What to do with family heirlooms at the cottage

Updated: January 16, 2020

family heirloom Photo by A. Zhuravleva/Shutterstock

Striking a balance between sentiment and function at the cottage is always a challenge.

We infuse our space with the anchors of nostalgia, family heirlooms, and collections from our travels that have defined us. As Jessica Bellef, author of Individual: Inspiration for Creating a Home of Your Own, suggests, the places that we inhabit are distinctive autobiographies of time and constant refinement.

While the casual cool of a cottage can cater to whimsy and eclectic design, it can easily become a catch-all for the items that are too jarring or oddball for our homes.

Sometimes we become custodians of heritage by choice, integrating a second-hand find that resonates and jives with our cottage vibe. On the flip side, it’s not uncommon to inherit a collection or family heirloom that interrupts that synthesis.

Receiving a loved one’s precious collection can be daunting. Will it fit the cottage? Individual family heirlooms are easier to repurpose or dispose of, but what do you do with a collection of 150 souvenir spoons, or salt and pepper shakers?

When my wife Kim and I lived in a riverside stone cottage built in 1861, the design was steeped in heritage with exposed beams, limestone walls, and original pine flooring. My mom immediately offered appropriate items from her own collection for the carriage house: bow yokes, saddles, and steamer trunks. My late grandfather’s old weigh scale became an ideal coffee table.

Photo by Jules Torti.

To restore it to its original glory, I used a strip and wire brush to remove the rust on the wheels. Back in the ’70s, my grandmother had stained and waxed it, with grand intentions of bringing the table inside their farmhouse for display.

When we sold our cottage, the yokes, trunks and weigh scale table no longer suited the contemporary build we moved into. Was it wrong to return an heirloom? As it turns out my parents no longer had the space to accommodate the table, so now it’s parked under the stairs in our garage. This is where the guilt seeps in. What are we supposed to do with these family heirlooms when we edit them out of our story?

Instead of stuffing the tchotchkes in a Tupperware under your bed, here are a few unconventional approaches to consider.

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Keep the heirlooms in the family

Can you share the collection with family members? While 120 of anything might be overwhelming, a single piece might be more valuable and welcomed.

In an appearance on television, Jann Arden discussed doing death differently. She shared the story of distributing her mother’s decorative plate collection at her mother’s memorial service.

Repurpose 

My grandfather’s weigh scale easily did double-duty as a coffee table, although the uneven top boards were ill-suited for the fine stems of champagne glasses.

While not every heirloom can be easily converted, perhaps there is an alternate use for an aunt’s old quilt that clashes with your colour scheme. Can it become a Christmas tree skirt with a little stitchwork? Why not use it as a picnic blanket? Or paint a vintage steam iron a fun colour and use it as a bookend. There’s no shortage of ways you can repurpose an heirloom should it lend its self to a practical purpose.

Reinvent 

Perplexed about what to do with the sudden arrival of antique furniture like an old credenza? Why not use the wood to create a couple of birdhouses for the extended family? After a good sanding, it could bring unbridled joy to a nesting bird.

7 backyard birdhouse blunders to avoid

Fragments 

Sometimes it’s the smaller things that leave us stumped. For cookbooks, frame a few of your favourite pages or create a custom canvas print. Replace traditional watch faces with a photo and hang as an ornament on your Christmas tree. Fishing lures sans hooks can seamlessly adorn a tree too.

Why not shake up your games night and replace Monopoly game pieces with heirloom jewelry? As for that bowling trophy collection—pry off the engraved brass plaques and adorn the cottage bar or outhouse walls. The story of a loved one will remain alive in a renewed way that will bring a smile instead of a weighted sigh when thinking of a dusty box in storage.

The only limits are your imagination.

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