Actually, Your Children May Want (Some of) Your Stuff
Sorting and sharing a parent’s collectibles can spark many happy memories, so declutter carefully
"I don't want my children stuck dealing with all my stuff when I'm gone."
How many times have you heard someone declare this as a reason to declutter and downsize? Such a noble idea, one that is hard to challenge. Bravo, all of you who toss and sort, but I invite you to consider another perspective.
My mother loved jewelry, and she was blessed with a husband, my father, who loved to give her beautiful jewelry. Before she died of colon cancer, she designated who she wanted to inherit her major pieces, but boxes and drawers full of necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings remained.
On one of the first days after she died, my husband and I arranged jewelry piles on the dining room table — the pearl pile, the turquoise pile, the silver pile, the costume pile. You get the idea.
Then the family gathered — me and my two siblings, our spouses and children. Starting with the oldest, me, each person selected one item from one of the piles.
Reviving Pleasant Memories
My father, sitting nearby, answered our questions: "When did you give Grandma this pin?" "Do you remember her wearing this necklace?" How happy he was with our delight in those shiny, sparkling treasures.
We laughed, cried and told stories. We honored our beloved mother's extravagant nature, and we began the process of grieving.
We continued the selection process, round after round, draping ourselves in Betty Ann's baubles until what remained was not chosen by anyone.
Now whenever I wear a certain turquoise necklace, I remember the day my mother bought it, and when I add the whimsical little hummingbird pin to the collar of a blouse, I recall my mother wearing that pin on the lapel of a tailored blazer.
Yes, I think about my mother, but I also remember that special day with my family. We laughed, cried and told stories. We honored our beloved mother's extravagant nature, and we began the process of grieving.
If our mother had decided in the years before she died to declutter her jewelry drawers, our family would not have had that precious day.
My Dish Problem
True confession: I have a dish problem. I love setting a beautiful table with dishes appropriate to the season or the occasion. My husband has the same problem, for we have collected antiques all our married life.
True confession: I have a dish problem.
I still have enough dishes to serve the neighborhood, but I want you to know I no longer have as many sets as I once did. Gone are the dishes with the Mexican design I only used on Taco Tuesdays, as well as the dishes called "Farmer in the Dell," which were our happy-looking everyday dishes when we lived in the country. I couldn't resist the dishes with the strawberry design when I saw them in an antique shop's window, but those are gone too. I could go on.
At least the remaining sets of dishes — a basic white, green depression, blue and white Danish, English brown and white transferware, and the turkey plates for Thanksgiving dinners — are easily accessible in cupboards. Only the Christmas dishes are packed in bins in the storage room.
The Hope I Offer My Family
I have made progress in the decluttering process, but — honesty must prevail — my children will need to find homes for several sets of dishes when the time comes.
As my family packs up the dishes that, let's say, I only use in the fall, I hope they will remember how good my applesauce tasted, how they enjoyed baked spaghetti and the seasonal favorite of pork loin with wild rice. I hope they will remember how I loved to set a pretty table, even when dinner was only pizza.
I hope they will tell stories and laugh and cry and comfort one another.
What This Doesn't Mean
I'm not suggesting we hold on to everything. Do not use this essay as a justification for holding on tightly to what clutters your present life. There is no sentimental value in keeping boxes of tax returns from the 1960s, clothes that haven't fit for years or stacks of jigsaw puzzles fun to assemble once, but twice? Not so much.
Yes, do your loved ones a favor and occasionally cull the material remnants of your life.
I know I am not a minimalist, and I can't imagine not decorating for the seasons, but decluttering is now part of my routine. As I clean, I evaluate. Does this collection of silverplate pitchers still add pleasure to my life? How would it feel to keep only one of them? I pause in front of a bookshelf, dust rag in hand, and ask if I will ever read "War and Peace" again. Wasn't once sufficient?
I congratulate myself for the ways I have integrated the decluttering process into my everyday life — one drawer, one shelf, one corner at a time. I know my efforts will make a difference to my children, but I also know going through their mother's things can be part of their own healthy grieving process.
A Second Chance with Dad
When my father died many years after my mother, there was less stuff because he had moved from the family home into an apartment for older adults. But trust me, there was still enough stuff.
He saved all the sympathy cards sent when my mother died. Before throwing them in the recycling bin, I glanced at a few of the personalized messages feeling the love and care extended to him. I inhaled him as I opened each bottle of scent he wore, and I fingered his ties, hanging on a rack in his bedroom. I selected a couple of the slim silver ballpoint pens he used to balance his checkbook and make lists.
I am grateful for the days my family spent together sorting and tossing and telling stories, sharing memories and comforting one another.
Yes, do your loved ones a favor and occasionally cull the material remnants of your life. However, remember that going through what remains can be a treasured tool of remembrance and love.
Here's hoping my family feels that way when they confront my boxes of loose photographs!