Treasures in Heaven, Tchotchkes on Earth
We baby boomers love our stuff, and it seems many of us have cherished the notion that our kids will love our stuff, too. However, it turns out that a lot of our kids don’t want our precious family treasures.
A steady tide of articles has highlighted the trend, including this recent piece by Samantha Bronkar in the Christian Science Monitor with an apt title summarizing the generational tension: “Boomer parents: ‘One day, this will all be yours!’ Grown children: ‘Noooo!’”
After my mom passed away ten years ago, I was confronted with the dilemma of what to do with my parents’ prized possessions. My dad collected Lladró statues. My mom collected antique cup and saucer sets. When they were both alive, I used to call their home “Harry and Gail’s House of Glass.” Though my mom had winnowed down my dad’s once-massive collection after he died, my sister and I were still faced with trying to decide what to do with a houseful of their fragile treasures, not to mention all the other tchotchkes they’d accumulated over the years.
Neither my sister nor I wanted those teacups—or most of the other stuff in their house. And when I asked my young adult children if they might want any of it, the three of them gave me the same answer: thanks, but no. My sister and I invited an estate sale buyer to make us an offer for the good stuff, donated the rest to the Salvation Army, and then we each packed a car trunk’s worth of family pictures and a few other sentimental objects to bring home. One of the most precious things I took was an inexpensive metal egg slicer that I remember my mother using whenever she made tuna salad. Now I use it for the very same purpose she once did—and I remember her each time I do.
Watching so many of my parents’ prized possessions end up in a resale shop was a sobering experience for me. Many in my generation grew up with the unwritten rule that it was our job to become custodians of our parents’ family heirlooms by insuring, moving, polishing, and dusting them until it was time to pass them down to our kids. I’ve never been a collector, and the experience of relocating five times in the last decade has underscored the value of traveling light. Even so, the image of that Salvation Army truck packed to the rafters with my parents’ stuff has sobered me. As a result, I am dispassionately rethinking the wisdom of warehousing any of my precious tchotchkes for the next couple of decades only to have my family call a truck to pick it up when I’m gone.
In her Monitor piece, Bronkar notes that millennials have little interest in filling their living rooms with teacup collections. “While every generation has its turn with an attachment for antiques or nostalgia for outdated technology,” she writes, “today’s tech-heavy culture shows few signs of trading in its sleek, modern designs for dark furniture or knick-knacks from bygone eras. And many younger families see trips, vacations, and photos as the repository of family memories—not shelves full of mementoes.”
Current cultural trends underscore why few of our millennial children want great-grandpa’s prized collection of oversized beer steins. Popular shelter websites and home decorating magazines highlight uncluttered interiors. Marie Kondo’s bestselling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has coached readers on how to edit their surroundings. And the “tiny house” shows on HGTV highlight hip house-hunters with five children and two malamutes in search of pared-down bliss in a 285-squarefoot home that looks like a garden shed on wheels.
Economic and social trends, too, have reshaped the way millennials live. Marriage is the traditional entry point into home ownership, but a steadily rising percentage of young adults are delaying traditional marriage or foregoing it entirely. Millennials came of age during the economic downturn of 2007–2008, experienced the challenge of finding work during a recession, and watched some of their parents’ mortgages end up underwater. The gig economy also leaves young adults less able to commit to long-term financial responsibilities like a 30-year mortgage, which means they either rent or move in with the parents (and their parents’ stuff).
For boomer parents like me who might imagine Aunt Edna’s ornate Victorian dining table set staying in the family so the next generation can gather ’round it for holiday meals, we may have to do a little grieving. That table and many others represent family history, but nonetheless our memories exist in our hearts and minds and are not mystically embedded within an inanimate object.
While Scripture lays out practical principles regarding material inheritance, it consistently calls us to build something far greater and more lasting in the lives of our children and grandchildren: a faith legacy. That legacy is shaped from holy, everyday moments spent washing dishes, changing diapers, reading Scripture, praying together, running errands, and worshiping as a family with our church communities. Jesus addressed this kind of legacy-building when he told his disciples to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:20–21). No matter what historical provenance Aunt Edna’s dining set carries with it, its legacy doesn’t bear the imprint of eternity. Our stuff is not our true legacy. Our faith is.
For those of us who are discovering that our family treasures are of little interest to our children and grandchildren, it can be freeing to revisit the contours of the legacy they will cherish and remember. Not long ago, my teenage grandson asked me for a copy of a favorite old family recipe of mine—the Cincinnati Chili recipe—so that he could share it with one of his teachers. He wasn’t sentimental about the table we sat at while sharing bowlfuls of soup or the silverware we used to eat it with. Rather, he had fond memories of spending lots of time over the years enjoying this ordinary meal together, laughing and talking about everything from theology to superheroes to school work.
Though I’m currently focused on further culling my possessions for an upcoming move to a smaller home, I think I’m going to hang on to my mom’s egg slicer. I have a feeling my grandson may want it someday.