Downsizing

Letting go of our stuff

This dreary January day finds me in Houston helping a long-time friend complete her move to a smaller home. Sally is downsizing because she recently had to move her husband, ravaged by the effects of dementia for several years, to a safer environment. It has been a difficult transition for her not only because she is adjusting to living alone again but also because she has had to shed so many possessions.

Our “stuff” is symbolic of earlier, happier times and letting go of it often feels like we are abandoning the memory attached to it. Working on this task with her has triggered my own memories of selling my parent’s home years ago. My parents came of age in the depression and both were inveterate pack rats, especially my dad who rarely disposed of anything. “But Dad,” I would say, “this coffee pot doesn’t work.  Why are you keeping it?”  His reply was always the same.  “You never know when you might need a part. Why would I throw away a perfectly good cord/lid/plug?”  And so the no longer functioning pot would go on a shelf in the garage alongside a dozen other unrepairable appliances. A drawer in their kitchen was filled with rubber bands that once bound rolled newspapers stored next to neatly folded squares of aluminum foil remnants, twist ties and bits and pieces of string. My mother once reluctantly consented to let my sister and me clean out the garage while my dad was away. Just as we were preparing to leave he returned early and intercepted us in the driveway. “Where are you going with all my stuff?”  He demanded indignantly.  Our formerly loaded truck left almost empty.

When the time came to dispose of my parent’s accumulated possessions I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Each item had to be evaluated and there were so many! Furniture, artwork, clothing and cabinets and drawers filled to the brim. Old cameras and obsolete electronics. Books, records and a mountain of papers. My mother had multiple sets of china and drawers full of linens, some of them heirloom. My dad’s workshop was filled with things I couldn’t even identify much less value.  What should be sold?  Donated? Trashed?  I quickly found the most difficult things for me to part with had no monetary value at all.  I disposed of the china but kept my mother’s favorite ceramic coffee cup and Dad’s well-used pipe that still smelled of his favorite tobacco. I sorted the drawer filled with loose photos—the collection of their lives—and tossed all those depicting people who had become anonymous with the passing of my parents.  It was a difficult and soul-wrenching process that left me exhausted and vaguely depressed. I struggled with guilt as I recalled my mother telling me she hoped I would enjoy living in their house and love it as much as she had. In time I came to accept that her dreams were not my dreams and that it was OK for me to move on. I realized that things are just things and that the memories they evoked will never leave me.  I also realized what a gift it is to our survivors to shed our excessive possessions.

It appears many of us are chafing under the burden of too much stuff because I’m hearing more and more about the trend toward minimalism.  If you are moving in that direction, a good place to start is with this Netflix documentary: Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. There are numerous books and blogs on the subject as well.  Here are a few blogs I like:

While I enjoy reading these, all the minimalist blogs I’ve found to date are directed toward younger people. I would like to hear more about the experiences of those of us who are older.  My friend Sally says although the purging has been difficult she now feels more peaceful than she has in a long time.  Freer.  Do you have a story to share?