Downsizing Chronicles, Stage 2: The Storage Locker (Part 1)

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Dealing With the Storage Locker, Day 1

Almost two years ago I moved out of the home I had been living in in Maryland for the past eight years, and went to France. At the time, I wasn’t really sure where I was going to be living next: I was only sure that I wanted to stop living in the house I had been renting in Maryland. So, after going through Downsizing Stage 1, during which I sold, donated, gave away, recycled, or trashed a large percentage of what was filling that house (you can read about that wild ride, which had to take place in a mere 27 days, here and here), I put whatever was left into storage.

Early this year, as I was going over my expenses I realized that I was spending an awful lot of money to store things that I really kind of wished I had with me in France. One of those things was my piano.

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Pianos are both cumbersome and delicate. They are expensive to maintain and move. They also bring great joy into our lives: this one has great sentimental value for me. More important, it is a very fine musical instrument that both my son, who is a musician, and I love to play.

Another thing was about 10 boxes of books and papers that I really kind of need to access for my work. It occurred to me that this situation didn’t make any sense, so I decided to return to the “scene of the crime,” roll up my sleeves, and do something about it.

My initial thought was that I should Step 1: Get rid of some of the things I hadn’t had time to deal with getting rid of in the first round; Step 2: Ship those few things I really need or strongly want to France; and Step 3: Take the rest of the stuff–mostly old family heirlooms, and more books and papers–to Minnesota, my home state, where I like to be when I’m not in France, and where storage rental rates are much less expensive.

At this writing I am in the middle of a  figuring out the actual plan for 1) how to get the things I really need back out of storage; and 2) lower the cost of storing the rest. This is a pretty complicated situation for basically three reasons: 1) the piano; 2) the international nature of the move; and 3) the fact that this move is self-funded, and I do not have unlimited funds. It is not clear yet whether that move of some of the stuff west to Minnesota is going to make sense. And there are many details concerning the moving of things to France that are not clear yet. Bureaucracy is involved. (Stay tuned!)

However, I knew that no matter what happened concerning Steps 2 and 3, Step 1 was crystal clear. Since I had had only 27 days for my Stage 1 downsizing (which flies in the face of the most fundamental piece of advice in our book: Take Your Time! 😦  ), I had not been able to do a really thorough job of sorting. (This is an understatement.) This meant that many things went into storage that would have been dispensed with if I had had more time for the move.  There were even quite a few boxes that were not at all full, and other ridiculous things like that that I just simply couldn’t help.

I attacked Step 1 couple of days after I arrived back in Maryland. The timing was fortuitous, since my older son has just rented his first apartment in New York, so he was able to take some of the things he had in storage out of the locker, and also take some of the household furnishings that I now know I won’t be needing.

I had asked him in advance to set aside the first weekend I was here to come down and help me with the first round of “getting rid of more stuff.” He was in a way the perfect person to help me with this task. Both by temperament and by generational inclination, he is, unlike me, definitely not a “keeper.” On the one hand he is a millennial, and as we have discussed (and has been widely discussed elsewhere), millennials are well known for not wanting to inherit their parents’ stuff. On the other hand he is a sensitive, kind, and patient person who knows when to stop pushing and give his “keeper” mom a break).

Step 1 went very well. On Day 1 we succeeded in getting enough stuff out of the locker that I was able to get into the locker, to deal with whatever else was in there. (This was not really possible until a certain amount of stuff had been taken out and driven to the nearest thrift store.)

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My 9 x 10 storage locker, chock full of stuff

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This is about half of the first round of “redistribution” of stuff: off to the thrift store and the library!

The next day I drove him back to New York. There were many things I encouraged him to take to his new apartment but, typical of a millennial, for the most part he refused them. I did convince him to take with him my mother’s cast-iron skillet; his other grandmother’s garlic press; a couple of pasta bowls; and a quilt made by my grandmother. He also  happily took the almost-new mattress I had left behind.

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My son, with quilt, skillet, garlic press.

His reaction to one antique wine glass that had belonged to my mother helped me decide to cart it away to the thrift shop. “This wine glass was my mother’s,” I said. “It’s really old.” “Ohhh,” he said in what I thought at first was his expression of being impressed. It was not. His facial expression made it clear that to him it was pretty ugly. And I realized I didn’t really think it was all that beautiful myself: it was just old, and my mother’s.

With his permission, and in fact his urging, I was able to get rid of a lot of other things too, including a handmade felt heart mini-pillow he had made for me in about third grade. (Though this was not that easy to do, my  only real regret about this is that I did not think to take a picture of the two of us standing side by side and holding the heart before I did so. 😦 ) Oh well. Next time!

