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Giving Things Away Can Make a Life Transition Easier

When her mother-in-law needed to move into a smaller place, the author found a creative way to ease her sadness

By Emily Berns Heyser | May 25, 2012

“Just throw everything out.” Spoken auf Deutsch, this was my mother-in-law’s bitter reaction to a bitter necessity: the need to whittle down more than 40 years of possessions before she moved from the three-bedroom Munich apartment that had been her home for most of those years into the smaller, more age-appropriate place that my architect husband was restoring for her in our own neighborhood of the city.

Her deteriorating health, especially her inability to climb or descend a flight of stairs, had made the move necessary. A longtime widow with chronic diabetes, she was irascible and depressed, anxious about the future and doubtful that any change could be for the better. It was as if she saw her life as already over, and all the appurtenances of that life — from the books she had read to the clothes she had worn to the Christmas ornaments she had crafted — finished and done with as well.

As I sorted through her things with her, I tried to cheer her up. I’d say things like, “Don’t worry, Mutter, you’ll love our neighborhood,” and “the new apartment is going to be beautiful.” I described the modern bathroom her son had designed, the little garden she’d have in the new place and the bushes we were planting to give it privacy. Still, she refused to be consoled.

Yet when she told me to get rid of all her things, she awakened an equally stubborn response in me. No, I insisted firmly, you should take your special things with you. These I would pack for her. I made her tell me which clothes she liked best and which colors among her dozens of spools of thread she found most useful, and I packed the boxes of buttons she had collected over decades and the fur coats that had depleted her small savings. Then I told her I would not throw the other items out; instead, we would share them with others.

In front of Mutter’s apartment house, I placed an old table and on it a sign: “To give away.” Every day, I would add new items to this free flea market. The sign drew a few new visitors daily. But after the first week, most of the visitors were returning regulars curious about the items I had just placed out.

At first, Mutter was no fan of the “free market.” Sign or no sign, leaving things on the sidewalk in a residential neighborhood was an alien idea in Germany; she’d never seen anyone else do it; the neighbors, no doubt, would complain. Not only didn't they complain, but collectors started to come by and select some treasure or treasures, and slowly Mutter began to change her mind about this whole business.

Shoppers, including residents from the government-subsidized apartments across the street or the more attractive single-family houses around the corner, would sift through the assembled items — well-thumbed novels, sewing materials, chipped vases, bouquets of faded dried flowers — and rarely left empty-handed.

When items are free, human beings aren’t picky. Once I looked out to see an elderly man holding up a decades-old bottle of Schnapps to peer at its half-drunk contents before stuffing it into his bag. Another time, I saw a nun wheeling away a broken bicycle. And even a pair of old boots whose wool-lined interiors had been nibbled at by moths eventually disappeared.

Sometimes on my way in for a visit, I would speak to one of these people. Then I would be able to convey personal messages: One woman loved a doll whose dress Mutter had sewn; another had never seen so many different colors of thread. I would stand at the living-room window and issue reports: “You won’t believe it, but a man has just taken the brown ceramic vase with the chipped lip!” Then Mutter and I would both chuckle, and the mood of another sorting and packing day would be lifted.

In all the important ways, our ever-evolving free flea market was a great success. One after another, my mother-in-law’s old possessions were removed, and she was pleased that they had found new homes with people who appreciated them. Since the things she had owned, used and made — things that had been a part of her — had a second lease on life, she herself did as well. Through the interest others had in them, she understood that she, too, was not, after all, “expendable.”

Still, our successful invention did have one small drawback: Instead of complaining about its unsightliness, the neighbors took to expanding it with their own free flea-market items. Evidently, without meaning to, we had started a trend.

Emily Berns Heyser is a freelance editor, writer and translator in Munich, Germany.