Family History Month: Spotlight on the Center for American War Letters

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“Tucked away in attics, closets, and basements throughout this country are millions of letters written by men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces….” says the opening line on the “Letters” page of the website for the Center for American War Letters.

A relatively new entity, the Center  for American War Letters was established in 2014,  when  Andrew Carroll  donated  the vast collection of war letters he had started in 1998 (known as The Legacy Project), to Chapman University in California. The Center is performing a valuable service to the nation by preserving letters from soldiers, and their loved ones, from the nation’s earliest days to the present.

It is also providing people who are downsizing their homes and don’t know what to do with the stashes of old letters they find in the process with a wonderful solution to the problem, by providing a home where they will safely preserved, and can contribute to a better understanding of our history, especially as seen from the point of view of the “ordinary” men and women who have served the nation in times of war.

If you think you might want to donate letters to the Center, you can find out more about how to do so here.

The Center also has a page with helpful tips about how to properly care for old letters, for those who wish to keep them.

October is Family History Month, and Veterans Day is coming up soon. Wouldn’t it be a nice way to honor the veterans in your family, or among your friends, to find  a way to honor and preserve their documentation of their wartime experiences, their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives–and to safeguard them for future generations?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

6 things I learned from 6 years of blogging


Six years ago next month we introduced ourselves to the world of blogging with this blog, Downsizing The Home: Lessons Learned.

Our journey began when my coauthor and I shared our personal downsizing stories with each other, stories of helping our fathers empty our childhood homes as they prepared for the next stage of their lives. We were surprised at how powerful the emotions connected to family possessions could be and, at the same time, how easy it was to let go of many things.

We decided we wanted to share the information we had gathered with others who were going though the same process, and the result was our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. As we promoted the book, our path led to new media and to this blog.

Six things I learned from blogging:

It’s easier said than done.

It’s much easier to write about downsizing and decluttering than it is to actually downsize and declutter. That may come as a surprise to many of the people who read our blog or listen to us speak. Many times at my talks, someone comments about what a neat house I must have. Not so. But I do own up to it and express to everyone what a struggle it is to keep things organized and to make decisions about what we own and what we are willing to let go of.

People are wonderful!

People have so many interesting and inventive ways to rid themselves of clutter and excess and I’ve learned so much from others. I’ve met such wonderful people, many of them as online voices only, who have shared both strategies and advice, as well as many poignant stories, who have shared thoughtful ways to deal with others who see the clutter – and life – differently than we do, people who have inspired me to write about them and share their lives and their work with you. I have been helped enormously by listening to the voices of others.

Think outside the box.

Or, in this case, outside the book. We came to realize that we could stretch ourselves and go beyond our original focus. Our blog has given us the chance to go further and explore deeper than the scope of our book and to include thoughts about recycling and upcycling, views on how to live with less—and happily so, and a vision of how to treasure what we have, without the need to always have more. Writing posts that explore issues beyond the book has expanded my horizons.

Done is better than perfect.

And here’s a shout-out to all the other mantras that help me keep moving: Just do it. Start now. See beyond. And a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that I find so helpful, “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.”

Life often does circle back.

The blog started with our book and ultimately comes back to our book but, oh, the places we have been! In some ways, as a writer, the biggest challenge is to make readers aware that our book exists. But having the opportunity to explore so many aspects of life with our readers, beyond the downsizing process we wrote about originally, has been such a privilege for me.

We are a community.

Yes, we are a community, you and I and everyone else in this Internet family constellation. I love hearing your thoughts and stories, in your own blogs and when you leave a comment on our blog. I’m so pleased when you follow us on Twitter and share our tweets, and when you share our Facebook posts. I love hearing from you. We are all in this together – and you have welcomed me into the group.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Downsizing: Keepers and Throwers, Unite!

0607150805 (1)In writing our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Home, one of the things we discovered is that the world seems to be divided into what we call “keepers” and what we call “throwers.”

When talking about downsizing, keepers often get a bum rap for obvious reasons. They tend to slow down the process, and in the stress and/or hurry of a move, their sentimentality, their concern for the environment, their desire not to waste-whatever it is that motivates their “keeping” ways–are often not at all appreciated.

But, as we have pointed out, for a downsizing-the-home project to be optimally successful, the attributes of both of these “opposite” types of people are needed. Throwers are good at clearing out and moving on; keepers are good at making sure that in the process special things and special memories are not lost. These two kinds of people–and almost always there are some of each in every family, or every downsizing situation–need to work together with respect, understanding, and most of all patience in order for the job to get done, and done in such a way that the future will not be full of regret for how it was done.

