My Grandmother Passed Away Earlier This Year — Here’s How I’ve Been Honoring Her in My Home

published Nov 23, 2021
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Credit: Blair Donovan

November is Family Month on Apartment Therapy! We’re sharing stories all month about families — whether that’s partners, kids, roommates, parents, pets, or plants — from improving your daily relationships or going home for the holidays. Head over here to see them all!

When I think of my late grandmother — Mimi, as we called her — I picture her in what (I’d like to consider) her natural habitat: sitting in her go-to chair in the living room, perhaps quilting with a bourbon and Ginger Ale nearby. That chair specifically, a navy leather wingback recliner, was perpetually present during holiday gatherings at her house or “quick” Sunday afternoon visits turned into hours-long stays. In my Mimi memory bank, that recliner’s borderline synonymous with her. Even as it saw less and less use, as Mimi aged and eventually moved into a nursing home, the chair still sat tall in its spot by the window, as if dutifully keeping watch in her absence and silently hoping she might sink into it again someday.

I’d never given any thought to that chair’s life outside of Mimi’s home… because why would I? Where else would it go? In January 2021 though, she unexpectedly passed away at the age of 92, leaving my mom and her eight siblings (my family’s huge, BTW) with the not-so-pleasant task of divvying up all her worldly possessions. That meant, on top of the ubiquitous wingback, every other piece of furniture, clothing, books, movies, handmade quilts, and more, accumulated in the Louisville, Kentucky, home where she’d spent 61 years — 37 of them with my late grandfather, Pop.

Credit: Patrick Donovan

Shortly after Mimi’s passing, my brother photographed every room in her house, both for posterity and to document all the available furniture and decor. He compiled the images into a video, which, for me, really put a spotlight on their heightened emotional resonance. I started thinking, would this video be my last look at the couch I sat on every Christmas Eve or the big round dining table where we’d eat carry-out Panera? So many of her things that once seemed just that — things — had instantly graduated to invaluable status. I’d never particularly deemed my grandmother’s decorating as overtly stylish before (I mean, does anyone of their own grandparents?), but I couldn’t shake the obligation to hold on to what was once hers. Because if I couldn’t see her again, I could at least keep a few pieces of her in my home.

I worried about facing some familial competition (there’s 74 of us total… and counting), but my wish ultimately came true when all nine of Mimi’s children convened in June to officially divide up or donate her at-home assets. One of my uncles claimed The Chair, ICYWW, and my mom secured three things for me: a small floral embroidered pillow, a vintage gold tray with a glass bottom, and — my only request — my favorite of her handmade quilts. Mimi sewed over 125 quilts during her lifetime, including the one I’ve now draped over my bed with floral-shaped motifs connected by green hexagonal outlines.

Credit: Blair Donovan

That’s not to say styling my newfound decor came as easily as deciding what I had wanted. Bringing a few of Mimi’s personal effects home did give me a therapeutic sense of contentment, but I surprisingly struggled with where to put them. Their sentimentality layered on a self-imposed pressure to give them all THE perfect spots. It’s already a challenge decorating with someone else’s things, keepsakes notwithstanding, plus I live in a small apartment with minimal space to spare, so everything really needs to have its place.

After lots of trials and re-styles, I’m finally happy with how I’ve incorporated her treasures into my classic-meets-contemporary dwelling. Nothing’s set in stone either — some weeks I prefer the embroidered pillow on my own wingback chair in my bedroom (I’m truly Mimi’s granddaughter) as opposed to my living room sectional. I can’t even count how many times I’ve re-positioned the gold tray, too, from atop my toilet to my dresser to my entry table. Someday I’ll (hopefully) have a bigger home to give her pieces the true pedestals they so deserve, but regardless I’m still proud to celebrate her memory in my current space every day. Should any guests ever ask about her passed-down possessions? That’s a story — Mimi’s story — I can’t wait to divulge.

If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation after inheriting home fixtures from a loved one, I jotted down a quick list of my learnings in my decorating process. I may not be the biggest subject matter expert, so treat these as guidelines — not a rulebook. When talking about your own special possessions, feel free to use them however you please… so I don’t mean to impose. I only hope that by documenting my own takeaways some of you might potentially benefit at some point — including some of my experiential do’s and don’ts and tips for determining what to do with an out-of-place asset. 

Credit: Blair Donovan

Try to maintain the original piece

To the tune of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” unless you’ve acquired something that needs a lot of TLC to get back to its former glory — say, a chair with upholstery that’s seen better days — I’d advise against making any major changes or alterations. Again, take my advice with a grain of salt, but if a DIY project goes awry, there’s no do-over option here. If you do need to make any restorative changes, it may be best to leave it to the pros… and, of course, research your options well beforehand. It’s worth investing the time and money improving a precious piece of furniture or decor that might even have family heirloom potential.

Avoid tweaks for the sake of trends

On that note, even if an item doesn’t fit with your current furnishings, you may have future remorse if you attempt to give it a modern makeover and incorporate any especially of-the-moment fads. Exhibit A: Because patchwork apparel is having a major moment right now, I’d actually contemplated sending Mimi’s quilt to a company that can convert it into a coat, thinking I’d get more use out of wearing her handiwork. I realized I’d regret de-constructing her one-of-a-kind creation down the line, especially when this fashion trend fizzles out. 

Don’t consider everything a no-go, though. Personally, I’d aim to steer clear of fairly permanent or potentially damaging updates, like painting a vintage wood dresser a particularly popular hue. Small adjustments can still go a long way — adding a more contemporary frame to an inherited piece of art, for example. You’re maintaining the integrity of something your parents or grandparents may have once really loved, while putting your own spin on it, too. If anything, you can take solace in knowing the cozy grandmillennial look is a trend in and of itself right now.

Credit: Blair Donovan

Find similar color combos or patterns

While Mimi’s quilt is undeniably my most revered of her possessions, I actually felt most excited to bring home the small embroidered pillow from the bench on her porch. Blue is hands-down my favorite color, as evidenced by the sky-hued couch in my living room. That’s also why, during my last Christmas Eve at Mimi’s house before she passed away, I noticed said pillow and loved it instantly. If I’d ever seen it in her home growing up, it hadn’t fazed me. With fresh eyes and a home of my own though, I knew it would some day be an amazing accent. It may not match my couch to a T (and it’s not the softest to snuggle up with), but I love how the color and flower details play off the piece; it feels like a fated pairing. For a similar situation in your own home, look around for color complements or coordinating patterns.

Re-style if it doesn’t suit you

Whether you’re dealing with a loved one’s living room rug or a framed clipping of their kitchen wallpaper, don’t feel stuck if you can’t find an immediate spot. Experiment with different placements and practice patience. Even if you’re short on square footage, it’s definitely not impossible to give a family treasure a functional new home, especially if it doesn’t align with your personal decorating style — take it from me, a small-space dweller with limited arrangement opportunities. Honestly, the real moral of the story here? Just do whatever makes you happy with your sentimental decor and furnishings.