Downsizing Dilemmas: Who Gets What

After a recent talk I gave about downsizing, the questions turned toward issues about how to work with siblings in sharing family items, some of the items real treasures. A woman shared a story and asked for advice. The story made me think of other stories I’ve heard or witnessed over the years since writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and I thought I would share a few of them with you today (with all names changed).

Mary and her sister cleaned out the family home after her mother’s death more than 25 years ago. There were many paintings, portraits painted by a relative who was a portrait painter. Two were very large, one each of her parents. At the time, no one seemed to want them. Mary took them, somewhat as a favor and because she didn’t want to let them go, but also because she had the room in her house for them. Other family members took various other family items. In the years since, Mary’s daughters have talked among themselves as to who would get which portrait. One daughter recently bought a house and was hoping to get a portrait to hang in her house now, rather than waiting to inherit it from her mother. Seemingly out of the blue, Mary’s sister called and said her daughter had purchased a house and could Mary give her the portrait of their mother for her new house. Mary said her first reaction was to say that all that had been decided years ago. She and her daughters assumed that the portraits were Mary’s and Mary would decide what to do with them. Mary asked us what we thought she should do.

Betty inherited from her parents a diamond pin that had belonged to her grandmother. It was one of just a few of her grandmother’s possessions because, due to circumstances near of the end of her grandmother’s life, there was nothing else that was kept. Betty, who has two daughters, wears the pin very infrequently and had thought to have it appraised. But she’s afraid that if she finds out that the pin is actually worth a lot of money that she will have to sell it and share the money with her cousin who could use the money. Her cousin doesn’t know of the existence of the pin. Rather than have it appraised, Betty keeps the pin safely tucked away in her jewelry box. She wonders what she should do, what is the right thing to do, in these circumstances.

Connie is one of three sisters and she and one of her sisters helped clean out their father’s house after he died. They took a few items but donated most of them to charity. They kept some items that weren’t spoken for but that they didn’t want to part with. The third sister came to town later and asked for a pair of silver candlesticks that had belonged to their grandparents. Connie liked the candlesticks, but then Connie liked many of the old items in the house. She had taken more than enough for herself and her family. When her sister asked for the candlesticks, Connie hesitated just long enough for her sister to say, okay, you take them. Connie took them but then regretted it. She wanted her sister to have them. So she called her sister and told her that. Her sister said I don’t want them now, you should have given them to me when I asked for them. Connie feels bad but also feels that her sister is acting like a spoiled child. So the candlesticks sit on a shelf in Connie’s living room.

Families are complicated.

Years ago, the New York Times ran an article about two brothers, professional men, who had successfully divided up their father’s estate according to his will. Neither one of them needed the money so it was all done amicably. But then there was their father’s guitar. Rather than read them a bedtime story, their father had sung them a song every night. To the brothers, it represented the essence of their father, his talent, and his love. Both wanted the guitar. The brothers stopped talking, as I recall from the article, and communicated only through their lawyers, as to who would get the guitar.

There must be ways to work successfully on downsizing a family home so that each of the siblings feels they have been heard and seen. We have discussed some of those ways in our book.

But what about the answers to each of the specific cases above? How would you respond? We would love to hear what you would do. Leave us your sage words in a comment in the comment box.

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

Letting Go of Things Somewhat Reluctantly…or Not at All

Getting rid of just about anything can be an experience that is fraught and often loaded with meaning. Here’s a shout-out to those of us who find it difficult to downsize or declutter and who do it with a bit, if not a great deal, of reluctance.

There are reasons for getting rid of items that no longer serve a purpose or enhance our lives. But actually moving those items out of the house – to donate, to sell, or to give to a friend – can be a long process of mulling things over, coming up with excuses, putting things in storage (or the back of a closet) to ponder at a later date, or, simply, just ignoring them.

At times we can overcome our reluctance to part with things, and at other times we cannot. Sometimes quicker is better. Contemplating the fate of our stuff can take up too much time and energy. But sometimes things can be given away after some thought about the item and about who we are.

Some items don’t match the way we live our lives. Many years ago my mother gave me my grandmother’s china. It was a pretty light green, very Victorian, and I loved its square luncheon plates. The china came with a set of cream soups, bowls that seemed too Downton Abbey-esque for my lifestyle, and I put them in a cabinet above the refrigerator and forgot about them. After some decluttering, they are now at a local thrift store that raises money for those in need.

Some items belong to a person we no longer are. My husband’s fishing gear – rods, reels, and wading boots for flyfishing – were in our storage room for a few years. When we emptied the room, my husband needed some time to think about what he wanted to do with the equipment. When he realized he was no longer going to stand hip-deep in a river, he donated the fishing gear to charity.

Some items are not going to be passed down as we had hoped they would be. A friend, a great host who gives wonderful dinner parties, had planned on passing along to her niece her Christmas china and her silverware. Her niece isn’t interested. Now my friend has to spend time thinking about what she eventually wants to do with tableware that she had hoped would stay in her family.

Sometimes we don’t get rid of an item at all.

