Sifting through a lifetime and a house full of possessions as parents and grandparents downsize or pass away can be such a daunting task that the Iowa State University Extension offers a class on it.
Some families use a lottery system for dividing up family heirlooms, others appraise valuable objects and make sure everyone gets an equal share, and still others have estate sales or donate items to charity.
Here are the experiences of some Quad-City area residents we talked to about how they handled the difficult chore:
Bequeathing the mauve couch
Tom and Joan Helms asked their three sons, their wives and six grandchildren to let them know which possessions they want once they pass away. Their granddaughter, Anne Helms, placed dibs on the “rad pink couch.”
“Actually, it’s kind of mauve rather than pink,” Joan Helms corrected.
The color was in when the couple had the piece of furniture made 20 years ago and placed it in their foyer. Anne Helms said the bright color always made her feel welcome when she visited their Davenport home.
“We just figured at our age it’s time to try to think about making sure our grandchildren and children get the things that we know that they’re going to have,” said Joan Helms, who is in her early 80s.
The Helmses already have given some items to family members. Anne Helms’ home, for example, is stocked with hand-me-down furniture from her grandparents. But other items are on a list that details exactly who gets what when they’re gone.
Each of her sons has a request: a marble table that once belonged to Tom Helms’ mother, a silver fiber-optic bowl that lights up and is brought out at Christmastime and Joan Helms’ collection of swan-themed items. She also spent a good deal of time dividing her jewelry among female family members.
“The sooner you start, I think the happier you’ll be, and the thing is you can always change it if you haven’t decided for sure,” she added.
Deciding who gets grandma’s pie plate
The Iowa State University Extension Service offers the class called, “Who gets grandma’s yellow pie plate?” to help relatives answer that question and ones like it when a family member dies.
Phyllis Zalenski, a family resource management program specialist for the Extension, said determining whether the main goal is to be fair, to make sure the items are appreciated or to maintain family relationships is key when deciding who gets what.
“The challenging thing often is because the items have more sentimental value than financial value, and those all have different meanings for different family members,” she said. “It’s based on memories and how you interacted with your family and that item in the past, so it’s difficult to divide up things that maybe had shared meanings.”
Zalenski said the best-case scenario is when the property owner decides to whom to bequeath possessions by making a detailed list describing each item in detail and specifying who it goes to. Under Iowa law, such lists need to be mentioned in a will, signed and dated by the author. But giving away cherished possessions can begin while the person is still living, particularly when a parent or grandparent is downsizing, or moving into assisted living or a nursing home.
“The priority is communication,” Zalenski said. “It’s sometimes a sensitive issue to bring up because children are saying to their parents, ‘Oh, you’re going to live a long time, we don’t need to talk about this now.’ And (it is a priority) also for the people that are giving the items to make their goal clear to the family that these are the reasons why I’ve made the decisions I’ve made.”
Wrapped in comfort
When Connie Jurgs’ mother died in 1997, her mother’s coat originally went to her sister. Years later, she found a way for all of her siblings and their children to share it.
“I said, ‘Dixie, you’re never going to wear that coat, let me cut it up and make teddy bears out of it,’ ” recalled Jurgs, who presented the seven green-and-gray teddy bears the coat yielded to the rest of the family at Christmas. “They couldn’t say anything. They just looked at them.”
A seamstress of 30 years and the owner of Seajay Quilting in Davenport, Jurgs makes teddy bears, pillows and quilts from the clothing of family members who have died. Her most recent comfort quilt was made for a neighbor whose husband died last year.
While her neighbor was out, the woman’s children called her over to the home to pick up several flannel shirts, an Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric Co. sweatshirt and some bib overalls so Jurgs could make the quilt as a surprise gift.
“I asked her (the neighbor’s daughter), ‘Is she going to miss some of these clothes?’ and she said, ‘Oh, no, she won’t miss anything,’ ” Jurgs recalled. But when she brought the finished lap quilt to her neighbor the week after Christmas, she discovered that the woman had been searching for her husband’s clothing after all. “She said, ‘I knew he had more bib overalls and I could only find one pair.’ ”