Estate sales – about which I have written here before – are over-flowing with lessons in living and dying, giving and receiving, conflicting agendas, and hope. For my husband, most stuff is just stuff. He understands that there is furniture that won’t fit in the homes of any of the children and there is clothing that doesn’t fit anyone in the next generation, and there are collectibles that no one wants because 95 porcelain pigs are not everyone’s cup of tea.
Today my husband was puttering unsentimentally nearby when I found myself holding a set of hand-embroidered pillowcases with crocheted edging. They looked just like the ones my great aunts used to sew in the long winter evenings and tuck away in a cedar chest as wedding gifts for the girls of my generation. I have three pairs of those pillowcases in my linen closet which I use sparingly because I don’t want them ever to wear out. They are the only tangible thing I have from those strong Yankee women.
As we left to continue our day, we got to talking about the treasures in our home, gifted to us by past generations and being gently used until they can be passed to the next generation or the one beyond that: a china sideboard that came from three generations back on the maternal side of my husband’s family, and the bleeding blue china from the grandmother on the paternal side of his family – a grandmother he never met. We have an old trunk from my maternal great-grandmother and a quilt made by my paternal grandmother that survived the fire that claimed almost everything else they owned when my father was 10. We have only one child, so she will inherit all of it.
But here is the thing: what if she doesn’t want it? Any of it? What if (very expensive) bleeding blue china is not something she would use or want to display? What if she doesn’t want the twelve unique bone china teacups that I was given, one per Christmas, by my “third grandmother” because (in her generation) every woman needed a dozen teacups so that she could host women’s groups in her home?
Will she feel free to pass them along to a cousin with a clear conscience? Or sell them and use the money to help pay for her own child’s college education? To take what matters to her, what holds her memories, and liberate the rest? Will they really be a gift…or will they be a burden?
And what about the other gifts (and burdens) we pass from generation to generation: the cultural expectations, the laws, the social or religious creeds, the prejudices, the habits, the literature and art? As a clergywoman serving in churches for over twenty years, it was my task every week to interpret scripture (which is one of the biggest gifts and biggest burdens out there) in the context of this day. It was my privilege to take the wisdom of my teachers, the traditions that have sustained us, extract the nuggets that might apply here and now, and then invite the gathered people to cast their vision forward, using the past as a catapult rather than a retaining wall.
What I practiced in the pulpit, I am trying consciously to practice everywhere in my life. I am trying to accept that perhaps the most important and useful gift I received in my teens or twenties or thirties, no longer applies to the lives of the Millenials or the Gen-Xers. Perhaps the gift I can offer is not a set of bleeding blue china, but the energy on which they can draw as a springboard into a future I cannot even imagine. Perhaps I can offer my assurance that if their life doesn’t require twelve bone china tea cups, I will still love them. Perhaps I can gift them with the reminder that my great aunts’ genes are still there, written in their bone and blood, even if the hand-embroidered pillowcases don’t work for them.
Perhaps I can gift them with them my unwavering trust that they can create better structures than we have created if they learn from our mistakes. That they do not need to preserve unjust laws, or centuries-old prejudices, or clan rivalries, or unhealthy expectations just because that was the best we could do.
Yes, I will preserve the precious things I have received because I suspect there will be something my daughter will receive with true wonder and delight. But I hope I can also be gracious enough to leave some breathing room in my generosity so that there is space. Space for new blessings. Space for her wisdom. Space for new visions to blossom out of the fertile ground that is the best of the past.
Because a gift should never be a burden.
Text © 2014, Andrea La Sonde Anastos
Photos © 2011, 2014 Immram Chara, LLC