Keepers need extra time in this process: then they need to take a deep breath and give away, donate, or otherwise dispose at least some of the things that really, honestly, deep down, they’d much rather keep: they just have to!

Throwers need to slow down a bit, then take a deep breath and summon up the patience and understanding for keepers’ ways that is needed in order for the keepers   to go ahead and do what they have to do–without having their hearts broken.

When this kind of balance can be achieved, ugly fights, lingering feelings of resentment, and unproductive bouts of undermining each other’s work can be avoided.

Hopefully when all is said and done, the keepers will be willing to admit that getting rid of some of the things they dreaded getting rid of isn’t as bad as they thought it would be, especially when they’ve been given the time to find ways to “keep the memories.”

And hopefully when all is said and done, the throwers will be willing to admit that after all, the keepers did have some good reasons to slow the process down a bit–and that maybe they even come away from the process with some precious memories to savor that they might not have, had the keepers not been there to remind them.

Here’s hoping that as you go about downsizing your home, you and yours will find that harmonious middle ground that will allow you to respect each other’s ways in a difficult process. And to save precious memories–and last, but certainly not least–to get rid of much of the “stuff.”

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.




Collecting: The Things We Love…


“The things we love tell us what we are.” Thomas Merton

“The Keeper” is a fascinating exhibit at the New Museum in New York City that explores our relationship to things and reflects on “the impulse to save both the most precious and the apparently valueless.”

The exhibit is a series of studies spanning the 20th century that tell the stories of various individuals through the objects they chose to save and make us ponder the motivations behind their collections. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeies, a display of over 3,000 family-album photographs of people posing with teddy bears.

Some of the collections are of the result of a chance encounter. The Houses of Peter Fritz, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, is a collection of 387 buildings built by Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk, that forms a comprehensive inventory of Swiss architectural styles.



Some collections were saved by artists who were interested in the natural world. Korbinian Aigner, known as “Apfelpfarrer” or apple pastor, was a priest and art teacher in early 20th century Germany who inherited his family farm and began to document the apple and pear varieties on the farm. He continued recording to the end of his life, even documenting the species he cultivated while at Dachau.

Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) was the son of Vermont farmers who grew up in an area that received up to six feet of snow a year. From childhood on Bentley kept a daily log of the weather and made drawings of snowflakes. He photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes. Such focus, such single-mindedness from both these artists.










And sometimes a collection is just so personal. Howard Fried, a California-based Conceptual artist, displays the wardrobe of his mother Hannelore Baron, who died in 2002. It provokes the viewer to ask: Is this collecting, is it hoarding, is it art?



In a follow-up article to a review of the exhibit in The New York Times, readers were asked to explain their collections. Perry Casalino of Chicago found an album of photographic postcards of old Chicago in a building that was to be torn down and that started him on an eBay hunt for more, which led to collaboration with other collectors and eventually a database of the scanned images that is used by authors and historic preservation groups.


Why do we collect?

Psychologists point out many reasons for collecting. Some people collect for investment, some for pure joy, some for the quest, some for the satisfaction of classifying and arranging one small part of the larger world, and some people collect to preserve the past.

When does collecting become hoarding?

According to psychologists, collecting becomes hoarding when it interferes with normal daily life. If it doesn’t, then a collection is to be enjoyed.

Do we bequeath a collection?

According to one collector who is selling a collection, to inherit a collection is a burden because the heirs never had the pleasure of the hunt or the satisfaction of the accumulation.

What to make of it all?

According to the exhibit, a collection often attests to the power of images and objects to heal and comfort, and a desire to honor what survives. In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about ‘throwers’ who relish the experience of cleaning out and ‘keepers’ who are compelled to preserve special things as well as memories. The collectors shown here are keepers beyond compare, people who were compelled to save things that heal and comfort and honor the past.

What does your collection say about you?

We would like to hear about what you collect – and what it says about you. What do you love? Leave us a message in the comments space below.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

A Downsizing Generation Gap? What to Do When Your Kids Don’t Want Your Stuff



The dresser I really didn’t want to sell. But I did, and it’s okay!

A spate of articles in recent years have discussed what seems to me could be described as a generation gap having to do with the  dilemma of having “too much stuff.” Millennials, we are told, don’t want the stuff that baby boomers are now ready to get rid of–or, more precisely, would like to pass on to their offspring as they move into smaller quarters and seek to downsize.

One consequence of this phenomenon is that certain categories of items that were once quite valuable–such as antique china and silverware (or, more often, silver-plated flatware)–are no longer so valuable, at least in terms of resale value.