I have an address book that I bought in the 1970s. It is spiral-bound, about 6-inches square, and covered in a flowered cotton fabric. And it’s been falling apart for years. In its pages are family members, often with addresses crossed out and replaced as they moved around the country; people I worked with, some of who were important contacts for work, others who are now forgotten; friends I made as I traveled, some of whom are dear friends today and some whose names I no longer recognize. Many of the people in these pages have died, and they are people I want to remember.

The book is somewhat of a time capsule of my life. It’s a rolodex of people I worked with, a family tree as it mapped extended family as it expanded, a list of friends whose phone numbers I no longer remember. It’s proof that I existed, that I have a family, that I worked, that I traveled. It’s proof of who I am. It’s full of memories.

Its meaning is only nostalgic, but I don’t throw it away.

And then I think of what Marie Kondo said,

“It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.”

And with those words in mind, I will try to find my way to getting rid of my old address book.

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 Dress I Never Wore

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a flood we had in our apartment and the aftermath of going through so much of our stuff. We still have more to sort through, lots more. Here are some things I’ve wrestled with lately.

On one of our first few days in Bangkok we were walking in the shopping district looking at the stores when a young man asked if I was looking for a silk dress. Of course, I was wanted to buy a Thai silk dress! He guided us to a place he said had the best prices. I choose a lovely turquoise silk dress. I loved the color and bought it, even though I knew at the time it was too big for me. Although I guessed the man was probably – okay, definitely – a shill for the store, I liked the dress and even now have fond memories of it and, naturally, of our trip. Flash forward 30-some years and the dress is still hanging in my closet. I have never worn the dress.

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When my father moved from the house he had lived in for 50 years to an apartment, he gave away a lot of his business attire: suits, ties, and dress shoes. I decided to take a dozen or more ties, I chose the red-themed ones, to make a skirt for my daughter. That was over 10 years ago. The ties are still hanging in my closet.

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A number of years ago, I inherited my aunt’s blue and white china. Blue and white is a classic color combination, one beloved my many people. I like blue and white for clothing and, in some cases, for home furnishings but I’ve never liked blue and white china. (Maybe that sounds quirky but…whatever.) The plates are in the china cabinet in my dining room, where I can see them every day.

There is still much work to do in my apartment, many decisions to be made. Have I made any progress? Yes, I have donated many things, knowing I can “Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff…” as we say in our book. So what have I done with these particular items?

The plates are going on eBay. The ties have been donated to charity.

And the dress. Well, my daughter happened to stop by when we were photographing these items ( I know, what serendipity) and I asked her to model the dress for the photo. She put it on and decided she liked it. Of course, it is twice as big on her as it was on me (she’s holding the excess fabric with her right hand in the photo). So will it take fewer than 30 years to take in the dress so it fits her? 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

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

Finding My Way in My Grandparents’ Attic

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“She figured she loved it for the reason we always love attics, for the reason they figure in our dreams: because they are the hidden rooms where we store our pasts.”

So says a character in Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, the story of a turn-of-the-last-century estate whose attic plays a prominent role in a tale of family and fate, art and love, surprises and secrets.

I loved my grandparents’ attic. It was above the garage, behind the house that my grandfather had built in the early 1920s. It was large, it had windows to bring in light, and it was filled with their treasures and their junk.

Everything was saved in my grandparent’s day. They, like others of their generation who raised families during the Depression, saved everything and valued their possessions in ways we can barely fathom. I remember my sister and I riding the bikes, with big front baskets attached with leather straps, that had belonged to my mother and her sister. And the attic was filled, not with the bikes, but with things they thought they might use again.

Have I used anything that belonged to my grandparents? My mother gave me my grandmother’s china – not very old, but lovely, a set that my uncle had brought back from Japan after the war – when my kids were young. I cautioned my mother that with young kids I wasn’t about to use china that I had to handle with care, and I didn’t. The plates went into the dishwasher, which over the years, cleaned off the pattern along with the food. (I still have the set of twelve perfect cream soups because, somehow, my life is such that there was no occasion for setting a table with cream soup bowls.)

Have I treasured anything that belonged to my grandparents? I have a wooden candlestick, carved from a tree on my grandfather’s family farm outside of Stockholm, prominently displayed on a shelf in my living room. It’s sturdy and practical like my grandfather, who was a carpenter and a builder, and it reminds me of him.

I also have a delicate gold pin, a gift from my grandfather to my grandmother on birth of their first child. In some ways, the pin reminds me of my grandmother; it’s small and delicate and not ostentatious, a good description of her, a woman barely five feet tall. But in other ways jewelry is not like her, at least not how I saw her, a woman who was so practical that she dyed her wedding dress so she had a dress to wear to church, made all her food from scratch, and sewed so beautifully that she earned her living as a seamstress. Both candlestick and brooch are everyday items but for me they evoke powerful memories.

October is National Family History Month, a fitting time to get family members involved in talking about family history. I feel that I have honored my grandparents by looking through old family photos – prompted, of course, by this blog post – and seeing photos of their house I hadn’t seen in years, by remembering them through a few – just a few – favorite objects that belonged to them, and mostly by sharing stories about them here and with my family.

