Selecting Meaningful Keepsakes for your Home

My husband Ben’s Great Aunt Flossie passed away a year ago, and her home is almost ready to be liquidated. Along with his other cousins, we received an invitation Saturday to visit her home to collect a few pieces that would be meaningful to us. What an emotional journey this has been for me. I loved her dearly as my own aunt. She instantly felt like a girlfriend, a mentor and a mother figure. Our connection was really meaningful to me. I remember as the matriarch of the family how she welcomed me warmly into her family. She told me hearing I was going to be part of her family was one of the happiest days of her life. She was a more developed, kinder and wiser version of me – and I aspired to grow into someone just like her.

I know sorting through their personal effects is a difficult process. It occurred to me as I woke up this morning thinking about this weekend’s events, that as an interior designer I had a unique perspective to share insight on this time most of us will face in our lifetimes. I believe this is a beautiful time to reflect and honor the ones we loved that have died. It can be a therapeutic and beautiful experience selecting items that have memories for us or embody the spirit of the ones we loved. I think because my job is helping clients see new ways to showcase items that hold significance to them, I am pretty astute at helping people give new life to existing items. Stuff can be just stuff, but when it carries a story it becomes so much more.

decor pad plates on wall (1)

Many of us get caught up in a society of wanting what is a shiny and new – items that are polished and presented to us perfectly styled in a store. Too much of what is new and not meaningfully collected, traveled or passed on creates spaces that lack personalization and creativity. While you may not exactly see it, you feel it. The spirit and essence of your home is lacking. Let me offer an example: How do you know when a home was staged without being told? Essentially, the room could be designed perfectly, yet you know no one lives there. The space is too perfect. It feels contrived and uniform. There aren’t collections and you can’t feel the story.

Most of us don’t have a rich uncle, and frankly in my experiences, rich uncles I know don’t live like they have much money anyway! I only write this because I think too much emphasis is placed on items assigned a monetary value. I have seen family members pass over items that could have been incorporated in their home in meaningful ways because they don’t know how to see things for what they could be, how they could be used and where they could be displayed. It is my hope that the next time you go through a loved ones home following their death, my words give you insight, comfort and purpose. I hope that even if the process is painful sifting through their home that you feel comfort and love surrounding you. And most of all I hope my words help you make selections that will be meaningful to not only you, but the rest of your family in the years to come.

Frame of mind

A good place to start is realizing that holding on to keepsakes is a way to honor and remember your loved ones. Ben and I both entered with the same spirit on Saturday. We both wanted to find everyday items for our home that could be displayed and used in our lives that reminded us of fond memories of his aunt.

Approach the process knowing that it is natural to not immediately know when you see an item if you want to keep it or not. Embrace that. Sometimes we love someone so much that is hard to let some pieces go. Does the piece have good memories for you? Would owning the piece be meaningful to you? Ask yourself where you will display or use the item in your home – what table or wall will it be placed? Will you wear it? Will you pass it down in your family in years to come? Try to limit the number of pieces you will be storing away. When selecting items for display, think of the color temperature of your current palette and what styles will blend in your home.

There is a balance of keeping way too much and the flip side is letting too much go. Be selective and also thoughtful. It may help to set aside items for keeping, and at the end evaluate them once again that day or even perhaps a week or month later. Asking the questions above will also help you pare down.

Using everyday things in new ways

Spend time looking at items that have lines and characteristics that are meaningful to you. If you don’t want the entire dish collection for example, single plates and serving dishes can be used as places to store keys, charge electronic devices, and even on your dresser to display jewelry.

English china

Mismatched tea cups and saucers can also be used to create a fun colorful collection for inside curio cabinets and glass cabinets. Plates can be used on walls to create interesting shapes and colors. Unique bowls and containers can also be used to house all kinds of things. Paperclips for your office, hair ties, cotton balls, and bath salts, to name a few.

A hat collection, or even a single hat, is a wonderful piece too. Maybe you will never wear them, but their texture, shape or intricacy could make them a real gem displayed in your home. You can display them grouped together on walls forming a unique fun collage, with artwork or dish ware, which brings me to my next thought.

What is on the walls and the tables?

I am a big fan of gallery hanging a series of artwork from different styles and eras to create a personalized look. Even a small image or mirror, paired with other items you already have in your home can create something beautiful. Not only will this piece hold a great story and memory when you see it everyday on your wall, but with creativity you can totally reinvent how the piece looks and is interpreted when paired with other things you may already have that are meaningful to you.

