The Choice is Yours
My husband is going to his parents' house again this weekend.
That doesn't sound strange, does it? Unless I tell you that his parents no longer live there.
My father-in-law passed away last fall, at the age of 95. My 93-year-old mother-in-law has moved to Arizona, and now lives in a small house across the street from her oldest son.
Yet the home they lived in for 58 years is still a responsibility.
My husband and his brothers have spent a lot of time over the past several months clearing out their parents' home. Recently, they discovered ticket receipts from their family's 1968 ocean voyage to Europe on the Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth. They were in a box that had been in their parents' basement for over 50 years. They've told so many stories about that trip. Jon has many vivid memories, even though he was only 8 years old at the time. The receipts don't add anything to those memories, nor does the unopened junk mail that was thrown into the box with them. What else could the guys do but let all of that go?
My father-in-law's former office held more than 60 file boxes of miscellaneous paperwork, going back for decades. The basement held many, many more boxes, most of them untouched since they were moved in. There were even more boxes out in the barn.
"He's a hoarder." We might find it easy to pass judgment on someone we don't like or respect. But when it's someone we care about, it's harder to go so far. We substitute "She's a collector," or even "He's the family archivist." But when what he tends to "archive" (that is, put in a box) is elementary school papers, 1950's era geological surveys and field guides, newspaper clippings, damaged photos, 40-year-old tax returns, and every receipt ever handed to him, maybe we need to revise the description.
My father-in-law was (and my mother-in-law still is) kind, loving, supportive, and generous. The mountain of crap they've left behind doesn't change that. But this job of cleaning up their long-time home is nothing short of horrendous.
I can imagine the sense of freedom and relief that will settle on Jon and his brothers once they no longer have to worry about sorting, organizing, cleaning, and finding final destinations for all of these things. They didn't accumulate the stuff (including more than 25 boxes full of ancient and newer paints, solvents, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, WD-40, and other hazardous wastes), but the responsibility has fallen to them.
The idea that anyone would have to perform such a job for me is unthinkable. Anything I buy now needs to be immediately useful (and used up) or something I will actively enjoy owning for a long time. The last thing I want to do at the end of my life is to leave a legacy of tchotchkes and garbage that should have been donated or tossed long, long ago.
But that little phrase "just in case" seems to have been the guiding mantra.
And so there are a dozen flashlights kept "just in case" (with their old, potentially dangerous leaky batteries), several decades'-worth of insurance information kept "just in case," piles and piles of magazines kept "just in case," a bunch of 60's-era camping equipment kept "just in case," many boxes of photographic slides kept "just in case" – the list goes on and on. My mother-in-law still thinks that maybe we should keep a bunch of old tablecloths and piles of mismatched plates and cups "just in case."
We need to realize now that "just in case" means "never."
Be brutally honest with yourself. Is there anything currently in your house, garage, attic, or offsite storage that will make your survivors wonder "Why did she keep all of this crap?!" Is there anything they will groan about having to deal with? (Do you even know what's there?) You can't help leaving your well-used clothes and underwear or the mattress you slept on. But what about all of the other stuff?
Do you have anything like another acquaintance's set of 12 "limited edition" decorative Hummel plates, purchased in 1990 (she has the receipts), never displayed, never enjoyed, stuck in a box that was shoved into a closet? The entire set might possibly sell for $100 on eBay, but she originally spent $40 per plate. And for what? She bought them, they were shipped and delivered, they seem to have never been opened, and they wound up in a closet, a "surprise" to be opened 30 years later.
Imagine it's 10, 20, 30 or more years from now.
Your surviving relatives have gathered in your home. Grief about your passing aside, how do they feel about the job of clearing your space? Will it be relatively painless, with each one taking a precious memento or two, while the rest is easy to donate, recycle, or toss? Or will it be a huge chore that drags depressingly on and on?
The choice is yours.
P. S. I know that many of you have dealt with similar situations, and that the experience might be what got you interested in minimalism in the first place. So how are you doing? Are you making progress with the resolutions you made then?
Want more? "How to Downsize" Part 1 and Part 2 and "Do Your Own Death Cleaning"
Photo by Jon Trefzger © 2021
We had to clean out my parents' home a few years ago. They weren't hoarders by any stretch of the imagination, but there was still a LOT of stuff. Fortunately, neither my brothers nor I felt obligated to keep, curate, or maintain the bulk of it - we had an estate sale and were rid of the majority of it. We each selected a few things that we wanted or could use and let the rest go. I go through my own household regularly, throughout the year, every year to determine what can stay and what can go. I'm always surprised at how much more I'm ready to release each time. Neither my husband or I shop very much so we are not constantly bringing in new inventory which is also a relief. I'm curious to see where the balance point is: very little coming in and next to nothing going out.ReplyDelete
Hi Cindy Lou, and thanks for sharing your experience. Unfortunately, my husband and his brothers seem to feel an obligation to at least look at everything. So far, a handful of interesting photos have been found (not in great shape) that no one remembers seeing before and where they can actually identify the people (no "mystery faces"). Jon has taken a few books and I think his oldest brother took one of their Dad's jackets (hardly worn -- he had about 20). My mother-in-law of course took many things with her when she moved to Arizona -- and THAT was quite a packing job, too (there will still be a ton to go through sometime in the future). So no quick estate sale for us!Delete
When a friend's father died we packed up everything in the house and moved it to his barn so the house could be sold. He and his wife then went through those things at leisure. He didn't trust himself to be thorough right away so this method worked for him.ReplyDelete
Hi again Linda. I’m glad it worked out for your friend to move everything to a place where he could sort through it when it was right for him, and presumably more convenient too. Not an option for Jon and his brothers, I’m afraid (their parents were the ones with the barn and guest house). It is certainly a difficult job for most people to get through.Delete