I call my Oma, who lives in Florida, to ask how her Thanksgiving was. We talk only for 15 minutes because she needs to get back to the lebkuchen she’s baking for a church Christmas fundraiser. She tells me her Thanksgiving was small but nice; she made Cornish hens for everyone instead of a huge turkey. She’s like this, traditional at times but flexible and pragmatic at others.
I’m dancing circles around the topic I want to ask her about: her china. I want to know whether she used it at Thanksgiving, whether it’s meaningful to her, whether she wants to keep it in the family. I can’t quite decipher what it is I’m afraid of hearing.
“China? No, we used the regular stuff. I put it in the dishwasher,” she answers, surprised I would even suggest the china. It’s a 120-piece German set she was gifted as a wedding present from her in-laws in 1954, and I’ve never seen it out of its quilted, protective box. My mom describes the china as gold-rimmed, with a bumpy sort of pattern along the edge and a spray of pink roses to one side of the dinner plates. I’m picturing garish florals and a Precious Moments color palette. The set includes place settings for twelve diners, not eight, my Oma tells me with audible pride.
She says she’s used it twice in her entire life. “It’s for you, Katie. How will you come get it? You’ll have to take a couple weeks from work, I guess, and drive down here.”
She’s serious. And thus, the modern china paradox: Families hardly ever use it, but there’s an expectation it will be passed down, inherited, stored, and then what? At best, maybe it’s dredged out of the dust during the holidays and slipped back into plastic-wrapped neglect until the following December. But as we fickle, mobile millennials stand to collect these familial troves of porcelain, silver, and crystal, what the hell are we supposed to do with it all?
“Royal Doulton figurines? Shoot me.”
That’s Kim Diamond, a Toronto-based professional organizer and one half of Clutterfly Inc., a organizing and estate management service she founded with her sister. I asked her about the types of collections she encounters when carrying out estate clearing services either before or after a person has passed away. I wanted to know what other families do with their silverware, tea cups, gravy boats, Lladrós.
“We find a lot of china collections. And it’s up there in terms of really difficult things to get rid of, because nobody wants it,” she says.
If you’re an adult under the age of 65 who cares about china, Diamond says you are, indeed, a rare breed. Popular sentiment backs her up. “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff” reads an especially frank Forbes headline from earlier this year.
Young people’s general indifference toward china is the result of several things. But reserving those for discussion later, there’s a reality many people aren’t aware of: China, at least the stuff most people have in their attics, isn’t worth much monetarily.
“There’s a large portion of the aging population unloading these things, so there’s a glut in the market, whereas when they bought these, they were worth something. Explaining that is usually a bit of a shock to most people,” Diamond says. “This also applies to pianos, by the way. Nobody wants them.”
Seriously? It’s tempting to reason that even if you’re not interested in your family’s china collection on face, it’s at least an investment worth preserving. This probably isn’t the case, says Victor Wiener, director of Victor Wiener Associates LLC in New York City. He specializes in the appraisal of art and high-end collections, and was executive director of the Appraisers Association of America for 21 years.
“Everything is collectible. There are people who collect china, which is just everyday ceramics, but they’re not going to pay huge amounts of money,” he says. He travels annually to the Brimfield Antique Flea Markets in Brimfield, Massachusetts, where he commonly sees china collections sold, but for very low prices.
Once you take into account the time you’ll spend cleaning, photographing, and listing your family’s china for sale, Diamond says you’re better off donating it.
Monetary value isn’t the root of most fraught relationships to our families’ heirlooms, though; it’s personal. My mom is still vaguely resentful she wasn’t gifted my Oma’s china set at her own wedding, for reasons unclear to me. She bought herself china instead, an understated and elegant $2,000 Lenox set that she says is the only purchase she ever made on installment. After she and my father divorced, it remained at my dad’s house, where he uses it for Christmas and Easter.