Focus on pieces that you like when you look at them. Is there a memory for you? Does it embody a characteristic about that person that you may want to emulate in your life?

Yesterday I picked up a small art piece, an ink drawing of several San Francisco row houses from our aunt’s house. She spent a little over two decades in the city forging her own path in life. When I look at the print it reminds me of her passion to travel and seek new journeys in life. She always encouraged us to live and push through the fear of the unknown. This keepsake reminds me to also embody those principals.

Pieces can have significance when they are paired with other items in your home, so take a second look at small items particularly. Little boxes, figurines that hold meaning or are interesting shapes, and carved pieces are some examples. Paired with other pieces they will transform into a rich, well-collected tabletop look.

They don’t make it like they used to

My friend Pete Petersen tells me when his grandma downsized and moved to a retirement community she was going to toss her ice cream scoop and rolling pen in the kitchen. The ice cream scoop at least 50 years old, is heavy and still works perfectly. The rolling pen holds memories of his grandma teaching him how to make pies. Besides, most rolling pens and ice cream scoops these days are lightweight and not made to last generations. The same can be said for dishware, pots, and pans. It is so nice to have pieces you see and use everyday that have memories and meaning. Even though some pieces may be used for utilitarian purposes, they may be worth a second look.

Heirlooms are created

I think this simple concept never occurs to most people. An heirloom is defined as a family item that is passed on from generation to generation. But please understand the most important distinction in the definition. You may start an heirloom simply by selecting it today from your family members estate. An heirloom doesn’t have to hold value; it just needs to hold your family history. It is a family heirloom because you say it is.

This also might be a good time to point out that I noticed sometimes items that are willed to family members don’t end up being necessarily their most treasured pieces from that loved one. Don’t get yourself worked up with thoughts that if it wasn’t left to you they must have not wanted you to have it. Imagine all the people you love in your life. Now imagine deciding who should get what and why. What a hard thing to do! Would you know that your water carafe or the corn on the cob holders you used during family picnics would tickle your daughter to have after you are no longer here on earth?

We all have our own unique memories and moments in life that impact us. In our society, we don’t tend to have conversations with loved ones about what we want when they pass on. What a ridiculous and insensitive conversation, right? My friend Missy Gerber from Organizers Northwest probably said it best to me once. She has a very large and prominent diamond ring she wears everyday. One day as we were on a boat ride on the Willamette River, I made a compliment about her lovely ring as it was sparkling in the sunshine. She said, “It was my Mom’s. I would gladly give her back her ring if I could trade and have her sitting here with us today.”

Roll your sleeves up

Yesterday when I couldn’t find Ben I found him in the attic. He reminded me of an episode of American Pickers combing the attic with a flashlight. Ben loves to camp and he found an old, used Coleman lantern, but carefully placed back year after year in the original box with instructions. What fun it will be to use this old, red lantern – still working and almost perfectly preserved, knowing his family used it on similar camping trips. We could have certainly have purchased a lantern at the local sporting goods store – but that wouldn’t mean nearly as much to us.

In the attic, Ben also uncovered two boxes of old bottles. A few of them were made of old two-toned pottery in yellow and natural clay. Another was engraved on the side with a “refined cider” stamp. Awesome! I knew these pieces, with different heights and texture, would work terrific for tablescaping. They aren’t pieces that hold much monetary value, but in the case of accessorizing I love the idea that they were collected and saved in our families attic.

Open drawers, cupboards and cabinets

Some of the most fascinating things I have learned about my family members that have passed away have been found tucked away. I would encourage you to look. You might find out someone endearing about your family member that you didn’t know.

Artwall Collage

Photo courtesy of debee{art) via


The books people read, particularly when they were grounded and full of wisdom, fascinate me. I figure if those books helped them grow and develop in life they could help me too. Consider grabbing a book or two for your bedside reading. I find the ones you are drawn to are exactly the ones you are supposed to select and read from the collection.

Books can also be used on coffee tables as conversations starters and add a collected flair to your home. You can also use pictures in books for framing and display. I once had a client that carefully cut out colorful botanical prints from a book and framed them in her dining room. It was magnificent. Be on the lookout for meaningful maps, sheet music, handwritten notes and cards. Framing them, too, can honor them. You can also laminate smaller items to use as bookmarks.


Most homes today are littered with low quality furniture pieces that aren’t made to last. Years ago both high end and affordable furniture was built to last. For this reason, take an extra look at the furniture. Look for well-made quality pieces of furniture with eight-way hand tied construction, dovetails drawers, solid wood and quality veneers. If you don’t know a lot about furniture, you can generally turn the piece over and find a stamp or tag from the manufacturer and the date it was made. (Upholstered pieces tend to be located under the cushions.)

