An inside look at Chicago real estate

When You Don’t Want to Take it With You: The Passing on of China

Kay Severinsen By
Kay Severinsen
   | Home Ownership, Moving


After a few years, a home is not just a place where people live – it’s where their belongings live. And after 58 years in one house, my mother-in-law’s things have certainly settled in.

Because Grandma E. is moving to a senior retirement center, it’s fallen mostly to her sons and their families to figure out what to do with the things that won’t fit or aren’t needed in her new home. While that includes spare irons, an old computer and at least a dozen white sweaters, many of the things she has safely stored tend to be fragile, demanding and seldom used. They aren’t very practical but they are useful in another way – they have stories.

The Waterford, the Haviland porcelain, the dinnerware, the gold flatware, the silver. Those are just a few of the things we have discovered or wondered about. Over the past few months, our project has been to sort, decide, keep or cast aside. As the deadline drew near, Thanksgiving weekend turned into a flurry of packing tape and boxes, and a whirl through family history as well.

  • Grandma E.’s own mother was the wife of a Chicago policeman, but she had an eye for nice things. Her gold watch was a birthday present from her husband, who believed his wife should have the best gift he could buy. The watch has traveled through time with a long anecdote about getting lent to a cousin who took it on a vacation to Ireland and brought it back in pieces. 
  • A bone china statuette of a French matron used to be a lamp base, and sat on the grand piano of my husband’s other grandmother. Its lamp parts are gone now, but it looks fine without them.
  • The sterling flatware, a wedding gift, has not seen the light of day in the past 20 years. We assumed that was because it was just too difficult to keep polished. After a prolonged search, a nimble grandson found the velvet-lined flatware box under a spare bed. 
  • The turkey-shaped salt and pepper shakers are not valuable but they are iconic reminders of our family Thanksgiving dinners. The turkeys will get passed on to me, the new cook. They will remind us of dinners at grandma’s house and of the uncles still fighting each other for the last of the gravy.
  • Ever since family holiday meals moved to our house a couple of years ago, Grandma E.’s good china, white with gold rims, had not been enjoying the holidays as much. She was ready to pack it all up for either of her granddaughters to claim if and when they want it. We were not-so-secretly delighted that they said they were interested. One uncle suggested it was sexist not to include the grandsons, but there were no takers among them. 

Since I had just dusted off my own grandmother’s old china, served Thanksgiving dinner on it, hand-washed it and carefully returned it to the cupboard where it will sit for another year, it made me think about the things we save and pass on.

The white, lemon and gold-rimmed china I used was purchased by my father for his mother-in-law when he took R&R in Japan while stationed in Korea. Many years later, her dinner party days long past, my grandmother passed it on to me. At the time I was grateful for the gift but wondered when I would ever use such impractical dishes that had to be hand washed.

But now that my mother-in-law no longer can make a turkey feast, my grandmother’s china has its day to shine. When I use it, I think of her. “Cups and saucers” is still written in her neat handwriting on a label on one of the china covers. In her last decade, she passed her few belongings on to her descendants, and we all have a little piece of our family history tucked away somewhere.

If you took all this china, crystal, flatware and turkey salt shakers to an antique store, it would sit on dusty shelf with all the rest, meaningless to shoppers. To us, however, these are not just things, they are the bearers of memories.

And so we will pack them up and store them somewhere safe, until it is their time again to tell their stories.


  1. Janis ·

    Kay, I really enjoyed your story. How true it is!

  2. Kay ·

    Thanks to reader Bridgid Roark who posted this on the Facebook link to this story: The History of Love– “At the end, all that’s left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that’s why I hoarded the world: with the hope that when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived.”