Collecting: The Things We Love…

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“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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

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“Emptying the Family Home WIthout Battling Siblings”

Many thanks to Jill Yanish and PBS’s Next Avenue for featuring us and our new e-book Moving On in her article about downsizing the home. Here it is: 

Keep? Sell? Toss? These three options are ammo for the battle when clearing the family home after a parent leaves it. Read more…

Emptying a Family Home: A Wellspring of Emotion

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Last month, the New York Times ran a wonderful eight-day series in their Opinionator column, titled “The Task.”

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, former Times columnist–and a supremely graceful and sensitive writer–is the author of the series. In it she describes in great detail, with honesty and candor, the deeply emotional and difficult process of dismantling her parents’ home after the death of her father. Step by step she walks her readers through the myriad decisions that needed to be made as she and her brother went through mountains of accumulated “stuff”—54 file drawers in her father’s office alone!  Along the way she explains and indeed shows just how and why these decisions are not so easy to make, and shares the memories and emotions—some beautiful and poignant, some painful—evoked in the process.

Almost as interesting as the posts themselves are the comments published in response to the series, and the conversations it has engendered. So far, more than 800 readers have responded. The vast majority of them express sympathy and solidarity with what Judson was going through; a few advised her to just pitch everything into a dumpster; others warned her not to throw things out too quickly, and some gave helpful suggestions about what to do with some of the things. Quite a few vowed not to leave their children with such a task. Most simply shared their own similar experiences, memories of childhood homes (several very interesting comments recount the prominent role of childhood homes in dreams), dread of going through this process themselves one day, or appreciation of the rewarding discoveries that come along with the drudgery.

Quite a few readers said they were moved to tears while reading Judson’s essays. For me one of the most moving comments was one in which the respondent confessed he had found himself crying as he read, adding “No idea why.”

What was very clear to me in reading this series was that no matter how much we might wish that the process of emptying a beloved home of everything in it could be straightforward and rational, a logistical task that simply requires organizing and executing the transfer of objects from one place to another (or rather, others), it is anything but either simple or straightforward. It is complex and deeply emotional, and for many of us it is heartbreaking in ways we can hardly fathom.

In the final essay Judson tells how she follows the advice of a friend to choose a “memory stone” to help her through the final goodbye to her childhood home. I won’t attempt to retell the story for her: you can read the entire series here, and I recommend that you do read it, essay by essay, in order.

It’s a wonderful tribute to both the beauty and the pain of what one of my favorite poets, James A. Emanuel, referred to as “this load that makes us human.”  And though each of us has to find our own way of saying goodbye to the past, in listening to the stories of how others have done it we can find helpful guidance, and the comforting knowledge that we are not alone.

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

What I Learned…

book gift

My neighbor died recently at the age of 97½ and in mourning with her family, here’s what I learned. Maybe I had actually learned all this earlier in my life – or should have, anyway – and just needed to be reminded of it again.

Appreciate your family.

My neighbor’s nieces greeted everyone after the funeral and were as gracious as can be. Their appreciation for their aunt – her life and her beliefs and her interests – was so clearly evident. How many of us will keep extended family so much a part of our lives?

Keep your friends close.

Two of my neighbor’s friends, woman of advanced years as well, went to high school with her and live in the same apartment building. How amazing is that! How many of us will keep high school friends well into our 90s? What a testament to friendship.

Make new friends.

Although we were decades apart in age, my neighbor and I shared a love of books and we often discussed what we were reading. How many of us will make an effort to make new friends when we are in our late 80s?

Share with others.

My neighbor was always giving me books – or sometimes just lending them to me – and donating jewelry to an annual sale that I run for charity. Can we all start giving away our things now, to those who appreciate the items, rather than wait for later?

Stuff is just stuff.

At the estate sale, my neighbor’s stuff was just stuff. What seeing the things did, though, was prompt stories from people who knew her. We were all keeping – and sharing – the memories as we let the stuff go. Can we all remind ourselves that these things are all just things and that what matters most is the people in our lives?

We learned some of these lessons, and more, when we were interviewing people for our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, which will be available soon – very soon – as an e-book. Stay tuned!

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

Getting Help After a Death

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It happens to each of us, sadly, at some point. We have to sort through and dispose of an entire household after losing a loved one.

Where do we start? What’s the best way of dealing with the stuff? Who can we ask to help?

We looked to several fellow bloggers for advice as well as to our own experiences and those of the people we interviewed in our book Moving On. Here’s the best of what we found.

Take your time.

Lisa Montanaro in her post Organizing After the Loss of a Loved One, emphasizes taking one’s time. “After the death of a loved one, some people are tempted to sift through belongings and make decisions quickly. If this feels natural to you, fine (consider checking with a grief counselor before moving too quickly through the process). But most people need more time after a loss to organize a loved one’s possessions.” Some people need only a few months; others take years to sort through everything.

Keep a few special things.

