Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Living Lightly

Some memories are painfully vivid years later -- among them the task of cleaning out the homes of my parents and Aunt Molly after their deaths.

My parents were hoarders, especially in their later years. There were rooms in their 1,000 square foot home that were filled with junk: old newspapers and magazines, clothing, inexplicable collections of old wax honey containers and mismatched shoes, wadded up towels, scattered tools -- all of it chewed by the rats that scampered relentlessly underfoot and overhead. I had often offered to help my mother clean many times over the years and she always shook her head with a combination of fear and shame. Their lives and their home were chaotic. After they died, our cleanup took more than a year and was, in a word, horrifying.    

In contrast, Aunt Molly's house -- about the same size -- always looked immaculate and inviting. But after she died, we found that her closets, garage and attic were bursting with treasures, trivia and collections of a life fully lived. There were wonderful discoveries -- like the trunk with the first pictures we had ever seen of her long-dead parents, the grandparents we never knew, and a collection of love letters that reassured us that she had known love and passion in her life. But there were also challenges -- like roll after roll of fabric for all the drapes and clothes she never made. We donated it all to a young costume designer. But there were things that were impossible to donate and that brought us to a screaming point.

Once, when the realtor selling her house asked Bob and me to remove all the furniture from the house on a few hours notice, pull up the carpet and swab the foundation with bleach to remove all traces of her surly and incontinent nightmare of a cat named Sugar, Bob and I had a mutual meltdown trying to navigate a cat-pee soaked sleep sofa out of her den. At one point, the couch became wedged in the narrow hallway. We dropped it and burst into tears, sobbing and screaming and embracing each other before we took a deep breath and carried on.

When we look back, we can't help but think ahead to our own demises and what will be left behind for family to sort through. And we've decided to try to give them a break by lightening our lives right now.


  • We've designated Saturdays for going through the house, one room at a time, to throw away or donate what no longer seems necessary. It's amazing, when we think about what we chose to move with us from Los Angeles four years ago, and how little we needed some of it. It feels good to begin to let go.

  • For the things with meaning, artifacts of our lives and of previous generations, we've already made plans to pass the relics on. My brother Mike brought the subject up during a visit  last month when he and his family were briefly back in Los Angeles from their main home in Bangkok. He asked me if I would consider parting with family pictures, Aunt Molly's television scripts and other mementos that mean a lot to all of us. And we made plans to transfer these treasures sometime in the next year or so when he would fly in to Phoenix and drive back to L.A. with me in a car filled with boxes of memories. It makes sense: both Mike and my sister Tai are younger and have children who may someday treasure these items -- or not. But photos can be scanned and shared and become a part of the larger family story.

  • We've lined up charities that will take clothing and furniture that we may part with now or leave behind in years to come.

  • We've decided that our feline family will decrease, over time, by attrition, that there will  be no more kittens in our future. We may, at some point, volunteer to foster kittens and cats for a rescue organization. But adoptions? I don't think so. We hope -- in a way -- that we will outlive our beloved pets. But just in case we don't, we've discussed plans for their continued care by family or by a major pet rescue organization, realizing that this will be made easier if we do not add to our pet population in the meantime.
  • We're proceeding slowly with some things -- the handwritten books I wrote when I was six, letters from my mother and Aunt Molly when I was in college, my first Valentine. It is all being scanned and photographed for future reference and there will come a day when I no longer feel the need to run my fingers over these actual treasured objects and will let them go, too.

It's interesting, this letting go. It seems to be a trend of sorts, with several neighbors also talking of selling artifacts or giving these away to family sooner rather than later so it all falls into the right hands.

Life feels lighter with cleaner closets, less cluttered shelves and family relics headed elsewhere. There is a momentum that feels life-affirming and immensely freeing.

We feel better with less. And our loved ones are thanking us already.


  1. I was glad to hear that I'm not the only one doing this. Some things are being sold on Craigslist, others are being donated and heirlooms are being given to the next generation. In my will certain antiques are designated. It is nice to lighten the load.

  2. Good for you! After my mother died all my family went through a period of cleaning out their stuff. This coming about after cleaning our all of Grandma's stuff...and she had a lot of stuff. We still go through bursts of reduction, but unfortunately we also have bursts of acquisition. I bet it was a tough decision to limit future pets, a smart decision, but a difficult one.

  3. Oh absolutely.
    I am looking at all our possessions in the same way you are doing. Who might want what. Do I still want it? Even books are getting the ‘out of my way’ treatment.

    It’s amazing how much ’stuff’ we have, stuff which will never be used again.

    Out with it!


    Oh dear.

  4. We are doing the same thing; when we moved we brought a lot of things with us and it's only after a year in the new place we find that we really didn't need it after all. Even family photos will someday end up in a thrift or antique store, after all, how many generations of ancestral photographs should young people be expected to cart around their entire lives? Better to scan the important ones onto computer, save just a few albums, and move on from the rest.

  5. We are moving house now - a great opportunity to get rid of stuff - but my husband won't part with most of his 'junk' e.g. about six tents and camping equipment we shall never use again! what is he thinking?

