautiful stuff, I was stunned and thought “she can’t so that, she has such gorgeous stuff”. But, it is your stuff and you need to do what you need to do.
    Thanks for the great series on stuff.

  22. All I can say about that is “Amen”! You said it well Marian and I think you covered a lot of situations where these things happen ….says the woman with her fiancee’s children’s stuff crammed in the attic and the storage shed and a storage unit for 10 years… It’s not always a clean or easy solution, but I 100% agree that we should not be the keeper of someone else’s stuff or even our own stuff that doesn’t work in our life anymore. These “things” are blocks to creativity and energy…


  23. Wow,this is a rough topic because it often involves loved ones that have passed! The bottom line is,it’s just stuff. I attend estate sales regularly and the judging running comments by people makes me crazy! They are in someone else’s home judging there stuff! I was at the home of survivor of WWll German camp,last weekend, and the home was opulent! Turns out this was how she remembered the homes when she was a child and tried to recreate that feeling. My heart ached for her! I like to to lean closely to people judging others stuff and say “you know if you came to my house you would find 3 tubes of black artist paint” Sometimes they quiet down,other times they do not,I try!

  24. Enough said, and done perfectly!
    I am finally moving past the premise that we must keep family antiques. Some things I will keep and have an eclectic mix in my home. Those things make me remember that relative fondly. I have two Victorian sewing tables of which were my brother’s. I left the contents as he had them, and when I want to feel close to him I open them and handle what he left inside. A special way to feel close to my brother who is gone from my life too soon. He is always near in many things in my home. Miss him so💕

  25. I have received many items in the category “stuff with strings” — old things from long ago family members that I don’t want or use. My house was overrun with storage of this stuff so I worked really hard to find small museums in my heirs’ hometowns or close by that would take various items (like very old quilts). This was my first step to moving things out of my house and it worked. No one in the family was upset since these items went to museums. Then I started taking the next step of selling or donating. It has been very liberating and has allowed my real style to shine in my home. I feel as if a heavy weight was lifted once I removed things I didn’t like or want and could decorate as I choose. I’m not sad at all and my family didn’t really seem to care if these items left. Funny that all these years I felt obligated to keep things no one really cared what I did with them. I still have some things I haven’t parted with but when I find the right time and place, I will.

  26. Love the stories and the sharing about stuff. I would like to start my comments with advice; to do as I say not as I do! My parents both lived until their mid 90″s and were children of the Depression, hence there was some stuff! My brother and I were dismantling their home and I found myself as the youngest having a difficult time letting stuff go that I didn’t want, but I knew my parents treasured or had some kind of value. My brother on the other hand, had a very rational approach, I don’t want it- he “cherry picked” items and went home with a chair and paperweight. I went home with 4 boxes. Being overwhelmed with all the decisions, I decided I would pack it up, take it home, and decide at a later date whether I wanted “it” or not. Well, I will tell you I am now at the 4 year mark and have not unpacked the boxes to determine the items fate. These posts have inspired me to attack the boxes- Thank you

  27. My story of stuff….is that I had to part with my stuff thru a divorce. It’s funny that the stuff I bought for projects he hated, until our divorce hearing. The items I did get back….damaged, molded. He even got awarded my Ironstone collection and my antique quilts.
    I’ve started recollecting, but it’s with purpose now and usefulness. It takes time and effort to have “stuff”….I now have more time for me.

    I had to get away from home blogs and DIY blogs for awhile. It made me sad to see stuff I use to have…knowing I had plans for it. My friends say I should open a store….sell online…. nope. I’d rather go to the beach!!!!

  28. A useful and interesting post, and I’ve been enjoying reading the comments. My own situation is a little different: my mother recently downsized, and I got the “stuff with strings”, the things that were most important to her. Her new apartment fits most of her antique furniture, but I got a whole lot of smaller stuff: multiple sets of family china/silver, an empty antique silver chest (my aunt has THAT silver), several pieces of art and…. Small things, but a LOT of them.

    The problem is that my mother has early-stage dementia and she can’t remember where her precious things went, and she’s ANXIOUS about it. She comes over and searches my house for them: “Where is your great-grandmother’s silver chest? Oh you DO have it. Why isn’t it on the sideboard?” If I got rid of them, I’d have to explain it over and over again, and she’d be hurt by it over and over again.

    So I’m keeping it all, crowding it in. Bless my patient husband.

    PS: my mother had boxes full of slides and two shelves of family photo albums, going back generations. I’m gradually getting all of that digitized (and tossing out most of them originals). I set up a digital picture frame for my mother so she can see all the pictures. It’s an expensive project but she loves being able to see the pictures regularly.