This week I’ve been very busy meeting with international movers, and consulting with domestic movers of pianos and other goods. My coauthor will be posting again in two weeks, and I’ll be back in a month with the next installment of my Downsizing Chronicles, which I hope will be helpful and informative for other people who may be planning similar moves.

In the meantime, here’s wishing you happy spring cleaning, and happy downsizing. And remember our motto: Keep the memories, Get rid of the stuff!  (It’s not as hard to do as you think, especially if you do it in stages 🙂 )

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

We Emptied Our Storage Room!

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My grandparents’ commode

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My grandparents’ pitcher and wash basin

We bid a fond farewell to the old bagel factory that sheltered our family treasures (and our junk)—without judgment—for, well, for more years than I care to count.

As I wrote in a previous post, the reason we have a storage room is common one: We needed space to put things after we emptied my father-in-law’s apartment and yet again after we emptied my childhood home. We added to it by moving in things that we didn’t need at the time but weren’t sure what to do with. An old story, but a familiar one.

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One of my father-in-law’s paintings

The results of our purge.

We donated and donated and donated. Clothes and toys and cartons and cartons of books went to charity. We sold a few things. We gave away as many items as we could. Some of the china went to my daughter’s apartment. We still have some work to do: finding a photography student who could use my husband’s equipment and looking for a museum that might be interested in the antique pitcher and basin.

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My daughter’s toy truck

Lessons learned.

Out of sight, out of mind. We found many things that we didn’t remember putting into storage. An inventory would have helped.

Keep the memories, toss the stuff. Our mantra is so true. I don’t need my father’s books, voracious reader that he was, to help me think of him, or my father-in-law’s paintings, a prolific artist, to remind me of him.

There will always be regrets. A minor one so far: We sold the toy truck for much less than it was worth.

We stored items for too long. We kept things we didn’t really need or want. Why did we keep the room for so long? Perhaps procrastination played a part. And perhaps we found it difficult to deal with the hold that memories have on us.

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A wonderful sight–the empty room

The takeaway.

The big lesson, always, is that people are more important than things. As we say in our book, people who successfully downsize, declutter, or empty a house (or a storage room) come to the realization that the most valuable thing in the house is the life that has been lived there. Everything else is just 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

My Brother, a Keeper

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In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about how, when it comes to downsizing, the world seems to be divided, more or less, into two main categories of people—Keepers and Throwers.

My brother, who died two months ago, was emphatically a Keeper.

Was he a hoarder? Certainly he exhibited some of the traits connected with hoarding, and certainly he kept a great many things that it made no sense to keep. I know this because after his death I spent considerable time helping my sister and brother-in-law empty out the very large storage locker into which he had loaded many of his possessions several years ago, when his illness (cancer) forced him to move out of his apartment and into assisted living.

There was a lot of junk in there, things that just simply needed to be thrown away or recycled, and never should have been kept in the first place.  Through the years of his slow demise, my sister tried—gently—to help him see this, and offered to help him do it, but he was intransigent on the subject. She—bless her heart—did not push him beyond the point of his tolerance. She could see that he had too many problems, and didn’t need one more.

That meant that the task would be left to us. She knew that, and she accepted the burden. I live far away and wasn’t able to help with the bulk of it. But I went there after he died to help as much as I could, for as long as I could. Though my sister is more of a Thrower than I am, we worked well together, and the process of cleaning out that storage unit was strangely therapeutic, I think for both of us, in a way that is hard to explain. Certainly we both felt close to my brother and to each other while we were doing it. I know I felt that we were helping him in a way that he needed help, and that he would have appreciated.

Many people feel resentful of the Keepers in their lives, especially when the Keepers leave behind storage lockers (and houses) full of stuff for their survivors to go through. I do understand their resentment, and I suppose it is pretty well justified. But, though it was a tedious, dreadful, and very sad task going through all the things my brother had left behind, I have to say I didn’t feel an ounce of resentment.

For one thing, though not as far along on the continuum as my brother was, I am a Keeper too. (So were my mother, and to a lesser degree my father, and many other members of my family. It runs in the family.) So I’m not inclined to cast stones in that direction.

For another thing,  I came to understand even better than I already had, as I read through some of the notebooks my brother had left behind, that people who can’t get rid of things really can’t do it, for some reason, or more precisely, reasons—psychological, emotional, maybe even physiological/biochemical. Not without just the right kind of help, anyway, and sometimes not at all. The process is so incredibly difficult and confusing for them that it may as well be impossible. It is also so deeply upsetting that they would rather bear the scorn of others and risk all kinds of social, emotional, and sometimes even legal consequences, than do what everyone knows needs to be done. People who are challenged in this way need understanding, help, and compassion–not criticism or ridicule.

