A tempest brews in heirloom teacups

Every family has its cherished possessions. Small or large, modest or grand, these objects become infused with memories and an importance that has little to do with monetary worth. It's their sentimental value that counts.

Ranking high on many lists of domestic treasures are Grandma's china and crystal. Passing these fragile legacies down to the next generation remains an honored tradition in many families.

Yet a generational shift is under way as some parents make a surprising discovery: Their children aren't interested.

Fancy china? "Sorry, Mom, it's just not me," a daughter or son might say, adding, "Besides, it can't go in the dishwasher."

Sterling silver? "No thanks - it needs polishing."

Crystal goblets? "Nope - too fancy, too fragile."

As for those snowy damask linens that grace Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables, who has time to iron yards of fabric? And who wants to spend $15 or $20 to have each one professionally laundered? Placemats work just fine, Mom.

In an era of frequent mobility, casual entertaining, and later marriage, cupboards filled with delicate heirlooms are gathering dust. Practical questions loom large for potential heirs: Where

would I store these treasures? How would I move them? And when would I use them? Pizza and Chinese takeout hardly call for Wedgwood and Waterford.

The dinner party, social observers warn, is becoming an endangered species. In a hurried age, such events simply require

too much work. Similarly, the luncheon - that midday pleasure of women who don't have to watch a clock on a lunch hour or eat a sandwich at their desk - is nearly extinct.

No wonder casual tableware from popular retailers such as Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel is replacing porcelain and crystal on bridal registry lists.

When children turn down these legacies of love, what is a parent to do? One couple moving this month from a large house in Ohio to a smaller one in Oregon wanted to give their 48-piece crystal set to their newly married daughter. She politely declined.

When the mother took the crystal to an antiques shop, the owner told her, "There just isn't a market for this now. I'm already overstocked."

So the goblets are accompanying the couple to their new home, where there isn't even a basement to store them. Someday, they hope, formality and elegance will stage a comeback, and a future grandchild will proudly tell dinner guests, "These belonged to my grandmother."

Why do dishes exert such a powerful hold? When we buy new clothes, new furniture, or new cars, we feel little guilt about parting with the old ones. But dishes are another story. We hang on, drawn perhaps not only by their beauty and fragility but by the memories they evoke of family gatherings, favorite foods, and relatives no longer at the table.

A set of old china, complete with double-handled soup bowls and curved bone dishes, also recalls a time when elaborate menus and formality prevailed.

If possessions cherished by earlier generations lose their sentimental attachment for younger family members, some traditions may fade. The pleasant ritual of "getting out the good dishes" and setting a beautiful table is a source of pleasure and satisfaction to a host - and a gift to guests.

At the same time, as a younger generation creates new ways to entertain - more spontaneity, less fuss - they offer a reminder that good hospitality doesn't depend on perfection. The important thing is to be together.

Even traditionalists find themselves with new priorities. "My tastes have changed," says Josette Rome of Wellesley, Mass. "I registered for Waterford crystal and still use it. But it's too fussy. Today, I'd register for something more practical. If nobody wants those things anymore, then they're not of any value emotionally. Is crystal something we should get so wrapped up in? It's glass."

Her practical approach may reflect the revised priorities of a new century. Grandma's teacups and goblets might not have the appeal they once did for some families, but there are other possessions to treasure.

"The photographs mean more to me, and the stories, some of the books, and the memories," Mrs. Rome says. "Those can't break, and I can take them with me anywhere."

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