If it weren’t for heirlooms, my husband and I would be IKEA’s best customers. Our dining room furniture, our son’s bedroom set, and our bedroom furniture come from my grandparents’ apartment in Lowell. We have their regal Drexel mahogany dining table, a claw-foot buffet, and bureaus with ornately carved handles. Giving us furniture was their modest way of leaving a legacy.
And yet: Every time I visit an ultra-modern abode, all angles and edges, I sigh a little. Our furniture is stately, very proper, and really quite brown. In fact, we could probably furnish the sets for the final season of “Downton Abbey.” Not ones to turn down free vintage objects, we outfitted our remaining rooms to match our bounty.
Fortunately, we inherited mostly standard stuff with logical uses — even my grandfather’s Hummel figurines, which I dutifully showcase on kitchen windowsills between my aloe plants. But usually, heirlooms require serious familial compromise, not to mention decorating prowess. They stir up emotions ranging from nostalgia and love to embarrassment and aesthetic confusion.
For instance, take the case of Kara Madden. Her great-grandfather was well-known New Yorker cartoonist Al Frueh. Several years ago, the family cleaned out a barn on his property and stumbled upon several unsigned paintings, which were distributed among relatives.
Kara inherited a painting of a mother lifting up her daughter’s dress to inspect a diaper. “It appealed to me,” she says with a chuckle. “You’re always checking your kids’ diapers when they’re little.” Kara took it home, framed it, and assumed it would hang above the living room fireplace. Her slightly mortified husband, Sean, had other ideas.
He insisted they relegate the diaper design to his wife’s office. “We don’t always share the same sense of humor,” she says. “For me, the sentimentality overrode the connotations.”
To keep the peace, she gamely hung the painting far from her husband’s gaze. “People end up seeing it anyway, and it’s a fun story. Plus, in my office, I can look at it all the time,” Kara says.
Kara’s mother was less fortunate. The older lady received a wooden heart with a locket hinge that Frueh had made and given his wife as a Valentine. When you open it, a tiny lifelike penis pops out.
“My great-grandfather had a quirky sense of humor,” Madden admits. Her mother keeps the heart tucked away in a drawer, not in her curio cabinet.
Indeed, inheriting heirlooms can re-create old and odd family dynamics in your house, for better and for worse, even if the original owner is long gone. Dien Ho’s mom died in 2001. The Taiwanese immigrant owned an art gallery in Hong Kong and then settled in Newton after divorcing Ho’s father.
Says Ho: “She had trunkloads of artwork and didn’t want to tell anyone she had it. She was paranoid and afraid to hang them because she was afraid of break-ins. Her basement was just filled, floor to ceiling.” He unearthed several valuable stacks of signed Joan Miró prints tucked into an old Hong Kong gossip rag while wading through her trove.
“These are things you can’t just sell easily or throw out,” he says. He has loaned several pieces to Williams College, her alma mater. For the most part, though, his Cambridge apartment is now home to her peculiar acquisitions.
“It’s a gigantic burden, like an albatross around my neck,” Ho says. “I mean, she had a whole box of monocles, like the Mr. Peanut monocle! Sometimes she’d wear them to go to dinner.”
Ho’s living room now houses a 4-foot-tall wooden plane-propeller blade his mom acquired from a junkyard. “People come by asking if it’s [Constantin] Brancusi or some kind of futurist sculpture. I’m like, ‘Um, no, it’s from a real plane.’ . . . You’re not going to sell a propeller and ship it to someone’s house.”
While his wife, Jane Leo, has sometimes wondered whether they should sell the artwork or offload the propeller — “It could mean a new fridge,” Ho says — she respects his sentimentality, though it’s not without struggle on her part. A Christie’s appraiser once visited their house and urged them not to sell a small Chinese sculpture. His wife went green. She’d just sold a similar one at a yard sale for $3.
Then there are items that may be difficult to unload. Laura McFadden and her husband inherited a toolkit from his father, a World War II veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star and fought at Buchenwald. Inside were two unusual knives. Ordinarily, they’d be ideal for display in a curio cabinet. One is a Forester’s Cutlass with an ivory handle, which McFadden estimates is worth a few thousand dollars. Another, though, is a dagger with Nazi engravings.
“It’s such a weird thing to get rid of. I could try to donate it to a Holocaust museum. But I don’t know what to do with it, to tell you the truth, and it would have to be a family decision. People are scared to death when they see it,” she says. For now, it’s stashed in the basement of the family’s Somerville home.
In the best cases, though, heirlooms are a sentimental, visual way to link past with present. Ashley Buckholtz is an interior designer, and she thinks she inherited her craftiness from her great-aunt Esther. Now, Esther’s Art Deco-style gold monogrammed brooch hangs in the Arlington nursery of Buckholtz’s daughter, Natasha, displayed in a frame from Michaels with a fabric backdrop that matches the nursery’s curtains.
“Esther always encouraged me to be creative. She taught me about art and bought me art supplies. We’d sit and draw together. I have a feeling Natasha will be another little artist,” Buckholtz says.
I’m grateful, too. While I might long for a mod dining room or a bedroom that doesn’t resemble my Nana’s Shalimar-scented boudoir, the upsides are huge. At dinner, my 5-year-old squirms in the same dining room chair where my grandfather, his namesake, sat every Thanksgiving. He never got to meet my son, but he’s still here to prop him up.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.