Favorite Downsizing Stories: “The Fight Shelf”

One of my favorite stories about emptying the family home was told to us by one of the people we interviewed in the course of writing our book (Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home). Here it is:

When my two sisters and I were breaking up my mother’s house of 40-plus years, we of course came upon things that more than one of us thought we couldn’t live without. After the first few snide comments, we made a “fight shelf” for the disputed items. The “fight shelf” grew into the “fight room,” and by the end of the summer there was quite a stash of memorabilia, none of which had much intrinsic value, but all of which held emotional and political power.

On an early fall morning we went to divvy up the goods, when we were all fresh and cool. We drew straws to determine the order of picks. After each of us had appropriated our first few choices in an orderly fashion, the pickings began to look a little slim. I picked up a very ugly tray and tried to recall who had fought over such a piece of trash. We couldn’t remember!

One by one, we inspected the remaining items, getting more and more amused by what we had once thought was worth fighting over. We ended up laughing uncontrollably. The rest of the contents of the room went to Goodwill, where I hope they found new owners with as much possessive enthusiasm as we had once had.

I like this story for several reasons. For one thing, it illustrates the value of probably the single most important piece of advice we came up with about downsizing the home in writing our book, which is  “Take your time.”

Of course it is not always possible to take as much time as these sisters did. Sometimes it is necessary to empty a house in a very short period of time, and such a long cooling-off period would not be possible for all families in this situation.

But in my experience with my family, we found that whenever the disposition of a particular item threatened to cause hard feelings or resentment–even if the cooling-off period was overnight, or even just a few hours later–backing off, and agreeing to decide “later” was inevitably helpful.

The other thing I love about this story is the way it shows how even very amicable families can descend into petty bickering over things when they are forced to part with sentimental items, especially when that process follows close upon the loss of a loved one, or accompanies other distressing or sad changes in the life of the family.

It also shows that with commitment to maintaining family harmony, lots of patience, and a good sense of humor, those tense moments can be turned into opportunities for becoming closer, and even sharing a few laughs along the way.

So, that’s one of my favorite downsizing  stories. What are some of yours?



3 Responses

  1. This winter my parents moved to an apartment. Among the things they kept: a rush chair hand-made by my great-grandfather – which is too fragile to sit on! I suggested they mount it on a wall, which they found funny, but why not? They barely have floor space for furniture, certainly not for something non-functional. (note I didn’t say “useless” – to me, cherishing an object counts as a “use”).
    My mom discarded a lot of old photographs, which I kept – I’m sure she will want them at some point – or if she doesn’t, another family member will.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, NC. It’s good that you kept the photos your Mom didn’t want anymore…you’re right, either she or someone else will probably want them sooner or later. One of the things we became aware of in researching our book was how important it is to make sure you know who all the people in the photos are, where they were taken, etc. and to label them. Your Mom is still around to ask, and that’s a good thing! Sometimes also in asking those questions, a lot of other interesting family history comes out. (You might want to have a digital recorder handy just in case that starts to happen when you’re talking with your Mom and Dad.)

      And I must admit I am curious: what DID they decide to do about the rush chair? Is it on their wall? If so, how does it look?

  2. Oh, they didn’t decide yet. They are unpacking VERY SLOWLY. They did clear out a lot of excess kitchen stuff – Mom had 5 egg beaters, and she doesn’t even cook any more! But she wouldn’t let me cull them before the move. She’s having to because the new kitchen has less space.

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