Hand Me Down — Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home on Heirloom Guilt


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Hand Me Down — Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home on Heirloom Guilt

Photo: Zerowastehome.com

Often when we chat with folks from all around about their belongings, we talk about the item itself and how the owners came to incorporate it in their own homes and lives. Over the years, Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home has made a conscious decision to let go of items handed down to her that she had no use or space for in her home. Items inherited, passed down over generations—for her, it’s not about the material things anymore. Bea, who regularly does speaking tours around the world about how her family achieves a minimal waste home, encourages her readers to let go of the heirloom guilt.

Hand Me Down — Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home on Heirloom Guilt

Bea inherited a bed similar to this one. Photo: Furnisdesign.com

Hi Bea! Can you describe the item you received?
It was wrought iron bed frame that once belonged to my great grandmother. When I moved from France to America, I brought it with me. I thought this is a heirloom, I can’t let it go. It was a costly journey as I moved back to France and then brought it back to the US later on where it sat in the garage in the suburbs of Chicago. I offered to send it back to family in France but in the end no one else wanted it. I sold it and have not not missed it once, the journey is now over.

How have you deterred more hand me downs?
I’ve made it clear that I don’t want my family’s stuff. I want nothing, just more time and memories spent together. I’m really grateful for my mother’s cooking and sewing skills that she’s passed down to me, they are more useful to me. Life is about being, not having. Even an heirloom is a have that can become a burden and keep you from living life to the fullest.

Do you have have any belongings that you treasure?
I’ve become really detached from things over time. When my husband and I got married, I received a diamond ring and for our 10th year anniversary, I had the ring upgraded. One day at a farmer’s market, I was bargaining for a flat of tomatoes with a farmer who pointed out my nice ring. There I was, a woman with big diamond ring and I was taking from the hands of a farmer. I felt like the ring didn’t represent me anymore. I sold it at an auction and felt freer. I was always worried about it. The less we have, the less we have to worry about.

Do you have any advice for others receiving unwanted hand-me-downs?
Heirloom guilt is often a gesture meant not to clutter our lives but for many, it burdens us or clutters our space. Instead of letting it sit there taking space in your life from something you need, give it away. It could be useful for someone else who will get more joy in using it. Simplifying your life and happy with number of things you do have. Tell your family you don’t wish to get their stuff, just their time. Its up to them to let go of these things right now.

Before you go, can you share what other rules you live by to reduce waste in your life.

Refuse what we do not need like freebies, junk mail, samples and party favors. Reduce what we do need, volunteer simplicity and minimalism in your life. Reuse, swap anything disposable such as paper towels, hankies for a reusable alternative. Remember that buying is voting so make a decision to get the sustainable option. Recycle, you’ll actually be recycling less thanks to prevision from the first three rules. And finally, rot. Compost the rest, not just veggies, but dryer lint, floor sweeping and even nail clippings.

Thanks Bea!

  • Jars

    Right now they are on my desktop and scroll through periodically.

  • Vanessa Londono

    Hi Jars, That’s a great idea. What do you do with the photos?

  • Jars

    A very healthy take on an emotional issue… it can be so hard to let family heirlooms go. I love the idea of focusing on time and memories more. Pictures are valuable to me – if I have a picture of an heirloom for the memory, I don’t “need” the actual piece.