Dear Prudence: Four years ago my mother-in-law had a stroke and lost the use of her right arm. She felt that she couldn't use much of her jewelry anymore so she gave me a few of her pieces.
Although the gesture was sweet, the jewelry was not my taste. I had kept it put away for many years, but finally this past winter, money was a little tight and I decided to sell some of my least favorite. I ended up using the money for groceries so we could have a little extra money for Christmas and a birthday for our youngest child.
Just a month or so ago my mother-in-law called me up to ask if she could borrow the very hoop earrings I sold and my heart sank. I told her the clasp was broken from a one-time use and the earrings were unusable, and she left it at that.
Then a couple of weeks ago she asked my husband if he remembered the heart necklace she gave me. He told her that he did, and she also asked for that back so she could wear it again. Well, I sold that one, too. My husband has no idea I sold these items and I don't think he would say anything about it if I told him. Now I'm hoping she doesn't ask for it again, but I know she will. Do I fess up?
Prudence says: I understand that such a gift could be considered handing down an heirloom, but unless the point is made explicitly that this is something that should be kept in the family, a gift is a gift and people are free to do with a gift as they like.
There is also an informal statute of limitation on such things. If your mother-in-law had realized a few months after she had given you the jewelry that she had acted too abruptly and wearing her beloved pieces made her feel better, then surely you would have understood and handed them back.
But this is now four years later. So if your mother-in-law is enjoying wearing jewelry again, that's great, but it's not fair at this point to ask for things back. Especially since you don't have them.
What you do depends on the kind of relationship you have with her. If it is warm and friendly, you just need to tell her the truth. If it's not so warm and friendly, have your husband be the go-between.
It might be easier to hear from him that things are a little tight financially, and you both thought it was fair to turn the jewelry, lovely as it was, into something more immediately useful for the grandchildren — emphasize the grandchildren.
Send questions to email@example.com.