Another phenomenon is parental dismay at what some parents perceive of as some kind of rejection, or at least slight, by their children.

Not surprisingly, some parents bear the disappointment with dignity and grace, suffering in silence: others harass their offspring and try to make them feel guilty for turning their backs on family heirlooms, and thus family history.

Having heard this problem mentioned frequently when I have been asked, as coauthor of our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, to speak at events, here are a few thoughts I’ve had about how to approach this problem with grace, intelligence, tact, and most of all success. My coauthor and I would love to hear your thoughts as well!

  1. Don’t guilt the kids.  If they say they don’t want something, believe them. At the very least, they mean it for now. If you think they “may want it someday” and you can’t bear to give it away to someone else or sell it–or to live with the thought that your kids may regret it down the line–then by all means, hold onto it somehow, but don’t make it their problem. Keep it yourself “for now,” or put it in storage. If you can’t do either of these things, or don’t want to, then go ahead and sell it or give it away. Might your kids regret their refusal someday? Sure, they might. When I was in my late teens and was invited to go to my grandparents’ moving sale, I blithely declined and ignored my mother’s (correct) predictions that I might want some of that furniture someday. But I was moving so much at that time in my life and honestly found it hard to look ahead far enough into the future to think that one day I might have an home in which I would have loved to have one of the brass beds that were sold that day. But so what? I was given the chance. I passed on it. Later I regretted it. But I got over it! And so will your kids. And if they don’t? Well, that’s not your fault, is it?
  2. Consider how long it is likely to be before the item or items in question will be welcomed by your children, if ever.  Last year, when circumstances brought about my relatively hasty decision to make an international move, I was forced to downsize very quickly. I remember waking up one morning and looking at the antique dresser that had belonged first to my grandparents, and then to my Dad. I loved that dresser, and I never imagined getting rid of it. As I watched the sunlight play on its beautiful wood surface, though, suddenly a thought came into my mind. “How did we ever get that thing here (from Minnesota to Washington D.C.) in the first place?” Right on the heels of that thought was this one: “And how am I going to get it back out of here?”  Then: “And how long is it going to stay in that storage locker, anyway?” I tried to imagine when either of my sons, both far from settling down, might be ready to take on such a lovely–but large, fragile, and unwieldy–piece of furniture. And I couldn’t imagine when. A long time! If I were still living in Minnesota, I would have offered the dresser to one of my cousins, or their children. But I was not living in Minnesota, I was more than a thousand miles away and in the middle of a hasty move that I was paying for myself. And so, reluctantly, I took the picture you see above, and posted it on our local list-serve. The result is that a neighbor who loved and appreciated this beautiful piece of furniture bought it from me. She paid a fair price, and took it away. I have the picture, and the memories, and the baby hospital bracelets my Dad had kept in that dresser, his souvenir of when each of us were born. That’s all I needed. And I doubt that my sons will ever regret what I did.
  3. Use it! A lot of that beautiful china and silverware that was brought out only “for special occasions” in the 1950s and 60s apparently isn’t worth very much these days.  Depending on what you have, there may be ways to turn some of those heirlooms into cash, but doing the research to find out if what you have is valuable; if so, how to sell the items, and to make sure you’re getting what they are worth, can be very time consuming and also–depending on your level of interest in the process–pretty tedious. If this  the case for you, why not use these items? Sure, when you use them you risk chipping, or fading, or whatever. But, if you can’t resell these things for a decent price, within a reasonable amount of time, and your kids don’t want them, why not eat off of the stuff, and enjoy it? What a thought!
  4. Don’t guilt your kids, but don’t let them guilt you either. Another common theme in articles these days is the notion that parents should not burden their children by leaving them with a lot of stuff to go through. My main problem with this notion is that there is often a kind of sanctimonious air of superiority about those people who are being so noble as to do all the downsizing themselves, leaving nothing, or very little, for the kids to have to deal with. Of course people have the right to do this if that is their choice. But–speaking as the daughter of parents who left me and my siblings, and also a brother who left me and my sister with an awful lot of things to go through–I have to say that while in both cases this process was something of a burden, it was also a blessing. It brought us together in a time when we were grieving the loss of people dear to us; it helped us remember all kinds of things we wouldn’t have remembered if we hadn’t been brought together in those circumstances; and it gave us the opportunity to bond over both the pleasurable and the less pleasurable parts of the experience, and find ways to laugh rather than cry at the latter. Honestly, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Plus. I was the one who got to decide which things meant enough to me to want to keep them, and which didn’t. How would anyone else have been able to know that?

