Take it or toss it


September 10, 2009 by 8junebugs

A few times this weekend, I heard a combination of the following:

Column A: You / Someone


Column B: take / hold onto / keep

this because

Column C: it’s nice / it’s engraved / you might use it / your children might like to have it.

I developed a mantra: Take it or toss it. It is not going home with me.

I’m not an unsentimental person. I have all my old prom photos (so did Mom) and all the newspaper clippings from the FHS Marching Band trip to London and France my senior year (so did Mom) and ticket stubs from Orioles games (Mom…well, how about two ticket stubs for her run at a national pageant title?). I have the cork from the champagne G and I drank last year, celebrating his California bar success and our reunion.

I brought home more than I wanted to, even with my mantra. I’d planned on the writing desk and my old highchair, but I’d forgotten about the rocking horse my uncle and godfather made for me. I’d planned on bringing home Mom’s china, but I hadn’t planned on bringing home even a handful of wineglasses…and I did. At the last minute, too, I found one of those old juice pitchers from the 70s — you know, the pear-shaped glass one with bright oranges and lime wedges on the outside? I brought that, too.


I refuse to take on inherited clutter. My mother had a home and lived in it for most of 30+ years — what she kept around her was her choice and undoubtedly a comfort to her, particularly in the moments when she knew at least one of us would always live far away.

But. As a person in my own right, and as an adult, I get to decide what things to keep around me, and what things are a comfort to me in my home. Mom had some nice furniture, sure, but I have no need of it and it’s not my style…not enough to make room for it in my home. I am also not in my “forever home” (to borrow a phrase from the animal shelters) — every non-consumable item that comes into my home is just one more decision I’ll have to make the next time I move.

If furniture or trinkets are not my style and don’t bring me the kind of joy they brought my mother, there is no balance to the stress of that delayed decision. And that decision is delayed mainly by guilt, isn’t it?

“It was important enough to her to keep, so it should be important to me. If it’s not, there is something wrong with me.”

Bullshit. I’m not Mom, I’m not going to be, I shouldn’t have to be, and there’s nothing wrong with just being me.

That’s bigger than ticket stubs and Christmas ornaments. I know. And guilt plays such a huge role in family dynamics all over the world. We’re taught to honor our mother and our father. For what it’s worth? That does not necessarily extend to their stuff.

Not even if it’s engraved with their initials.

Maybe it’s because I’ve moved more often than everyone in Mom’s family put together (and farther, certainly). I’ve had to pare down because I’ve had to pack and load and transport and unpack. I’ve had to get a little slicey-dicey about what’s important enough to deserve closet space, and I refuse to pay for extra storage.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve lived on my own, far from the family “compound,” for half my life, and I still harbor resentment toward the responsibility that my mother took for her parents’ livelihood and well-being. There’s something about that relationship that prevented her from growing past a certain expected point, and there were aspects of our relationship that might easily have had the same effect if I didn’t live at least 500 miles away. Deep down, I feel like taking on her stuff is taking on responsibility for a life not quite fulfilled.

And, you know, there goes the feng shui.

Memories take up minimal shelf space, and I have plenty of those. How could a knickknack be anywhere near as powerful as the remembered smell of perm solution? (“Smells like money,” she always said.) Can a porcelain bear have more of a hold on me than hearing Mom’s voice in my head, telling me how to peel eggs for egg salad sandwiches? Maybe it can for some. It just doesn’t for me.

Also? My apartment doesn’t have a basement, attic, or garage.

Here’s what I would say to you, if I were standing next to you in your mother’s kitchen and watching you wonder how to respectfully dismantle a home:

  • You have no obligation to the things in the home. You do have an obligation to carry on the story of your family — even if it ends with you, it is an important story. If there are things in the house that are critical to the story, take those things with you.
  • Your stuff is not the whole of who you are. Your mother’s stuff, likewise, was not the whole of who she was. Do not let her stuff define you…particularly if you have worked quite diligently to define yourself.
  • Old photographs are priceless. Keep them, label them, organize them, back them up, share them, and store them safely. If you can’t label them on your own, enlist the help of your family. However, it is acceptable to throw away photos if you already have copies of them, or if no one knows who the hell that is in the photo.
  • Give yourself time to consider the items that are hard to let go. Think about why you want to hold onto the items. If it is because the item is beautiful and makes you smile and think of your mother, keep it. If it is because you think you should, let it go. “Think you should” is driven by anticipated guilt.
  • Find a local business that provides what I call Household Hospice. Once you have removed everything you and other family members wish to keep and once you have exorcised any remaining stuff demons, sell the remaining contents of the house to a local antiques-and-used-stuff dealer. You say your goodbyes, and they handle the final clean-up.
  • Invest in a dumpster and give yourself permission to throw away broken stuff, useless stuff, and just about any scrap of paper you find. I found my parents’ tax returns from 1989 — these are now officially trash. Hell, they were trash 10 years ago.
  • You’re allowed to have your own values — they reflect who you are and the times you live in. They are as valid as your parents’ and grandparents’ values. If your parents or grandparents held onto stuff because they never knew when they might need it, that’s fine. But if that’s not how you want to live, don’t start now.
  • Your mother had her own memories and her own life experiences, and you are not responsible for them — they are not yours. It is okay to let them die with her.

