Dear Carolyn: My mother-in-law has spent much of her life accumulating collectibles, heirlooms and furniture with the rationale that she will give them to her children and grandchildren someday. Her four grandchildren are still in high school. She’s decided that “someday” is now and is getting upset that her family isn’t jumping at the chance to own figurines or her great-aunt’s china set, much less my husband’s bedroom set from the 1970s.
The thought that none of us will take all her things even when she’s gone is causing her genuine angst. Unfortunately, donating doesn’t bring her joy and she’s gotten very upset with me when I donate outgrown or unused items she’s given us. I know this is an increasing problem for many of us, the “sandwich generation.” Is there any hope for middle ground? Our house has small closets and no storage and my husband has a tenuous relationship with his parents.
Carolyn says: You’re in a no-win position, I’m sorry.
Which you can use the figurines to depict in a room-size battle diorama!
Here is an assurance that is probably not very reassuring:
Your dilemma is underway across three entire generations right now, give or take a few outliers: an older generation of avid collectors, a younger generation of avid stuff-renouncers, and a middle generation wondering when it volunteered to play messenger between the two.
If there’s any chance that information will help your mother-in-law take things less personally, then do share it with her.
But also don’t lose sight of what this is about. Her reaction says it well: It’s about feelings, not stuff. As it has always been. Stuff acquisition showed everyone who you were or wanted to be, and handing things down said you lived on in people’s hearts and homes in some small way. Pride and a sense of connection — they won’t be denied, even when the figurines have to be.
So, make sure that when you say no to (most of) this stuff, you’re mindful of the feelings. Be kind and complimentary. Ask for stories behind things. On occasion, find some small and/or useful things to accept — even if it means replacing something you already own just like it. And, ask her to hold certain items for when the grandchildren have homes of their own. It’s OK to knick some knacks down the road.
If she asks you to hold them?: “I would, if I had the space. So do you want to store it for them, or would you rather donate it?”
Be her partner in “Kids these days ... “ confidences, too, to the extent you can do so sincerely: “I know, this china was a status symbol for so long. (It’s lovely, by the way.) Now status is in using less and traveling more ... and please don’t kill the messenger!”
Some tokens excepted, you’re still saying no to it all, of course — which means there’s a risk throughout that your mother-in-law will see through you far enough to resent you. Ultimately, though, your responsibility to her feelings is to respond to her kindly — not to do what she wants or expects.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.