We hauled away an overflowing roll-off dumpster of wood and garbage, and the hauler will be back this week to pick up a load of scrap metal to be recycled. We took two overflowing pick-up loads to Goodwill, and Dad is driving a third very full load back to Virginia with the items we can use and the mementos we want to treasure. We still have a good portion of the basement to clean out, and I can’t even imagine how much is in the three sheds my grandfather constructed by the stream.
My grandparents’ house was overflowing with stuff.
I am truly honored to help them move to a place where they are safer and feel more secure, but I will also say that I’m already weary – on this my second time – of cleaning out homes when people move on. So to help us all, here are my insights about “stuff” from my experience of going through this process twice now – once for Mom and now for her parents.
1. Label your pictures. If a picture is important enough to keep, please write a name and, if possible, a date on the back of it. My grandparents have slews of pictures, old photographs, but I don’t know who is in most of them. I’d like to know.
2. Keep only the most important photos and documents. My grandmother kept every receipt from when her house was constructed 60 years ago. She also kept the original floor plan, and the original advertisement for the kit. I had to throw most of those things away because I don’t have room for it all. If she had just kept the floor plan, it would have been easy to for me to put it into a strong box, but with all those pieces of paper, the easiest thing to do is recycle them all.
3. Organize your important papers. Invest a little money in file boxes or rubber tubs with lids and put all your important papers – your will, your checking account statements, the title for your car and house, etc – in there with labels. Dad and I found drawers and drawers of documents that had to be sorted. It will take us weeks to put them in order.
4. Throw out, burn, shred old financial papers. We found piles of bank statements from the 1970s and 80s. We don’t need them, and while we can destroy them quickly, every time we have to take time to do so, we lose time that we could spend with my grandparents or other people.
5. Give away clothes you don’t wear. 25 giant garbage bags of clothes – that’s what we took to Goodwill. My grandmother took the clothes she wanted to her new home, and we were left to donate 25 garbage bags. If you don’t wear it for a full year, give it away. Someone else can use it.
6. Don’t save every container. We all want to be thrifty and make the most of our resources. But no one needs 40 pickle jars that we might, one day, find something to store in them. We also don’t need every lunch meat holder for leftovers. Recycle most, and keep only what you need.
7. Share your library with your public library. This one is a tough one for me because, well, I love my books, but after lifting all my grandparents’ books and finding the right size boxes in which to pack them, I’ve made a commitment to pare down my library even more. I’m going to keep my favorites, the ones I use for work, the collectible ones, but the rest, I’m giving away or selling.
8. Do not try to save every usable thing you see around the neighborhood. My grandfather had a habit of seeing piles of lumber or broken furniture or siding or exercise bikes or . . . He didn’t need these things, but he kept them, stored them in his sheds. Now, they are molded and waterlogged, no good to anyone and a hazard to dispose of. If you see something that still useful, pick it up and take it to Goodwill; don’t hoard it for later.
9. Throw things away. Dad’s favorite item in my grandparents’ house was the broken lawn chair that Grandpa didn’t want him to throw away. The plastic ones, you know, that you can buy at any drugstore in the spring. Perfect for a season or two but not made to be a lifetime item. It took several conversations that could have been spent on memories and life discussions before Dad could get rid of that chair. Don’t make your loved ones have to fight over a plastic chair.
10. Tell your loved ones what you most treasure and why. On my last visit to their house when they lived there, my grandfather told me he wanted me to have the two paintings in their patio room. “My brother Richie painted those.” What was the first thing I loaded up this week – those paintings. We want to treasure the things that our loved ones treasure; we just need to know the stories.
My grandparents took what they wanted to their new home – they have their most treasured pieces with them. What we were left with was the things they had cast away. That speaks volumes.
Please, please, if you have a house full of things, begin to pare down now. It is immensely helpful to those who love you most – it will save them time and energy that they can spend with you or other people you love. It will also save them the pain of not knowing what you loved and what was the detritus of life. Your efforts to clean out along the way will also save them money – a roll-off dumpster does not come cheap. Finally, your efforts might save them pain – it was very difficult for me to come across Mom’s handwriting all the time – on greeting cards where she’d simply written “Love, Ruth and Woody” and on the return address for cardboard boxes. Please, love your things a little less to show your love for people a little more.