My very favorite belongings are ones that belonged to someone else in my family first: The cutting board my dad and grandfather created from a slab of butcher block. The typewriter that sits on the shelf of my childhood bedroom, a graduation gift my grandmother got before she went to college. Belongings, passed down, can function as illustrations: Of a life, of a self, of a home.
I was mystified by an article from 2015 that made its way across my social media feeds, positing that millennials don’t want furniture or belongings previously owned by their parents, half an example of millennials being transient and lacking space to store the family dining table, half a suggestion that generations are too different to have literal stuff in common. As I looked at the chest my grandfather built that gets used as a coffee table, or my mom’s gold-framed arts posters from across Kentucky, I couldn’t fathom them not being in the home of me or one of my siblings someday.
When I thought more on it, I realized most people I knew were clamoring for hand-me-downs of some kind from family members, older friends, or neighbors. It certainly seems, to some degree, like an economic side effect: “Home” is a privileged conversation. According to data from 2018, nearly half of 18–34-year-olds were “rent burdened,” which means they are paying more than 30% of their income in rent. There are still profound disparities in housing because of historical, structural racism and discriminatory housing or lending practices. Student debt is also a factor, coupled with wage stagnation, and massive racial wealth gaps within that. Dumping furniture, not saving it for someone else to use or giving it to someone who needs it, feels wasteful; buying new things may not be possible for someone, or feel sustainable. Everyone I knew, growing up and now, furnished apartments with too many roommates with stuff they found in someone’s parents’ garage or basement, if they were lucky enough to have second-hand items as an option in the first place.
Given the data that floats around that millennials prefer experiences over material possessions, I wondered about the “experience” element of these belongings — the emotional, or identity-driven aspect. How an item makes us feel — because of what it represents, because we’ve intentionally chosen to keep it in our space — is powerful. So many conversations about what made “home” feel like home centered on a few items that seemed to really capture the spirit of someone, things they felt would go with them wherever they happened to be. People shared stories of hand-carved dining room tables, being the first in their family to own a home almost entirely furnished by hand-me-downs from relatives, about precious pieces framed on walls that withstood cross-country moves, bad break-ups, and even identity crises. Others spoke of how they took used possessions and gave them a new life or legacy; how “home” wasn’t home unless a certain piece was there. Below, I asked a few people about the items in their homes from other peoples’ homes, and the identity it gives their spaces.
The Taxidermied Bird Bell Jar
“Most of the things I’ve been given are way more luxurious and interesting than anything I could ever afford, even to this day,” explains Natalie, 29, who is from the UK. Natalie’s parents weren’t as financially secure as her grandparents were growing up, which means her grandparents always seemed “super rich.” Her middle-class grandfather became an avid second-hand shopper in retirement, and one of Natalie’s most significant memories with him is spending Saturdays walking around to second-hand stores while her grandmother chided him for buying more stuff. Now, Natalie says she guesses she’s got a “scarcity mindset” from personal experiences with financial precariousness and coming-of-age during a recession, and explains 10% of the feelings she has toward the items she’s inherited are a positive association with her family, and the rest is anxiety about having nice things when she’s poor, and contributing to a “narcissistic mythology of faded generational glamour.”
One such item is a bell jar over a display of taxidermied birds, which her grandmother loathed, and passed onto Natalie, who loved it as a kid, when her grandfather passed away. She would’ve wanted the hand-me-down items even if she wasn’t budget-constrained, Natalie says. “I appreciate having items which I remember being in my grandparents’ house as a link to them,” she adds.
The Sprinkle Chicken
“Growing up the child of 1.5 generation immigrant Americans, I watched my parents piece together the homes they lived in by DIYing things and blending cultures, sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice,” says Harper, 28. “I grew up feeling like an outsider to both American culture and Korean culture — not fitting in with either.” She thinks it’s why she loved “hyper-aesthetic settings” in TV and movies that seemed to be their own universes, and feels some of those principles in how she’s put together her home now: Creating a sense of ownership and belonging, filling a space with visuals, energies, and characters. She also pointed to IKEA’s yearly reports, including one from 2018 that notes the emotional needs of home, including belonging, security, comfort, privacy, and ownership.