You carry within you as much of your parents as you need. The rest is negotiable.


9 thoughts on “Take it or toss it

  1. Jess says:

    I completely agree. My mom passed away a year ago and I am just beginning to really go through her things to sell them. I like the “memories take up minimal shelf space” approach as well. Well written, insightful and very helpful. Thank you!

    • 8junebugs says:

      Jess, I’m so sorry for your loss… It’s hard, and I’m glad you found this helpful. It’s three years out now, I’ve moved yet again, and I’m finding that I’m fiercely protective of the few things I did keep.

      Although I’m coming to terms with probably losing her Christmas cactus before this Christmas. It’s had a good run. :/

  2. l griffy says:

    Thank you for your insight.My Mother passed 16mo. ago and I live in her condo. I am having a HUGE problem getting rid of anything at all. I gave her furniture to my sister but other than that…it’s all still here. Most of my things are still in boxes stuffed in the storage shed outside. I still, unbelievably, look for my kitchen utensils when I am cooking! It;s just overwhelming and when I even start to think about boxing things up, I cry. I am using her chest of drawers and still share drawers with her! I agree with everything you’ve written, I just can’t bring myself to do it 😦

    • 8junebugs says:

      Oh, l griffy, I’m so, so sorry for your loss. I don’t know how I would have managed if I’d been living in Mom’s house before or after. (It was much harder for my brother, who’d lived there longer and more recently.) Is there someone nearby who can help you, when you’re ready? I had no idea what kind of services were available — how would I have? — but there were some local estate-sale-type folks who respectfully handled a huge portion of the details for me, once all the “Take It” stuff was spoken for.

      In the meantime, if it’s not time to let her things go, maybe it’s time to bring some of your things in? There must be room for a spatula or two…

      • l griffy says:

        I have brought in a couple of things, but mostly it is all still in boxes. My problem is in order to bring my things in, I must first clear out Mother’s things. It’s a small condo so not like I can unpack my boxes and bring more items in…there simply isn’t room. But I STILL find it too overwhelming emotionally if I even open a drawer to begin to remove my Mother’s things. We were very close. When she got sick, I dropped everything, packed a suitcase and drove from Ohio to Florida and “moved” in with her. 8 months after she passed, I had my belongings moved down to Florida. She, like so many others from her generation, kept alot of “stuff”. But, in her defense, I can’t say how many times i have needed this lil thingy or that lil thingy and looked in my Mom’s “go to drawer” and found the thingy I needed! I have never lived with so much stuff in closets, drawers and doors and even the storage. When I get fed up with it and tell myself, OK TODAY is the day, i just can’t seem to do it. I moved many times in my past and was quite good at keeping closets and drawers cleaned out. I keep thinking I will have some divine idea of how best to donate her things but it just hasn’t happened. Of course, I know where I can take her clothes, but I can’t even seem to get that done. I started looking around online to learn what others have come up with. Thank you for your suggestions.

  3. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this blog post. 15 months after her death, I am in the process of sorting through the belongings of my mom’s that I kept hold of – but I kept too much. Going through things a second time and deciding what should stay and what can go is as hard as first time round. I’ve found your post really helpful.

    • 8junebugs says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Sarah. I know people like to think it gets better with time, but…I think it just gets different. I’m glad this post is helpful for you — I know how hard it is.

      And I should admit, now that your comment has brought me back to this post, that it’s an ongoing process. I made a really good start on the “old photos” piece a few years ago, but they’re all still sitting in a bin, waiting for me to get up the ambition and courage to have them properly scanned and catalogued. One day at a time…

  4. Karen says:

    My mom, to whom I was incredibly close, died unexpectedly three months ago, and I have been sitting in her house everyday, unable to move forward, filled with guilt and an inability to dismantle the home she spent so much time putting together. I cannot tell you how many articles I have read, but yours is the only one that said what I needed to hear. Thank you.

    • 8junebugs says:

      Karen, I’m so sorry you’ve lost your mom. Please be gentle with yourself. I’m glad if this helps you to deal with the “stuff” part — the rest will take…considerably longer. ((gentle hugs, if welcome))

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