Moving, Downsizing, Emptying the Family Home–in Literature

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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.

 

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The Universe is Made of Stories…

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“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ― Muriel Rukeyser

Stories come in many forms: memoirs, interviews, videos. Sometimes a story can be told in photographs or even in a list of the things that resonate with us. The one thing we want to share with our loved ones is the stories of our life, in whatever form we choose. Sometimes we transform a story just by telling it over and over, learning to see it in a new way each time we share it.

We’ve told stories here in our blog in a variety of ways.

We’ve told a story about a favorite object, a bowl, and its importance in our life, and we’ve written a story about the memories of a favorite place in our grandparents’ house. We’ve written poignantly about a cherished brother and a beloved father.

We’ve talked about sharing family stories in a way that will help keep our family history alive, and challenged you to tell us your stories – including a wonderful one about the memories of a treasured family item.  And sometimes you’ve told us a story – about living with less. We’ve also talked about how to get rid of stories – at least the ones in the many books on our shelves!

If you would like some help in telling your family stories, you might start by writing in a journal or by getting professional help to record and share your stories from sites like Legacy Stories or at Story Corps. Perhaps you want to get help writing about your family history from such places as the Armchair Genealogist, Genealogy.com, and from this blog post. And see how telling family stories can help heal and give strength.

So get the family together, invite the kids, make sure to include the grandparents, and encourage everyone to tell a story. “Keep the memories…” by sharing your stories.

Then join other storytellers for National Tell A Story Day, celebrated on April 27 this year. You have a month to get your stories together!

We all have a story to tell.

What’s yours?

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 the Family Home: What To Do With All The Stuff”

Forbes

Many thanks again to Next Avenue for spotlighting our book in their recent story, and to Forbes for picking it up.

Here’s a link to the Forbes version, which posted on March 27, 2014.

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

Emptying a house full of memories and items takes an emotional and physical toll…

Read more

 

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

More Words of Wisdom…

I’ve always collected quotes. Something about the pithiness, the essence of some universal truth captured in just a few words, appeals to me. I like to savor the words that someone else has written and I revisit the quotes from time to time.

The quotes I save are often about nature, food, jobs, books and other topics that I write about but I also treasure quotes about life in general: working, aging, raising children, and all of life’s little ironies.

Since writing about downsizing, I’ve gathered quotes about clutter. My coauthor shared some of her favorites in an earlier post.

Some quotes help us see how frustrating it is to live with clutter.

“When all you see is clutter, all you feel is frustration.” – Richard Flint, motivational speaker

“When you live surrounded by clutter, it’s like dragging the ball and chain of your past around with you everywhere you go.” – Karen Kingston

Other quotes help us see the internal component of clutter.

Legendary personal organizer Barbara Hemphill has a great quote that goes straight to the heart of the matter: “Clutter is postponed decisions.”

And some quotes give us hope.

“Decluttering isn’t just simplifying your life. It’s having a vision, setting new priorities and using those notions to get rid of obstacles.” – Peter Walsh

 “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Do you save your favorite quotes? Or do you have words of wisdom passed along by your parents or grandparents? We would love to hear about them so please share some of them in a comment on this post.

LH

Our First Year

One year ago this week, we started blogging as Downsizing The Home to share some of the sanity-saving tips, practical strategies, helpful advice – and dare I say wisdom – we had gained in writing our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Many bloggers commemorate a year by choosing favorite posts and I certainly have mine. I have fond feelings for the times when I’ve written about my family and how we deal with our stuff but I’m also proud of our more practical posts where we have connected our readers to the insight of others with links to websites, other blogs, and events.

But what I’m really pleased about is the many followers we have on Twitter and the feedback we get from them. We have been warmly received by a larger community and this has broadened our world. Thanks for including us and for retweeting our tweets!

We are thankful to those of you who have subscribed to our blog, so appreciative that you have welcomed us into your life each week. One of our aims for the coming year is to encourage more of our subscribers to comment on our posts. We would like to hear what you have to say. Let us know what you are thinking and how we can be more helpful.

It seems appropriate in this week before Thanksgiving that we acknowledge our gratitude so a big thank-you to everyone who has touched our lives through our blog.

LH

October is Family History Month

October is fast approaching and I’ve been thinking about how I want to honor Family History Month.

Maybe I haven’t made any specific plans because the idea of researching family history is just too large a task, too daunting a project. Instead I’ll revel in the times that bringing our family history to life just happened serendipitously.

A school assignment years ago to create a family tree (now more accommodatingly called a family constellation to allow for the many variations in family configurations) brought up questions that sent us hastening to our best resource: the grandparents. With their help the tree started to take shape. Layers of time floated around us as we moved back and forth among the generations filling in names and dates and adding photos.

We learned some serious facts of life: that more people died at a younger age years ago. And we learned fun things: that our ancestors had some “interesting” names we were glad had not been passed along to us.

Sorting through papers while emptying my family home, I found my grandmother’s early writing where she admitted to feeling a bit like a country mouse when she was being courted by her soon-to-be husband. Really? We thought of her as an urban, sophisticated person who had married the son of recent immigrants. She went from her rural beginnings (New York City’s boroughs did have farms at the beginning of the last century) to become, due to early widowhood, a polished working woman supporting two children.

We learned that birth certificates detailing dates and places tell one story but that diary entries can tell quite another.

Another school assignment was to interview someone who had come to America from another country. Choosing to talk with an aunt who had emigrated from Romania at the age of 12, one of my kids eagerly formulated questions important to a child: What toys did you play with? Where did you go to school? What chores did you do?

We learned that in a hardscrabble life in Eastern Europe at that time a doll was two sticks tied together and covered with a ragged piece of cloth. We learned that immigrants can be the most determined, hardest-working group in America. We also came to see what gratitude for a wonderful life in America looks like.

A high school assignment to interview someone who had lived through most of the twentieth century led one of my kids to discover that my father as a very young child had gone to Prospect Park with his father to welcome Charles Lindbergh back to the United States after his solo flight to Paris. We found out that my father can remember the very spot he was standing when he heard that Pearl Harbor was bombed. We now know he was in the stands in Ebbets Field the first time Jackie Robinson played there.

We learned that history is not just events and dates but that real people are participants in and witnesses to it. We will never again see Lindbergh’s flight, Pearl Harbor, or the Brooklyn Dodgers in quite the same way.

When I discovered that my father’s father was born just blocks (or one neighborhood) away from where we live, we took my father to the very street corner to photograph him in front of the building. What had been a part of the city that was home to recent immigrants at the turn of the last century is now a gentrified neighborhood sought out by young sophisticates, so much so that my daughter said she couldn’t believe her great grandfather was born in such a nice building (well, an older building that had been nicely renovated).

We saw the sociology of urban planning come alive: We learned that neighborhoods change as individual families as well as groups of people move on, leaving the neighborhood to newcomers who create a new community.

What opportunities we were handed to investigate our family history – in bits and pieces, in ways that fit naturally into our lives – and to share the stories, some that were new to us and some that we had heard many times before.

We learned not to underestimate the significance of sharing our family history, of sharing our family stories. That stories are more important than any object left to us. They are the memories that we will hold onto, the memories that will stay in our hearts for all time.

LH

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