Harper’s grandfather bought a big, ceramic, sprinkle-patterned chicken cookie jar (that’s never actually held cookies) for Harper’s mother when Harper was four, because Harper is a chicken in the Chinese zodiac. “I was delighted when my parents gave it to me because it is cutesy and absurd, so I have always related to it, even before I knew it was supposed to be me,” she says. Now, it presides over her kitchen and dining area on a floating, open shelf.
Harper says the level of significance Chinese zodiac plays in her family is murky to her, and some family members are more into it than others. But she believes we can make meaning for things as we see fit.
“I’m very into my possessions — not in terms of being shallowly materialistic, but in terms of being deeply connected to the things I choose to keep around me,” she says, noting there’s something to be said for the sense of agency we feel in owning things in our homes during an era where so few get to feel true ownership of our spaces, be it because of barriers to homeownership or moving for jobs or coexisting with parents or roommates. “We can create stories and mythologies. We can assign energies. I have two chickens that I have attached stories to because honestly, I felt compelled,” she says.
She calls the “fat, round, ceramic white chicken” she found “the most enthralling piece of home decor I have ever encountered,” and several weeks after that, found a grey, carved chicken statue. “I’m building a world. I’m building a set. There is so little in the outside world within our control — it can create such a sense of meaninglessness and existential dread,” she says. “I don’t just want to feel safe in a home, I want to feel loved and cared for by it, and that, to me, means having it express who I am and tell the stories from my life that matter to me.”
A Legacy of Quilts
“My home is filled with quilts made by women in my family,” says Ashely, 33. “Mostly sourced from fabrics from old dresses and clothes, pajamas, those kinds of things.” Her great-grandmother made it a point to make every single child in the family (there are over twenty, Ashley estimates) a full-sized quilt to be used on their beds in their home when they grew up. Ashley’s grandmother has at least 50 quilts made by her own mother, some of which have been passed along to Ashley, who has always been soothed by sleeping under lots of blankets.
The quilt made specifically for her, Ashley sees as an act of love and intention — this quilt being made with the intention of her using it. Ever since she first moved out and lived on her own, she has slept with the quilt on her bed. On top of that, she has a quilt cross-stitched by her grandmother, made specifically for her, and hand-quilted by her Great Aunt Maxine, the sister-in-law of her father’s mother. “It is a quilt made by two sides of my family, by people who love me dearly,” Ashley says. “I just remember it smelled like water. I think Kentucky water has a particular smell to it that I love.” She loved sleeping with the extra-soft quilt, threadbare and perfectly worn in, as a teenager. Now, it hangs on a quilt rack.
There’s another important piece of the familial heirlooms: Ashley’s sibling is terminally ill, and she will receive the quilts their great-grandmother made for him when he passes. “It was made with love, and all the hours, and the intention, for him specifically,” Ashley explains. “It will be a quilt that will be added to the quilts on my bed, that are a testament to intention, and family, and comfort, and practice. I will look at that and think of him, and think of my family.”
In the women in her family, there is a history of depression, Ashley explains, and “so to have women who have had hard lives, who have suffered, but kind of survived, and made their way…and then, also were exceptionally resourceful, and took scraps of things and made them beautiful, and made them sturdy.” The patience involved in quilt-making stands out to Ashley — she knits, weaves baskets, and crochets, and the patience, dedication, resourcefulness, and determination to finish a project are things she thinks about. It’s a practice, she says, that leaves something tangible behind.
Whether it’s an heirloom crafted specifically to be handed down, a living room furnished with the furniture and decor of generations beyond you, or the books that used to grace your family’s shelves, the idea of capturing the tangible feels important — when everything outside our homes changes, when everything within our homes, our four walls and our bodies and minds and communities, seems subject to the whims of forces beyond our control, there’s comfort in looking around a room and knowing part of you belongs because of what’s in it. Because you’ve chosen to keep it. These items give us tangibles: They are the permanent things that have endured this long; they are the parts of us we’ve chosen — like we might keep enduring, through these belongings and their stories, too.