  6. I'm so glad to be reading this Kathy! I was in my mid thirties when I married; my husband was 40. Both of us had a whole house of furniture. We had 6 parents between the 2 of us. Four have since died, so you can imagine that our possessions increased as their belongings were "div vied out." After marrying, we had 3 children, which means toys galore, and people still try to give us stuff. There's room because we live in a 4 level house.
    I think you know where this is heading.
    In a nutshell, my wish is that my children will not have to "clean up" behind us and make decisions about what to keep, trash, or give away. We are not hoarders, but there is too much stuff in our attic, garage, and a few closets and drawers. My husband and I are busy people which means house work is not at the top of the priority list, however it must be done. I'm 56 and he's 60. The odds are in our favor that we have time. I think I'll save this post and read it once in a while for encouragement! Thanks. :)

  7. We lightened up when we left L.A. let the children chose and keep what they wanted, including photos and art pieces. Twelve years later, we have a house full of stuff again. Something about people hoarding...
    I do plan on giving each of my girls (my daughter, my granddaughter and my daughter in law) a piece of jewelry every chance I get. I hardly ever wear any jewelry.

    Like you two we try to keep our closets clear and our clothes to a minimum. Yet, it is so easy to accumulate.

  8. This is such a timely post for me. In fact, it precedes but is related to a post I'll have probably next week about helping at some dear friends' moving sale. They are headed to Florida -- few warm clothes needed. A smaller space. Don't need the kids old toys, that doll collection from long ago. They aren't hoarders, but there was so much stuff it kicked me into gear into considering my stuff. We had an uncharacteristically nice day on Tuesday (uncharacteristic in that at this time of year we should have many nice days, and this was the first since Easter -- and since then!). I hit the garage, dumping a good can and a half of junk. I can tell I did something. Not sure who else can! And today, a return to the basement to continue the purging down there of older clothes and "treasures" that are no longer treasures. I know I'll have the sentimentality issues -- I always do. But I'm starting now, because really, you never know.

  9. I guess we should all live out lives so that those in charge of liquidating our homes will find it to be a pleasant event with sweet memories instead of an unbearable chore. Me thinks I could do some purging myself. Things that mean something to me will mean nothing to who comes behind.

  10. George's parents' home (she died at age 91 and he died at age 101) was unbelievably full of many many years of saving EVERYTHING... Talk about hoarding... GADS--it was terrible....We (family) finally hired someone to just to through there with a dumpster and just clean it out.... Cost the family ALOT of money just to get the junk out of the house (including all of their out-buildings) plus the renovations needed in order to sell the house... What a JOB....

    SO--that certainly made both George and I realize that we need to do what you all are doing ---get rid of stuff NOW --before we get too old to get rid of it...

    One of my friends who died not long ago knew that since she had MS, she would not live much longer. SO--she started giving her 'treasures' away BEFORE she died --making sure that things were given to loved ones that she wanted to have them... It worked well for her --and she enjoyed giving things away BEFORE she died... We should all do that...


  11. This is timely for us. We've lost my father in law and my mother in law both, in the last six weeks. They have two houses, both full. My husband and I have already made a pact with each other we will not leave our kids with what we are dealing with now.

  12. This is so timely for me. We unexpectedly lost my father last year on Christmas Eve and he lived in his home with my adult disabled brother, and his own two adult kids.

    My brother, niece and nephew frankly had every gadget and piece of junk known to man and unfortunately were not neat people. They helped fill a house that had previously sheltered our entire family of 2 parents, 2 grandmothers and five children.

    Since dad died, they moved out but in addition to all of dad's accumulated stuff, they left ALL their junk behind. It has taken my other siblings and I over 4 months to clean out the house.

    As well, my father had books, documents he brought from his home country when he and our mother emigrated, ancient photo albums. All of which had to be gone through because it was an important part of our family history.

    My DH and I have been (slowly) eliminating things, he more than I, but I am 56 and he is 60 so we have time. We have small grandkids and have a room full of toys for them to play...

    At any rate, I have begun to slowly go through things I no longer want/need so that when our time comes, our children will not have to go through the nightmare of cleaning that we just went through. As my son says Dr.McCoy, "I feel you"

  13. My husband is a collector and saver. I do what I can. But I'm beginning to say, "If we sell the house in five years..." he considers. I believe he's planning on taking the rotten boards and waterlogged sheetrock to the dump. That, at least, is a beginning.

  14. We are in our fifties and already have this issue, too, with our own stuff (the usual acquired household goods and sentimental things, plus paperwork for several volunteer organizations for years and years, and the equipment and paperwork from a closed business) and also with things passed down from parents who died, or were admitted suddenly to nursing home. And from all this stuff, each of us has our "sacred cows" that the other could easily get rid of but which are dear to our own hearts :) But we have finally started to part with things. I desperately do not want to pass this on to our children.

  15. We're starting to think along the same lines, Kathy, and given that my DH is a Grade 1 hoarder, this is a major step. We plan to give a day a week to sorting and decluttering next winterand will hopefully end up with a much emptier house and garage than we have at present. I do NOT want the children to have to deal with it all.