Erin Dolan in her post Uncluttering After the Loss of a Loved One says that uncluttering – getting rid of the clutter and keeping what you value – is a way to keep the best of your loved one with you. She says, “Find the handful of things that you value most and that best honor your memories of [your loved one]…the pieces that make your heart sing.”

Save what’s meaningful to you.

As Jeri Dansky says in her post Not Clutter: The Odd Sentimental Items, “Memorabilia is very personal. Go ahead and save meaningless-to-anyone-else sentimental items – but it does help to be selective and save only the most precious. And don’t worry about getting rid of things that you think should be meaningful, but aren’t.”

Get help.

Tina Segal, founder of The Estate Settlers, has set up an information network and a service to assist an estate executor that helps families during the emotional and trying times following a death in the family. Her company focuses its efforts on the financial side of the estate as well as the “stuff” that’s left behind: the furniture, the cars, the jewelry, as well as the house itself.

The death of a loved one is a trying time in one’s life. Go at your own pace and deal with the items in your own way. And ask for help when you need it. As Lisa Montanaro says, “Give yourself permission to grieve first, heal, and then to organize.”

And her best advice: “Be kind to yourself.”

And one more thing…

Get your own house in order.

Getting your own papers and favorite items in order for your heirs is the best gift you can give them. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, make sure you have the four important papers updated and kept in a safe place. And make sure to create a list of all the important stuff in your life as a guide for after you’re gone.

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

Organizing for Your Heirs

Recently I came across two essays that dealt with organizing for the end of one’s life, one a Sunday Dialogue in the New York Times and the other a post by a person who blogs about organizing.

In the Times article, “Discussing Dying with Loved Ones,” the writer, Janis Abrahms Spring, a clinical psychologist and author of Life with Pop: Lessons on Caring for an Aging Parent, says “When aging parents spell out their end-of-life wishes to their children, this is an act of supreme kindness.”

But as we know, adult children need to do this for themselves and their children as well. One reader responded: “The responsibility… of adult offspring is to consider their own end-of-life preferences in order to begin the conversation with the next generation in a more timely manner.”

We addressed this issue a few months ago in two posts that I wrote, one – One Life, Four Papers – about the four papers we should all have: a will, a power of attorney, a health care proxy, and a living will, and the other – Getting Your House in Order – about the need for a comprehensive list of important information: bank accounts and passwords, insurance policies, and credit cards, as well as a list of the people who need to be notified of your death.

As Marcie, creator of the blog Organized by Marcie, says, “preparing for the inevitable end of life is one of the most important things you can do.” She suggests that in addition to a healthy care proxy and advance directive, one create a list of items that have special meaning to you and explain why you feel they are important to you. What a lovely present that is for your loved ones.

As Marcie says, preparing these documents is not fun, but it is important. And, as we know, your family will thank you for it. As one New York Times reader said after receiving a copy of her mother’s living will and health care proxy: “It was a bit of a shock, but I now appreciate how fortunate we [she and her brother] were to have a mother with such foresight and practicality.”

To organize now about the end of your life is practical, realistic, and sensible – and a bit scary. It is truly a gift to your loved ones. As we said in an earlier post, organize your life now and later on will be easier for you and your family.

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.

The Things My Dad Left

When my father moved from the house he had lived in for 50 years, my childhood home, to an apartment, my siblings and I took on the task of sorting through and distributing family mementos and household items.

We felt we had been fairly successful at divvying up things among family members without too much animosity. We sold, donated, gave away, and threw out what we didn’t want or couldn’t use. My father made the transition to apartment living nicely and I cowrote a book about the experience: Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Several years later, my father moved from that apartment to a smaller place in a senior housing facility. So, as the daughter who lived closest, I once again sorted through family stuff. I thought that I didn’t want to do that again.

But as I looked through my father’s high school and college yearbooks, read family letters from relatives long gone, found my parents’ baptismal certificates, gave some of my mother’s favorite serving dishes to my daughter, and pored over album after album of family photographs, I felt a sense of poignancy, a certain satisfaction, of course, and most of all joy. It was a privilege to be a part of that life, a life my parents shared through 52 years of marriage – a privilege not everyone gets, and one that I was grateful for.

This time I brought home too many things I couldn’t part with and over these last few years have lamented about what to do with them.

My father died in January at the age of 92.

Some of the things my father left to us helped me write his obituary. The file of business letters lists the numerous awards he received for being top salesman. His university pennant and fraternity paddle speak of the pride he felt in his alma mater. His puttees and a photo of him in uniform tell of his patriotism. Notices from charities recount his great generosity. And tributes from church declare his faith and stewardship.

But what my father really left to us didn’t come from the stuff he left behind but rather from who he was. He adored my mother and took great care of her. As my brother said: Of all the jobs he had, being a husband was the one he did best. Whether people knew him a long time or had just met him, they always remarked about how nice he was. “He’s such a nice man” is what his children always heard from people.

And, best of all, I see his intelligence and work ethic, his kindness and sense of humor, in my children. What a legacy he has passed on.

This will be my first Father’s Day without my father. I wish a happy and healthy and joyous day to all the dads out there. Cherish the time with your family.

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