Be careful not to discard the idea of an item in your home because of an outdated wood finish or upholstery that doesn’t appeal to you. Those things can be easily changed. Once again, ask yourself where you will place the piece in your home. Make a plan for it and honor it. If it needs refinished or reupholstered, honor the piece and yourself by having it taken care of immediately. You will be happy if you follow this advice. If you need an upholsterer or fabric showroom referral in Portland just call our studio and we are happy to help.

Outdoor furniture and chairs deserve a special mention here. Use fresh eyes especially with outside furniture and pieces. Chairs and tables can be spray painted fun colors like turquoise, orange or even metallic and bring your outdoor living area to life. Birdhouses, globes, pots and yard ornaments can not only bring a bit of whimsy into your outdoor space, but I love the idea of having these pieces surrounding you while you play and work outdoors. But don’t overdue it. Less is more in this case especially. Yesterday we found three original Japanese glass floats found after traveling miles at sea and landing on the Oregon coast. Ben’s aunt must have been thrilled when she found these aqua and green seeded glass globes.

A Story about my Grandma Margaret

This post made me think about when my Grandma Margaret passed away in 2003. The last three years of her life she lived here in Oregon. As Grandma reached her early 80s, she was concerned she had nothing of value to leave. She said she wanted to give me pair of French Limoges earrings she thought might be originals. These earrings didn’t have a great traditional story…. they weren’t gift from my Grandfather or a past lover and they weren’t passed on by the French or English side of family as they traveled the Atlantic Ocean to America. Grandma picked them up a rummage sale thinking she had come across something valuable – and I got the impression she thought she had outsmarted the clerk. I chuckle as I write this, Grandma must have been really proud of herself that day at the flea market. After paying the clerk only a few dollars, I imagine she tucked those earrings in her handbag with a smile. If she thought those earrings were Limoges and worth thousands of dollars sitting in a dusty display case – she would have had a poker face during the transaction.

I have the earrings today in my jewelry box. Every time I see them I think of her. I have worn them a couple of times. I didn’t really care then or now about the earrings value. To this day, 10 years later I have never had them appraised. I actually would guess they are replicas, and I suppose not having them appraised is my way of assuring my Grandma that I don’t care what experts say are the value of the earrings. I am guessing whatever their value, they are more valuable to me than anyone else on earth.

Grandma spent her retirement in a sleepy little town in Florida off the Withlacooche River. My childhood was full of happy memories in her home. I remember the distinct tick tock sound of her wall clock when we got ready in the wee hours of the morning to get a jumpstart on our day at Disneyworld. I recall the dinner bell my Grandma would ring just outside her front door when it was that time. I recall the tall bachelors chest in her spare room – it was a matching set to the bedroom collection she gave to me when I was four – and I knew someday that piece would be given to me. When I flew with my Dad to Florida following her death, I knew these items were among the items important to me. However, partly because Grandma prepared me that she had nothing of value to leave anyone – and because before that point I had never been part of liquidating a loved ones things – I had no idea how many things she had that would mean the world to me.

As I scanned the house, each cabinet, cupboard and wall surface, I underestimated how valuable and meaningful other things would be to me. There was so much about my Grandma’s younger life that I didn’t know, uncovering and unfolding her life possessions told me firsthand things about her I never would have known. I was more like her than I realized. Some of my favorite finds were items I remembered seeing and using as a kid in her home. I loved the corn on the cob holders we used the year we went to Florida for Thanksgiving. I remember we set up a long banquet table under the carport – it made a distinct impression on me because as a child I was bewildered to be in warm sunshine for Thanksgiving dinner. I also realized Grandma and I both loved to wear bold patterns and statement pieces. Her jewelry box was full of costume jewelry, evening gloves, and colorful scarves and hats from over six decades. I could shop vintage shops for years to find such a gorgeous collection. The power in having these things today is I know they also surrounded her during her life experience. They have memories and experiences tied to them that eventually created me. They remind me I came from something important and that I am loved.

I hope this insight helps you when the time comes to sift through a loved ones belongings. If you need help displaying these keepsakes in your home in meaningful ways – we are just a phone call away.

It would warm my heart to hear about a keepsake you treasure and the story it carries for you. Chime in and comment.


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Angela Todd

Owner & Principal Designer

Angela is the principal designer at her boutique interior design firm in Portland, Oregon. She is known for creating memorable backdrops that tell the story of fascinating and intricate lives.

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