Keep Those Who Have Passed Present, But Beautifully

I confess, when I first heard about a new book listing ways to turn stuff from your deceased loved one into tangible mementos, I judged. Not favorably. As you know by now, I champion letting go, not letting the stuff of the past bog down the present. Besides, the concept brought to mind those companies that claim to take the ash remains of your loved ones and compress them into diamonds, which just creeps me out.

Picture yourself at a party. “Love your necklace!” someone says.
“Thank you, It’s Mom.”

“It was your Mom’s?”

“No, it’s actually her.” At which point the person goes straight to the bar.

Put aside the fact that the International School of Gemology calls the remains-into-diamonds industry a hoax, and is hard pressed – sorry – to find evidence that a beloved’s ashes actually end up in these factory-made diamonds, making stuff out of dead humans is just sick and wrong.

But grieving people do strange things. I know. I lost my mom two months ago, and every day since I’ve worn her perfume so I can smell her.

And I grant you, making stuff out of loved ones’ stuff is far different from making something out of them. For these reasons, I uncrossed my arms and called up Allison Gilbert, author of “Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive” (Seal Press, July 2016), to see if we could find that sweet spot, a way to memorialize our loved ones tastefully, without adding clutter.

“Of course, we yearn to have them with us,” said Gilbert, who has lost both of her parents, too. “But keeping their memory alive is the next best way of keeping those who have passed present.” Her book has 85 ideas for doing just that.

As I riffed through the pages, I looked for ideas I could reconcile with my own philosophy, which I shared with Gilbert. “My mantra is if you don’t need it, use it or love it, don’t keep it.”

“Possessions quickly become clutter if you’re not selective,” she agreed. “The real joy comes from how you elevate one or two items that your loved one cherished, and how that evokes that person and keeps their story present.”

“Show me.”

“My grandmother was a busy knitter,” she began. “She knitted lots and lots of sweaters for everyone in the family, which they didn’t wear. They took up a lot of room and weren’t prompting fond memories. Whenever Gilbert I saw them, I thought, ‘Oh, grandmother wasted so much time knitting sweaters that nobody wore.’”

“Well,” I said, “except for Colin Firth, who wore that epic reindeer sweater in “Bridget Jones Diary.”

Then Gilbert, who lives in New York, lit on an idea. She summoned all the sweaters, which everyone was only too happy to relinquish, unraveled them, and had the yarn remade into mittens that everyone now wears. “We got rid of the bulk, and got back a useful asset and a story that lets us remember Grandma more positively.”

Now that’s my kind of memory. Remembering someone but smaller and usefully.

Gilbert and I had found our mutual sweet spot: Turn their stuff into something you’ll use.

While I offer similar suggestions in my latest book, “Downsizing the Family Home,” such as making throw pillows out of an old wedding dress, Gilbert takes this concept to Olympic levels.

Here are some of her favorite ways to keep those who have passed present:

  • Repurpose with purpose. When you don’t value stuff you’ve inherited, look for how to get more joy from these items. For instance, have an old leather or linen jacket remade into a tote. Gilbert had her dad’s collection of lovely silk neckties woven into a three-foot-square quilt, a wall hanging that is now a family heirloom.
  • Honor the handwriting. Handwriting is so evocative of a person, said Gilbert. Find a letter or post card. Isolate a piece of the writing, say the words, “Love, Dad.” Take the written words to a jeweler and have that handwriting put on a charm.
  • Smash the china. If you never liked the family china, turn it into something you will need, use and love. “Just because you inherit a stack of china, doesn’t mean you must use it as china,” said Gilbert, who knows a jeweler who turns tea cups into gorgeous bangle bracelets, and a crafter who turns china plates into tiered cake stands. My favorite idea is to break the china and use the shards to create mosaic trivets, trays, planters or frames, which also make good family gifts.
  • Use technology. Gilbert’s daughter, age 14, never met her maternal grandmother. Gilbert wanted to give her a sense of how much she resembled her grandmother. So Gilbert took a favorite photo of her with her mom, then took a picture of her daughter in a similar outfit, and photo shopped her daughter into the picture, so it now features the three of them. “It was a wide-eyed moment for her,” said Gilbert, who says technology is a game changer for family historians.
  • Frame the unexpected. Everyone expects to see family photos in frames, but try taking something out of context that serves to elevate a loved one’s interest. For instance, take a loved one’s favorite recipe, a clipping of her apron, and frame it in a shadow box along with her well-used measuring spoons. Or place a colorful fishing lure with his fishing license and a photo of the fisherman. You now have not only a fitting reflection of the person and his or her passion, but also a conversation piece to keep the loved one’s stories alive.

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016).