We’d love to hear your stories and/or tips about how to deal with this generation gap. If you have any to share please consider posting them in a comment.🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.


We Emptied Our Storage Room!


My grandparents’ commode


My grandparents’ pitcher and wash basin

We bid a fond farewell to the old bagel factory that sheltered our family treasures (and our junk)—without judgment—for, well, for more years than I care to count.

As I wrote in a previous post, the reason we have a storage room is common one: We needed space to put things after we emptied my father-in-law’s apartment and yet again after we emptied my childhood home. We added to it by moving in things that we didn’t need at the time but weren’t sure what to do with. An old story, but a familiar one.

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One of my father-in-law’s paintings

The results of our purge.

We donated and donated and donated. Clothes and toys and cartons and cartons of books went to charity. We sold a few things. We gave away as many items as we could. Some of the china went to my daughter’s apartment. We still have some work to do: finding a photography student who could use my husband’s equipment and looking for a museum that might be interested in the antique pitcher and basin.


My daughter’s toy truck

Lessons learned.

Out of sight, out of mind. We found many things that we didn’t remember putting into storage. An inventory would have helped.

Keep the memories, toss the stuff. Our mantra is so true. I don’t need my father’s books, voracious reader that he was, to help me think of him, or my father-in-law’s paintings, a prolific artist, to remind me of him.

There will always be regrets. A minor one so far: We sold the toy truck for much less than it was worth.

We stored items for too long. We kept things we didn’t really need or want. Why did we keep the room for so long? Perhaps procrastination played a part. And perhaps we found it difficult to deal with the hold that memories have on us.


A wonderful sight–the empty room

The takeaway.

The big lesson, always, is that people are more important than things. As we say in our book, people who successfully downsize, declutter, or empty a house (or a storage room) come to the realization that the most valuable thing in the house is the life that has been lived there. Everything else is just stuff.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Moving, Downsizing, Emptying the Family Home–in Literature


I recently read the review copy of a new book scheduled to come out in the fall, My (Part-Time) Paris Life. In it the author, Lisa Anselmo, tells the story of how she came to create a new life for herself in Paris in the wake of her grief and loss over her mother’s death. In the chapter “Destroy a Home, Build a Home,” she talks about the experience of dismantling her parents’ home with her sister a year after her mother’s death, calling it “a punishing process.”  “I thought our mother’s death would be the hardest thing to bear,” she writes. “But this was much, much worse. It was as if Ma and Dad were dying all over again.”

That got me to thinking about this emotionally difficult process as it has been described in literature. One of my previous posts asks if there is such a thing as “the poetry of downsizing” (and the evidence suggests that there is, or at least can be). And recently I stumbled across On Moving, a book that Louise DeSalvo  was inspired to write after after she and her husband moved out of the home in which they had raised their children to a new home, and she experienced an unexpectedly turbulent set of emotions.  DeSalvo, a professor of literature, not surprisingly turned to some of her favorite writers to see if they had had anything to say on the subject of moving, and found a wealth of material, including some from writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Virginia Woolf.

From time to time people have told me about other books in which the difficulty of moving, downsizing, or just simply dealing with the memories evoked by the objects in a home plays a role. One of them is The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty. Another is a lovely poem by Marie Ponsot, “As Is,” that a colleague shared with me a couple of years ago.

I know that this theme comes up actually quite often, if tangentially, in literature. It is also a rather important sub-theme in the recently-released film Hello, I’m Doris.

What’s clear is that there is nothing new about this very human activity (think Ecclesiastes! “A time to keep and a time to throw away…”), and I’m sure there is nothing new about the emotional difficulty of it either. Moving on is something we all have to do, most of us numerous times in our lives: but it is almost never easy.

Perhaps for some people, reading the words of others who have struggled with the emotions involved, and have written poignantly about it, might come as a welcome relief in the middle of a process that can be enervating, exhausting, or just plain sad, many times all three at once. It is one of the things that made us want to write our book, to find a way to make people who were going through downsizing, or dealing with the things left behind by loved ones who are no longer there, feel a bit less alone with the unsettling emotions that seem to almost inevitably arise in the process.

Do you know of any books, stories, or poems that deal with this topic sensitively? If so, I hope you will tell us about them in a comment. It would be nice to be able to share such titles with our readers.

Of course there are a few poignant stories included in our book as well, mixed in with the practical tips and strategies for getting through the process with family harmony intact. But maybe you already knew that.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.