Downsizing While Holding onto the Memories

I have been purging “stuff” for several years in an attempt to plan for downsizing. The motivation came largely from the memory of having moved my parents out of their family home.  The task of sorting through their belongings fell upon my siblings and myself.  It was a daunting challenge charged with emotion.  It was not just the logistics of emptying a house lived in over sixty years.  The memories of who they were and how we lived as a family were wrapped around every article – articles we were making decisions over keeping or disposing.

I have always been a sentimentalist. As a child, I gave inanimate objects like my stuffed animals, human qualities.  It is called anthropomorphism.  It was always difficult for me to part with my belongings.  Everything felt special and held meaning for me.

Particularly with my mother’s possessions, I would recall how much she loved something and once my hands were touching it, the memories would become overwhelming. Fortunately, my siblings are not so sentimental and made quicker decisions than I was able.

I wanted almost everything preserved. Without the objects, I felt like I was losing my memories. What is left after that?  As adult children, we all had enough of our own stuff.  No one needed anything, nor did my siblings want any of it.  My distance away affected what I could reasonably keep.

Complicating matters, was the fact that my mother had incredible recall and wanted to know where various articles and furniture ended up. We had decided previously to tell her what we knew she wanted to hear – that this grandchild had that or another had this.  It gave her comfort thinking her belongings were in the hands of those she loved.  The reality was that neither the children nor grandchildren wanted decorative plates to hang up or Royal Doulton figurines to dust.  People in my family were living with less stuff, happier being minimalists rather than collectors.

My own purging feels freeing and yet whenever I set something aside in the donate box, I think about where it might end up next. There will be no memory of how it came to belong to me.  No one will know how much it was cherished.  You have to banish those thoughts when purging or you will find yourself still surrounded by too much stuff.

I have all my mother’s teacups and saucers. It was something to collect in the 40s and 50s.  The cups are beautiful.  The memory of my mother and her seven friends playing bridge, and having fancy cookies and tea is as vivid as the evenings the ritual occurred in our tiny living room.

I do not know what will happen to the teacups. I simply cannot rid myself of them now.  I know no one in my family will want china teacups with matching saucers.  I hope that a couple will be spared the donate box.  The rest are destined for a landfill or part of a flea market table.  For now, I continue to enjoy them.

I am not interested in flea markets or yard sales. Why am I buying someone else’s stuff?  However, a few years ago I was meandering through a market and came across a replica of a creamer in the shape of a pig that my mother had owned.  I had not thought of it in years but suddenly the picture of it in my home was very real.  I convinced myself that it was foolish to buy something because it reminded me of my mother.  I was the one who had gotten rid of it in the first place!

The memory of that pig creamer sent me to scour through an old photo album that contained black and white photos of my parents. I was convinced that pig was in one of the photos; and, there it was!  My mother and a group of friends dressed in party gowns before New Year’s Eve gathered on a sofa with a coffee table in front.  The pig creamer was sitting on the table, although it was functioning as a plant holder as opposed to a creamer.

It was out of the ordinary that I found myself at the same market a couple weeks later. I had decided if the pig was still there, it would come home with me. That creamer will hold no special memory for anyone but me. I will hold onto it for the smile I have whenever I use it and the story I tell how I came to own it.  My mother was still alive when I found that creamer.  She appreciated that it held wonderful memories for me and that I bought it with her in mind.  She had lost her eyesight by this time so I could not share the photo with her but it brought back pleasurable memories of earlier days.

Recently I was selling a Queen Ann wingback chair through online marketplaces. A woman contacted me inquiring as to where I had purchased the chair originally or who had reupholstered it. The chair was an exact duplicate of one her own mother had owned.  She was hoping it was her mother’s chair.  I assume she had lost track of where the chair ended up.  We were both disappointed that it was not her mother’s chair.  I understood her need to own the chair again if it was floating around somewhere looking for a home to land in.

My parents lived modestly and did not have a lot of stuff and yet it felt monumental to decide what to save and what to discard. I know this scene repeats itself all across America; our elderly parents possibly downsizing at the same time the next generation is and the generation after that not wanting to inherit any of it.

I cannot help but think about the fact that I have my cognition but if I should lose my memory, will holding a belonging from my life bring me to a memory? What I remember about my life is what makes me me.  The very essence of life is memories.

Through my experience, I learned things that will make it easier for my own downsizing and purging. I am keeping the memory of special belongings by photographing them. When I made a final walk through my parents’ empty home, I took photographs of parts of the home that held special memories. I also wrote notes in closets and other hidden spaces describing a memory about the home for the next owners to find over time.

Going forward, I will try to pick just a few things that are special to keep. I also am figuring out how not to feel guilty about getting rid of those things received as gifts or which belonged to loved ones. I am also engaged in this process of downsizing before I feel pressured to make hasty decisions without a plan.

Our possessions are just things that we will not be able to take with us in the end and it is quite possible that no one else will want our things either. In the meantime, I intend to continue to find ways to preserve memories rather than preserve things.

For 8 Tips for Home Unfurnishing, check out this article. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2017/02/12/sorry-nobody-wants-your-parents-stuff/#6130652424ed

From the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM), comes an article on 10 Tips to Downsize and de-stress Your Move. https://www.nasmm.org/education/Guide_To_Rightsizing_and_Relocating.pdf

Another article on dealing with your parents’ stuff; https://lifehacker.com/how-to-deal-with-your-parents-stuff-when-they-die-1818537528 .




Author Info

Jayne Girodat

Jayne Girodat is the Communications Specialist at North Shore Elder Services. Along with ten years in the position of Caregiver Support Specialist at another ASAP, Jayne was a long-distance caregiver to parents for the same amount of time. That experience serves as motivation to better understand the issues of aging and to engage people in conversations about those issues. Jayne's background in teaching contributes to her appreciation of social media as a tool to educate readers on aging concerns. "I love asking people questions. Everyone likes to be heard. When you ask and then listen, you'll find everyone has a story and some of those stories are gems. I think it is particularly important to hear the voices of our older adults. Those are the stories I really connect to and hope to bring to North Shore Elder Services' audience."

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