Inheritance Guilt

Much Too Much of a Good Thing

inheritance guilt fine china overload

Do you suffer from inheritance guilt? It’s a problem many of us middle-aged baby boomers face. Your parents pass on and you inherit all their “stuff.” Are you grateful or do you buckle under the weight of unwanted material overload and guilt?

Nowadays, more and more of us fall into the suffering and lamenting category. One friend of mine cannot wait to dispose of her mother’s mink coat. Another hates her mother’s bright orange, fish-patterned ceramic platter. For me, the cause of distress – fine china.

And while it’s all well and good to lament, on a practical basis, what do you do when you have too much of a good thing or even too much of a bad, but deeply sentimental object?

I know I’m not alone worrying about this. The New York Times and The Washington Post frequently write about inheritance woes with articles like “Just Because an Item Doesn’t Spark Joy Doesn’t Mean You Should Toss It,”‘Just Use the China’ or ‘Call 1-800-Got-Junk'” and “Aging Parents With Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It.” For me, these titles convey the emotional baggage we inherit along with the actual items we receive.

Remember the days when family members fought over who got what? Now it’s more, “You take the bearskin rug.” “No, you take it, please.” “NO, YOU TAKE IT. I INSIST!”

After my mother died, I inherited her Shelly English fine bone “Dainty” dinner service for 12. It is a massive set. Each of those sparkling white with 24-karat gold trim place settings contains 10 individual pieces! There are dinner, salad, and bread and butter plates, cups and saucers, double-handled soup bowls with saucers, two side bowls and napkin ring. Plus, there are multiple serving pieces and in a dated touch, two special narrow containers to hold and display cigarettes.

I never liked the set. As a child, I had to hand wash the dishes after company left, all the while my mother, all 5’3” of her, loomed over me reciting the replacement cost of each piece dare I damage it.

As a pre-teen, I actually did ding a piece, although my crime against china occurred while playing golf! My cousin and I, both about 12-years-old and aspiring Arnold Palmers, were “golfing” in the living room. I swung wildly. The club slipped from my hands, hit the china closet in the dining room which wobbled. Inside the cabinet, the “Dainty” teapot swayed and then tipped over, resulting in a tiny ding.

What’s the Word for “Fine China” in Russian?

Even in college, I suffered because of said set. To this day, I have no idea what prompted me to write an essay about such a bourgeois topic as fine china for my Communist-era Russian language class. (Obviously, I wasn’t the smartest comrade in the class cadre.) The problem: I couldn’t find the word for “china.” So, I – master of logic and linguistics –used the Russian word for the country China, minus the capital C. My Russian teacher thought this was so hilarious, he broke the rule of only speaking Russian in class to explain – in between spasms of laughter – the idiocy of my error.

Back in the USA, Three’s a Crowd

When I married, my husband and I purchased our own set of fine china, a modest but lovely set for eight. When my grandmother died, I inherited her amber dishes and matching goblets. It wasn’t a complete set, but it was beautiful and I treasured it.

When my mother died, her beloved china came to me, the only daughter – the designated keeper of the family flame. I wasn’t grateful. The kitchen cabinets, now holding three sets of good dishes,  started sagging!

Yet, dispose of one of my mother’s most cherished possessions? Unthinkable!

Twice we carted the china across the country, moving from Las Vegas to DC and then to Berkeley, Ca. In the move to DC, I did not even open the two huge packing cartons but left the dishes boxed up, neglected, in the basement. Yet, like Poe’s “Telltale Heart,” I knew the dishes were there, hurt and brooding as holidays and special occasions rolled by and they were left unused.

For a long time, I thought one of my children would want the dishes when they grew up; when they got homes of their own, but who am I kidding? They of the paper-plate-microwave generation will never want these labor-intensive-cannot-go-in-the-dishwasher-super-delicate dishes. That’s not just my opinion. My children have told me so – loudly and repeatedly.

Can We Dish?

I thought of donating the dishes to a charity. “At least they would go for a good cause,” I reasoned to myself (and to my mother’s ghost). But no charity wanted them. “Too old-fashioned.”

I thought of selling them at an auction and then donating the money to charity. Surely an auctioneer would be impressed by an intact 70+year-old-set of fine china. No luck there either. “Good china has gone the day of the dodo.”

A friend suggested contacting, but I couldn’t do that. I didn’t want the set broken up like unloved orphans, scattered among uncaring relatives and strangers all across the country. No. Never. All I wanted was a good home for my mother’s dishes and for that good home not to be mine.

Inheritance Guilt Be Gone

Then, one night, fifteen years after my mother’s passing, a dear friend was visiting. Actually, to describe the woman as dear would be insufficient. She is a special person, an extraordinary soul who has extended many kindnesses to my family in times of need. This friend was admiring our antiques. One thing led to another and I casually asked if she was interested in a set of good dishes. She said that she had always dreamed of owning a set of fine china, but that between college and graduate school loans for herself and her husband and the birth of children, it had never quite happened. So, faster than you can say, “Load up the car, Nellie,” the dishes – and my guilt – were gone.

My mother’s beloved dishes now have a new, loving home. My friend is happy and I am happy.

(That said, I’m not sure my mother would be pleased. So, if you see her before I do, please don’t tell her. Let’s just keep this between us.)


So, my dear middle-age muddlers, do you suffer from or fear inheritance guilt? What inherited item do you possess that you do not love, but cannot part with for guilt or sentimental reasons? Care to share?


AND ON A SERIOUS NOTE: if this post made you laugh, please take a moment to think of all the people in Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida who are suffering right now and in desperate need of material support. If you have not yet donated, please do now. The Red Cross and so many fine organizations could use your support, especially at this time. And if you are thinking about the tragedy in my hometown of Las Vegas, there’s a GoFundMe campaign to help victims of the shooting. Thank you.

4 replies
  1. Susan
    Susan says:

    After my mom passed away, my stepdad began gifting me her beloved pieces of Lladro. Each year on my birthday, I received another piece until my curio cabinet was filled and I began displaying them on an etagere in my dining room. One day while dusting, I realized how much I really disliked the collection. Not knowing anyone who would like them, least of all my sons and their wives, I carefully bubble wrapped each piece and packed them in a box destined for the garage. Maybe one day I will give them away, or leave that to my boys when I am gone. In the meantime, I feel better not having to look at them each and very day.

  2. Elaine Sloss
    Elaine Sloss says:

    Congrats on the breakage. My late mother-in-law loved Lladro(me not so much) I took the pieces doled out to me for our daughter ( 12 at the time) Now an adult w/ a home of her own has absolutely No interest in the stuff. It gathers dust in a guest room.

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      Ah, Lladro. We have a few pieces too. Not my favorite either! But still … we cling to the things given to us with so much love!


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