Despite my china apathy, I’ve learned that Oma’s plates and saucers are imbued with serious emotional weight for my mother’s relatives; I feel like I’m approaching a hot oven when I ask too many questions about it. Perhaps my aversion to familial discord contributes to my attitude here. I’d prefer to avoid such a loaded topic, especially if it manifests in a superfluous set of dishes with little relevance to my daily life.
Currently, I live in a 1,000-square-foot house with little room for another cookie sheet, let alone a set of 120 fragile, special occasion pieces. But I love my Oma, and have memories of years spent together in the kitchen cooking together, and if the china was somehow important to her, well … do I hold on to it for her sake?
“Guilt is a very powerful emotion that people, especially women, tend to attach to things,” Diamond says. My family is Catholic, so I note that this goes double for me.
“A lot of people are afraid of making these decisions, afraid of getting rid of something and then regretting it later. If I sense that they’re hanging on to it for the wrong reasons like guilt or an obligation, we talk through it.”
If I’ve never actually laid eyes or hands on my Oma’s china, I wonder whether it could still hold meaning for me and, by extension, for my family.
This seems like I’m wading into psychosocial territory, so I speak to Dr. Linda Price, the Philip H. Knight Chair and professor of marketing at the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon. She’s studied collective identity and consumer networks, fluid identity, and materiality—in short, how we make meaning out of the stuff we own. I told her about my Oma’s china as well as her sammeltasse, a German word for a collection of commemorative teacups and saucers. I think my Oma has about 40 of them locked behind glass in one of her china cabinets. I explain the conflict between my Oma’s obvious affection for them and my ashamed indifference.
“If you want to have your teacups go forward, you have to make those teacups valuable to the next generation. You can and should emphasize that they’re fragile, but if you take them completely out of circulation, they won’t get passed forward because they won’t have meaning,” Dr. Price says. “You have to be displaying them and telling stories about them that give their heritage, how you came to own them, why they’re culturally significant. You also have to map them onto rituals.”
Rituals are incredibly important for creating meaning out of objects. Food is a major part of most rituals, so meals and their accoutrement, like china, tend to have serious sticking power when it comes to emotional value. We associate special meals with the objects that surround them, and then imbue those forks and candlesticks with not just memories but projections. We’re not just thinking of our family as it is, but our family as we’d like it to be.
“In my data on heirlooms, what I also discovered is that people are constantly trying to create heirlooms which will in fact capture what they want their family identity to become. And so it’s aspirational as well as it is historical,” Dr. Price says.
Millennials like me want to create our own traditions, too, but I doubt many of them involve multiple types of spoons. We change jobs; we move often; we upgrade apartments every three years. We value experiences over tangible stuff, and flaunt our personal identities through our possessions. Don’t make meaning for us; we’re doing it ourselves.
“As much as heirlooms can be this celebration of family identity, they can also be this stricture that tightens you into an identity that you don’t want to claim,” Dr. Price says. “In a highly individualistic society like the U.S., there is clearly tension because you would like to believe that you can elect which parts of the family identity you want to keep and which you want to shed.”
This last bit stirs me. I’ve always felt a dichotomy in my response to certain family expectations: I’m generally eager to please people and gain their approval, but I have a sharp defiant streak that chaffs at preset expectations. Maybe, I consider, if I could view the china as an object I’m actively accepting rather than an heirloom sloughed onto me, I could make it my own. I can make it mean what I want it to mean, reminding me of my Oma and my family in a way I determine. Maybe I’ll take Oma up on her offer.
Then I’m back at square one, though: Where to physically put this stuff. Here, professional organizer Kim Diamond offers advice for all us square-footage-starved millennials out there:
“One client already had a set of china, her mother had china, then the grandmother was unloading some china. She loved it but couldn’t fit it in her apartment, so she took a cup and saucer and got them professionally framed in a shadowbox and let the rest go to donation. If you’re just keeping china stuffed in a storage locker, why is it there?”