So here’s to looking though your attic – literally or figuratively – and finding ways to bring the past we’ve stored there into the present, to share family memories.

Below is a list of places, some we’ve mentioned before, that may help you and your family get involved in family history.

Family Tree Magazine

http://familytreemagazine.com/article/lunch-hour-genealogy

Minnkota Genealogical Society

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~minnkota/nfhm.html

Practical Archivist: Family Archivist Survival Kit

http://practicalarchivist.com/

Adventures in Genealogy

http://deb-adventuresingenealogy.blogspot.com/2011/09/tuesdays-tip-celebrate-family-history.html

Ancestry.com

http://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/category/family-history-month-2/

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

Letting Go of Some Favorite Things

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As I began to write this post I thought of it as another in our occasional series “Getting Rid of…” but with a twist. But then I realized it’s more than that. It’s not about finding places to donate usable items we no longer need, rather it’s a look at the process I went through to get to the point where I could get rid of things that were important to me. And the items seemed dear to me partly because they helped define who I am.

I was prompted to embark on this bit of soul searching by an essay I had read about one woman’s journey to let go of mementos from a failed marriage, or more accurately, mementos from the good times in a relationship that ended with a split. At first, I thought she held onto things that brought her pain and that seemed counterintuitive to me. Then I realized that she held onto things that reminded her of the good parts of the relationship but when she looked at them, lived with them over the years, they brought her, not joy, but sorrow. And she decided that she needed to move on from those feelings.

My exploration was less dramatic that the essay-writer’s journey but significant to me. Here’s what I got rid of.

My collection of Playbills. I have always loved going to the theater, starting when I was a teenager, and I go as often as I can, more often to off-Broadway than to Broadway shows because the tickets are more affordable. When I was in my early twenties, I saw an apartment where the bathroom was papered with Playbill covers. It was a small guest bathroom but, still, I was so impressed that someone had been to see so many plays. I never papered my walls with Playbills; I kept them on a shelf. A couple of years ago, when they started to overrun the shelf, I put them in shopping bags, a first step, perhaps, to moving them out.

Why were the Playbills so important to me? I’ve always been a reader – there are family stories about my reading at the age of four, I have several degrees in English literature, I’ve worked in publishing for most of my career, and I love reading books and going to plays. Having tangible evidence of my love of literature helps define the reader and playgoer part of me.

I came to the realization that I have the memories (or maybe not so much now as I age since sometimes I have to ask a friend to remind me what a particular play was about!) but could get rid of the items. So I sent the Playbills on to paper recycling…to serve, one hopes, some better purpose.

The response cards and envelopes from my wedding. I’ve been married a long time and for years I have kept a sturdy box from the printer filled with the extra response cards and the matching small envelopes addressed to me. I’m not sure why we had so many extras and I’m not sure why I kept them, except it felt somehow sacrilegious to just discard them.

Certainly the wedding was a seminal event in my life and the marriage helped define me as a wife, and later as a mother. The marriage has been a good one, or to paraphrase Jim Dale’s comment in his one-man show, we often have opposing points of view but end up seeing eye to eye. Do these seemingly useless items enhance the relationship in any way? Someone, a good organizer and declutterer I’m sure, once said that all you need to keep as a memento is one invitation, complete with all its parts if you like. So the cards and envelopes went out to paper recycling…perhaps to become the recycled paper that a current, environmentally aware bride will choose for her invitations.

Old videotapes. I have several shelves of old videotapes of movies and children’s shows, films my children enjoyed or videotapes of popular movies they were given as birthday gifts. (Although it may seem odd given today’s media, a videotape of a favorite movie or an old classic was an enjoyable gift when my kids were young.)

Even though the tapes do not speak to me in any particular way, the fact that I kept them helps define me as a clutterer because clutter is, as someone once defined it, postponed decisions. So I sorted through the tapes. I donated still good ones to a local thrift shop, sent damaged ones to electronic recycling, and put aside the tapes of my children’s performances, plays, and concerts to be converted to DVDs…a task that is now high up on my to-do list.

All of these things brought back happy memories for me. And I know that I can remember the pleasures without having the objects to look at, which is another way of expressing the mantra of our book and blog: “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the 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

Share a Story, Win an e-Book

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In honor of Women’s History Month, now coming to an end, we would like to hear from you, our readers, about the women in your life. Share a story with us, by leaving a comment to this post, and we will choose one lucky winner to receive a copy of our new, updated e-book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Share a family story about any of the women in your life – mother, grandmother, aunt, daughter, teacher, mentor. Recount a favorite family story, tell us about a treasured family object, describe a particular family quirk. What objects has your family kept over the years? What do the objects mean to you? What are your fondest family memories?

We look forward to hearing what makes your family special, how your family handles its treasures, how you keep and pass along the family memories.

The deadline for entries is Monday, April 7, 2014.

Thanks for being part of our extended “family” of readers!

Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are coauthors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, now available as an e-book.

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