Beth Jones was single and living on Beacon Hill when the china set entered her life. A gift from her great-aunt, it was handmade in Italy in the famed Richard Ginori factory, but with its pink peonies and gold-rimmed edges, it was decidedly not Jones’s style. “I didn’t have much use for a 12-piece china set,” she said.
Perhaps not, but it was hers. And in the nearly 15 years since the china showed up in her tiny town house, the following has happened: The great-aunt died; Jones moved; and the china, insured and packed in quilted storage cases, went with her to Brookline, where it now lives in the attic, its delicate teacups and platters likely to remain untouched until Jones moves again.
“She was a wonderful woman,” said Jones, now married and a mother, with a touch of guilt. “I don’t want to disrespect her by giving it to someone she didn’t give it to.”
With spring approaching, the world is cluttered with decluttering experts. With their advice to “give away one item a day” and “ask yourself if you’d buy the item if you didn’t already own it,” their wisdom may help a person consign jeans that are never going to fit again or donate a vase that’s been gathering dust since the last century.
But the tips are useless to people who are holding onto things out of guilt or superstitious fear under the theory that it’s more respectful — or safer — to keep an item that will never be used, worn, or displayed, than to give it a loving home, and that you never know when you might be called on to produce it.
Gina Barreca, a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, a humorist, and a woman keeping a rayon scarf festooned with bluebirds that was a gift from an elderly aunt, tried to get at the psychology behind the situation. “You have to keep things for the karmic value,” she said. “Whatever good wishes came with the gift — I give you this rock, and I infuse it with magic — you keep when you hold onto it. It’s a pretty primitive impulse.’’
“I’m an old Sicilian,” she added, “and I can imagine [my aunt] on her deathbed saying, ‘What about that bluebird scarf I gave you when you turned 50?’ ”
‘You have to keep things for the karmic value. Whatever good wishes came with the gift . . . you keep when you hold onto it. It’s a pretty primitive impulse.’
In Walpole, Sandy Lish kept a “whimsical” painted wine glass her husband had given her as a birthday present, despite that she actively dislikes it. “He knows how I feel about the present,” said Lish, a cofounder and principal of The Castle Group public relations firm. “When I opened it, I thought, ‘This is like a present a co-worker gives to a co-worker.’ ”
And yet, despite her openly negative remarks, she’s keeping it. “Maybe one day I won’t feel bitter,” she said. “I know he tried.”
OK, but what about those wedding gifts that remained unused after 20 years of marriage? “I felt like I covered my behind,’’ Lish explained. “If for some reason the person ever asked about it, it was still there, and I could put it out.”
As the years passed, however, and the gift police failed to show up with a search warrant for decorative bowls, Lish eventually gained the confidence needed to discard. “After a while,” she said, “people don’t even remember what they gave you.”
Or do they? About a year after he married, Roger Wright, a mortgage broker in Needham, found himself living every recipient’s nightmare. His friends Paul and Kelly came to visit from out of town, and in the morning, Kelly asked for a cup of coffee. But Wright and his wife aren’t coffee drinkers. “I told Kelly, ‘Sorry, but we didn’t have a coffee maker.’ She looked at me kind of funny, and asked, ‘Are you sure you don’t have a coffee maker?’ ” He was sure.
About a year after their visit, Wright was in his attic and happened upon a sealed Krups box and a card that read “Congratulations on your wedding. Love Paul and Kelly.”
Twenty-two years and one move later, the coffee maker is still in storage and still sealed. “It’s become an inside joke,” he said. “Keeping it sealed shows my appreciation.”
One school of thought says the best way to deal with a dud gift is to act quickly, under the belief that the longer you hold onto it, the more the feeling of obligation grows, and if the gift giver dies, you’re stuck with the item until you yourself pass on, in which case your children may feel they should keep it under the mistaken idea that it must have been important to you, or you wouldn’t have kept it all these years.
But Julie Klam, author of “Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can’t Live Without,” says a person needs to store a gift for a while to show respect. “If there’s been a grace period,” she said, “then karmically you’re allowed to get rid of it.”
Think of it as the gift version of the famous saying, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Unwanted gift plus time equals permission to discard or perhaps regift.
Well, in some cases, maybe, but when the gift is from a loved one, it can haunt you to your grave, as Beth Jones is learning. She knows her aunt would want the china to stay in the family and go to a female relative, meaning she needs to give it to one of two nieces, “neither of whom will probably want it,” she said.
But as Jones imagined being on the giving end of the china set, suddenly her perspective changed. “I don’t see it as saddling either of my nieces,” she said. “I see it as passing on this piece of family history.”
Ladies, you’ve been warned.Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.