Rinker on Collectibles: What Happened to Grandpa’s Things?
In a previous “Rinker on Collectibles” column, I wrote: “Grandfathers get short shrift. More than 90 percent of all objects I see belong to the grandmother or some female relative. Is this because sentimentality is primarily a female virtue? I am not convinced. In going through the family heirlooms I own, most are female related. I have added this to my ‘think about it’ list. If I successfully sort it through, I will share my thoughts.”
Several readers responded with their thoughts in respect to the above. Ellie wrote e-mail: “The men in my family do not hold on to sentimental items. When my father died, the only items we had were letters (thank goodness he kept those), his broken wristwatches and his gun. I also think ‘household’ items are considered to belong [to] the lady of the house . . . Then again, when I worked in a coffee shop 15 years ago, I was shocked at the amount of money people spent for Mother’s Day. A new deluxe coffee-maker, a grinder, five pounds of beans and a new set of mugs for Mom. Come Father’s Day, customers would buy a half a pound of coffee for dear old Dad and be done with it. I thought it reflected the amount of time fathers spent with their children in the past—something that I believe is changing with today’s parents.”
Bill Castle offered this observation in his e-mail: “As to the point of why it’s always Grandma’s things, it’s probably related to bicycles. Boys’ bikes are worth more than girls bikes. The boys destroyed their bikes, so there are fewer of them around. Same with a lot of guy things. They’re broken, given to a buddy or sold. There aren’t many things guys hand down (guns being the major exception here in the South).”
Nick Ryan, an Australian whose grandfather was 100 when he died, noted in his e-mail: “Grandfathers . . ., unless they were handy at something themselves, like carving, rarely left anything as hand-me-downs—work was hard, hours were long. Relaxation time for the man of the house was probably recuperation time before work began. Maybe some fishing rods, some books, their own personal items like razor, etc., show up as treasured items, but that’s about it.”
Before proceeding, three points need to be established. First, there is no question that there are exceptions to every generalization that follows. This article offers concepts to stimulate thinking, not absolutes. Second, the article deals with personal items not collections. Collecting is sexist with many of the top; that is to say the most expensive collecting categories are heavily male dominant. Third, a collector and saver are two different entities. While a few savers transition into collectors, most do not.
On average, women outlive men. It is not fair. Why should women have this privilege? I cheer silently (I know better than to cheer out loud) each time I read an article indicating that the gap is getting smaller. In this era of women’s rights and equality, I am all for women dying at the same average age of men.
What does all this have to do with the survival of Grandpa’s things? The answer is as obvious as the nose on your face. The person who survives controls what happens to the other person’s stuff. Traditionally, the widow inherits the entire estate. The kids are expected to wait their turn. Societal convention demands this. It takes a strong man to leave a will that directs otherwise.
Well-meaning family members, friends and acquaintances advise the widow within days of a spouse’s or partner’s death to “get rid of his things and move on.” The pressure to discard is enormous. The grieving widow is overwhelmed. The kids do not live nearby. Besides, they never expressed interest in their father’s things.
There are far more “his” and “her” things in a relationship than there are “our” things. Once the man dies, the widow’s interest in his things vanishes. His clothing goes to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. The rest is sent to the auction or the dump. A widow might select two to five things to keep as remembrances; but, these have more sentimental than dollar value.
His family heirlooms get treated no better. Death often ends the wife’s relationship with the spouse’s family. A daughter-in-law is not the same as daughter. Few women call their husband’s parents Mom and Dad. Most martial relationships with the spouse’s family are not deep, but rather tenuous at best.
[Author’s Aside #1: This becomes compounded if a second or third marriage is involved and there are children from previous marriages. For the sake of argument, the assumption in this column is that the marriage is traditional and the couple remained together for a lifetime.]
My grandfathers and father were savers, based primarily on the “it’s too good to throw out” and “I will never know when I might need it” principles. Neither viewed what they saved as a collection. Dad had a coin collection, but it was a frivolous rather than a serious hobby.
My father saved two groups of material. The first contained personal items, but not always family related. In addition to my Dad’s match rifle shooting jacket and medals won at shooting competitions, he saved a few headline newspapers and odd and end souvenirs from vacation trips. My mother was responsible for all the family albums and pictures including those of my father’s siblings and their family.
The second group of objects was utilitarian in nature, consisting primarily of tools he acquired from relatives. My Dad was not a builder, but he was capable of repairing things. If Dad bought a new object to replace an old one and the old one still worked, he saved it. “You never know” was among his favorite expressions.
[Author’s Aside #2: My mother and father lived through the Great Depression. As a result, they were minimalists, not materialists. My generation took the opposite approach. Today Grandpa’s and Grandma’s pile is overwhelming to the heirs. In 2011, I am not certain Grandma is doing better than Grandpa in respect to her things passing down through the family.]
If Grandpa’s things are lucky enough to survive during the lifetime of his widow, they face a fate worse than death when it comes time to dispose of Grandma’s estate. Women, often daughters or granddaughters, are faced with the task of disposing of an estate’s personal property. Even when a male serves as executor, he is quick to pass the disposal task to a female. The male does not have the time. Chances are the female does not either, but she is stuck.
I was around when my Prosser aunts cleaned out Grandpop Prosser’s home on Depot Street in Hellertown, Pa. His things and money were protected from outside female predators by the family encouraging (a polite word for the truth) him to marry my grandmother’s maiden sister Annie. Aunt Annie was never Grandma Annie to any of his grandchildren. Grandpop’s relationship with his eight daughters, especially his younger ones, was not the best. When my aunts entered the house after Annie’s death, “get rid of the stuff” was their rallying cry. The trash cans were filled to the brim with Grandpop’s things. I saved the goose-feather artificial Christmas tree and a few other small items.
Ellie’s contention that household goods are assumed to belong to the woman of the house was true historically. Women managed the house while the husband worked. While the reality of this ended along with the 20th century, the perception prevails and is likely to do so for another generation or two. Grandpa never owned the family china, flatware, stemware, pots and pans, furniture—the list continues ad infinitum. Grandpa owned what resided in the bureau in the bedroom and the areas assigned to him in the basement and the garage. Grandma controlled the rest.
I did not discuss the concept that the female is gifted with a level of sentimentality and romanticism far in excess of the male. This is a given. Females have a much stronger link with the past than do males. It is a grandmother-mother-daughter thing.
I welcome your thoughts about why grandma’s rather than grandpa’s things survive in greater numbers. My e-mail is email@example.com.
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“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site..
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