Can Sentimentality Actually Help in Downsizing the Home?

A few weeks ago, announced an “open call” for essays about spring cleaning. They asked for “personal essays about an object from your past that you can’t bring yourself to toss, even though it no longer has a practical purpose in your life,” and added, “We want stories of how sentimental possessions affect us and about the strange and complex emotions we attach to inanimate objects.”

There was a huge response to this call, and a lot of wonderful essays were written. I wrote one called “The Importance of Keeping Useless Things.” Someone else wrote a very poignant essay about why she had kept 25 dried yellow roses, saved from a marriage that didn’t last, and a man riffed on why his father’s banged-up old golf clubs were important to him.

A couple of comments that my piece generated on Facebook conversations reminded me that sentimentality and getting rid of things do not always have to be at odds with each other. One of my cousins responded to my piece by saying that she was going to begin documenting the stories connected with some of the things she has been keeping, so that people will know why she kept them, why they’re special. I think that’s a great practical result to come out of a pretty sentimental piece.

One of the most helpful things we discovered in writing our book was that although sentimentality about objects usually results in our keeping too many things, if the process is handled right, engaging in those sentimental memories can actually help people arrive at the point where they are ready to get rid of  the objects.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that what is important is not the things themselves, but the memories they evoke. Often, if there is a way to capture the memory and safeguard it for ourselves, and for our children and grandchildren, the objects (though never the memories) become suddenly much less important.

It is one of the reasons why “taking one’s time” is such important requirement for having a happy, productive experience when downsizing the family home. If we can take the time to tell each other stories along the way, or to write them down, maybe even to make sound or video recordings–in short to separate the memories from the objects, keeping one but not necessarily the other–we may be not only having more fun along the way, but preparing ourselves for that moment when we can put a “for sale” sticker—or haul off to the nearest local charity—some of those items that truthfully nobody really wants anymore.

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

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