You have decided to build your dream house, and you find yourself designing the family room around the living-room set you expect to inherit from your aging parents. The spot above your new fireplace will be perfect for their painting of the Michigan sand dunes where you spent every summer of your childhood. On the mantelpiece below the painting, you will place the pair of silver candlesticks they got as a wedding present, just as they display them now.
It sounds great; however, don't fine-tune the family-room design to such a degree that no other furnishings will work there. If you have siblings, they will want those cherished family possessions as much as you do, even if they have never said a word about them. You might get the painting or the candlesticks or the furniture, but you won't get everything. At least that was my experience with my three siblings when we divided up our parents' belongings.
Unlike most families, who do this only once, we did it four times, as our parents successively downsized from a house to an apartment, then to a retirement home and finally to smaller units within that facility.
We tried different ways of deciding who got what, with spouses present and not present. No one way worked best, but early on we recognized that the exercise was not merely or even mainly about distributing pieces of furniture, tools and dishware. It was about saying goodbye to our past and bringing a few token pieces into the present.
The first time we gathered to divide things, we were still shell-shocked that our parents were leaving the scene of our childhood -- the house they owned for 45 years -- even though they had given us ample warning. My mother, who was still firmly in charge and organized, spent several months going through the house, deciding what to take to a smaller apartment, what to give away and what to throw away. Two weeks before we gathered, she sent a detailed list of what was up for grabs.
After we arrived, she gave each of us a pack of different colored stickers with instructions to sticker the things we wanted. If some items had more than one sticker, it was up to us to decide who would get what. Since none of us wanted to be engaged in this task, no one had considered this possibility. On the spot, my brother suggested flipping a coin. With a 50-50 chance of winning or losing, it was fair, quick and workable -- because nothing we really cared about was at stake.
It was different the second time around. Furnishings we really did care about were on the block, and no one was willing to leave ownership to chance and the outcome of a coin toss.
My parents were moving to a retirement home and no longer needed their dining room furniture. Our mother, ever practical, offered it to me because I didn't have any, but this logic did not fly with my siblings. They squawked so loudly that our mother bowed out, saying that she didn't want a family rupture over furniture. She left it to us to come up with a solution.
We met on two weekends -- both brothers couldn't be there at the same time -- to work out a compromise that we could all live with. We talked about the furniture, both in practical terms -- everyone but me had a dining table and chairs, so the fuss was really about the sideboard -- and in emotional ones -- why we all wanted it.
With eight years difference between the oldest and the youngest sibling, our interests were wildly different as we grew up, but we gathered for dinner almost every night. Moving from the relationship of the sideboard to family life and why this particular piece had such emotional resonance, we talked for the first time about our relationship to each other and how we got along or not, an important digression that helped clear the air.
We finally came up with a solution that seemed to satisfy everyone. Our mother decided she would not have room for our grandmother's desk, so one brother got that, my sister got the sideboard, my other brother got the dining room chandelier, and the dining table and chairs came to us.
When our parents moved to smaller quarters in the retirement home, we gathered again. After the difficult negotiation among the four of us over the sideboard, we decided that it would be easier if spouses were not present. And recognizing the value of talking things through until we were comfortable with the outcome, we even allowed an extra day, just in case deliberations took longer than expected.
But once we started, it seemed that one extra day might not be enough. My brother and sister locked onto the bench that sat in the front hall of every place that my parents had ever lived, and it took four hours to decide who would get it. Neither of them had ever expressed an opinion about this bench, and neither could identify any intrinsic quality that made it so desirable. They just wanted it. We finally broke the logjam when I suggested a trade my brother found acceptable.
To some degree, we were all irrational about these family possessions so laden with personal history. The same brother and I set upon a table that we had never discussed or ever really looked at before. Each of us just wanted it. That impasse ended when my brother matched the table with a group of smaller things he was willing to take instead.
Another surprising twist: my father's feelings about the furniture. When he heard the results of the marathon horse-trading, he was stunned. Some of the pieces we expended so much energy haggling over were things he never liked and couldn't wait to give away.
This August marked the fourth and last time we gathered to divide the remaining pieces, after our father died in June. Not surprisingly, it proved to be the hardest session of all. We didn't want to be doing it, and the few things that were left were ones that we all wanted, especially a small empire-styled round table. Each of us wanted it so much, in fact, that we spent a day and a half deciding who would get it, and what would be an acceptable equivalent to the three who didn't.
Clearly, sentiment trumped everything. The table, worth at most $400, was grouped with a Persian carpet worth about $4,000, an art nouveau-styled standing lamp with a small Persian carpet worth about $800 that had been in the front hall with the bench, and a smaller Persian carpet worth about $500 grouped with two chairs worth about $400 apiece.
Knowing that spouses can lighten up an otherwise somber occasion, we were glad that one sister-in-law could be there. With infinite patience, she periodically polled the group to see if any of us had ceded the table, as she gently moved negotiations forward.
Overall, I would say of the four times we divided up our parent's belongings, the proceedings were variously logical, practical and irrational, and they definitely verged on the ridiculous. I've also discovered an upside. When I visit my siblings and see an old familiar chair or sofa, it's a nice reminder of the connections and past that we share.
Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.
(c)2004, Katherine Salant
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