  29. Thank you Marian and everyone who commented already. I live in “the family home” which we bought from my Mom after all of my siblings had moved out. We are making progress in purging, and it does feel like a weight is lifted every time we get rid of more of it. All of the comments make me feel like I am not alone in this process or the feelings that go with it. I realize now that I keep things because it makes me feel like my family is still here, but I love the comment that I can keep less things and still have that sense. It is hard to get past the feeling that every time I throw something of theirs away I’m losing one of them all over again. Some of this just takes time, and having little talks with yourself about what is true. It helps me to think of what they would really want me to do if they could talk to me now too. This has been a real help today. Thank you everyone! 😊

  30. I have a feeling I’m going to end up custodian of an awful lot of my family’s stuff.

    When my great-aunt, who was a hoarder, passed away, I helped my mom and grandma clean out her apartment. My mom spent the whole time exclaiming about how she just didn’t understand how anyone could keep all this junk, who could stand to live like this, etc, which stung, as she knows perfectly well that the mental illness that caused my great-aunt’s hoarding runs in the family. I know I could easily have been her, if not for advances in mental health care. Meanwhile, whenever Mom was out of earshot, my grandma tried to send me home with every item I so much as looked curious about.

    Despite my best efforts, I came home with a ton of stuff: jewelry, art, all kinds of odds and ends, and FOUR sets of dishes. I do wear the jewelry, and there are some other things I want to keep, but I’ve given one set of dishes away already and I don’t think I’d regret it if I passed the others on too.

    After all, there are still a bunch of sets of ancestral wedding china that no one else in the family seems interested in, and I’ve already dibsed my great-grandmother’s.

  31. Marian,
    I can hardly wait for your post about being the designated “keeper of the stuff” in your family. My mother in law recently passed away and my parents moved into an apartment. So, of course, 2 houses to clean out within just a few months of each other. My husband who owns his own business and is very busy, took on the role of scanning all of those WWII letters, family pictures and other “stuff”. So now of course our family room is inundated with boxes of “stuff”, along with my own “stuff” that I sell at vintage shows. I think it will be a long time before he gets through all the boxes, and he cannot seem to answer my question of what to do with all the original “stuff” once it is all scanned. sigh…

  32. For those of you who have digitized photos and plan on throwing the originals out, please consider donating them to a thrift store. There are scores of artists who buy old photos and make artwork with them. It will give them a new life as art.

  33. Ginger,

    A military museum may be interested in the WW2 letters. We took my husband’s grandfather’s letters along with some of his military items. They were thrilled to get the letters he had written from France during WW1.

  34. Hi Marian,

    My mother loved haunting flea markets, thrift shops, and the Salvation Army. She also couldn’t let go of many things from our grandparents’ lives and brought me so much stuff that I had no room for all of it. Some I kept, but most of it I’ve let go of. At first I felt guilty about it, but now I realize a few things:

    I didn’t ask for most of it. That antique bedroom set is not my grandmother ( that’s a quote from a professional organizer). If it’s now mine, I will paint it if I want to (my grandfather’s old secretary that I wanted but now realize that it’s kind of dark and ugly). If I donate it, I’m helping others obtain something nice when maybe they couldn’t afford it otherwise. Or, I’m helping the Salvation Army. We have a right to say what we have in our homes. I know it can be tricky, but I don’t believe we should feel guilty about letting material things go.

  35. Exactly!!! I have been struggling with this, too, as we plan to downsize soon and don’t have a place for all the stuff we inherited from our parents. Our children don’t want it now, but I have been paralyzed by the fear that they might want it in 5 years when they have their own homes. I don’t want to pay for storage until then, so we are planning to sell things. I read once ” Keep the things you love and get rid of the rest”. That is the mantra I am going with. We have so many things that our parents loved, but are just furniture to us. I can’t be in bondage to someone else’s possessions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!

  36. Ahh…the stuff about stuff…. Yes , quite the dilemma.

    I’ve been given things with strings attached and when I wanted to get rid of them, yes, the family member was not happy about it. Eventually they either get over it or..sadly in some cases, hold it against you for a very, very long time; as if that ‘thing’ that “stuff” meant more than personal relationships with each other, never taking into account that we all change through the years. What we may have loved back in 1980’s may not be “us” any more. 😉

    I have given gifts over the years and when the receiver has asked me years later, “Do you mind if I get rid of it?” my answer has always been ” If it no longer pleases you or suits your taste, please do with it what you’d like.”

    There is truly a ‘season’ to all things/all stuff. Even family heirlooms (or what some people perceive to be such) have a ‘life-span’. Eventually no one in the family wants them and it’s OK to pass them along to someone else who’ll treasure them…even if that person isn’t part of the family.

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