So, yes, there was a lot of junk in that storage unit. But there was also a lot of material there that was definitely not junk—never-worn clothing, for example, and boxes and boxes and boxes of books. There were even a few (I think) valuable antique items—board games my father grew up with, for example, still in pristine condition. Also the first tricycle for both me and my brother. Wooden rocking horses made by my grandfather (now delivered to a cousin who has young grandchildren who are enjoying them). And hundreds? Yes, perhaps hundreds, of the die-cast model cars he adored.

Each of these categories of things represents a different reason for why some people have difficulty in getting rid of things. Compulsive shopping habits. Deep emotional attachment to the memories that objects evoke. The knowledge that “someone could use this.” The fantasy of  “someday” (“Someday I will have a house where I can keep all these things I love. Someday I will be able to read these books. Someday I will not have cancer anymore.”)

Then there was the note I found somewhere in all the confusion, a note he had written to Santa Claus when he was a little boy:

Dear Santa, I thought you might be hungry, so I left a snack. Would you hide my present in the liveing room. Would you sign your name here             . Your friend, John Hulstrand  P.S. The snack is on the bar, and in the wholes [sic] of the carton Christmas tree.

In the blank space he had drawn a rectangle, in which Santa had signed his name in handwriting that was uncannily very much like my mother’s.

This was one of many small gifts we discovered in the process of going through the things he left behind, my sister and I, in the weeks before Christmas last December.

We had to get rid of most of his personal papers. I gave some of the letters back to the people who had written them. Sometimes I felt a pang of regret or doubt as I placed things in the recycling bag, most of the time I did not. But I kept the letter to Santa.

I brought it home and put it in the book in which I am storing our family’s Christmas memories, and put it in the section for this year. This is the year we lost my brother at Christmas-time: this is the year we found his letter to Santa.

Does that one precious note to Santa justify the whole huge storage unit full of deferred decisions that my brother left behind? Does it make the fact that he also kept years’ worth of old bills and receipts that we had to plow through make more sense, somehow?

No, it doesn’t.

Could we have lived happily for the rest of our lives without having discovered that letter? Yes, we could have.

Did it provide some special insight into my brother’s life that nothing else could have? I can’t honestly say it did.

All the same, I’m glad that first my mother, and then he, kept it all those years. And I’m glad I was able to find it, and put it, once again, in a safe place.

me and my brother

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

One Life, Four Papers

We often talk about the need to declutter our lives, especially the vast amount of paper that seems to multiply right in front of us.

But there are some papers that should be kept – and kept in a safe place.

The four important papers are:

A will

Everyone should have a will, even if it’s a simple statement leaving everything to your spouse. And anything more complicated than that definitely needs to be spelled out in a last will and testament. If you don’t have a will, do yourself and your heirs a favor and get started on it today.

A power of attorney

A durable power of attorney is a written authorization you give to someone to act on your behalf in financial affairs, business matters, or other legal interests in case you are incapacitated. A power of attorney applies while you are alive; a will covers your intents after you are deceased.

A health care proxy

A health care proxy is a document that allows you to appoint someone, often a spouse or adult child, to make health care decisions for you in the event that you are incapable of making such decisions. Take a copy of your health care proxy with you when you go into the hospital for any reason, no matter how minor.

A living will

A living will is a legal document that allows you to make known your wishes concerning a variety of life-prolonging medical treatments.

Fill out the forms for each of these documents – they are all available online, sign them and have them witnessed. Keep the originals in a safe but convenient place and make copies to use and, more importantly, to give to your family members.

Organize your life now and decisions later on will be easier for you and for 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.

To Store or Not to Store

George Carlin once said, “That’s what life is: finding a place to keep your stuff.”

Well, too many of us use storage, in the basement or the attic or in a storage facility, to hold the things we can’t find a place for.

In 2007, The New York Times reported that rentals of self-storage units had increased by 90 percent since 1995, and more than 11 million American households rented outside storage space.

Derek Naylor, president of Storage Marketing Solutions, a consulting group, says, “Human laziness has always been a big friend of self-storage operators.” That’s because once their stuff is in storage, most people leave it there forever.

Are you thinking about storing some of your stuff?

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you move something to storage (even if it’s a move to the attic or basement):

– Do you love the item? (If so, then why not use it?)

– Is it a duplicate of what you already have? (If it is, then why do you need another one?)

– Does it need repair or is it broken beyond redemption? (Give it away or throw it out.)

– Do you feel obligated to keep it? (Why? Whose decision was that?)

– What would be the cost to replace it? (Can you buy another one if you discover later that you need it?)

As we said in our book (Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home): be honest. Are you storing items simply because you cannot make a decision about them? If so, how will putting them in storage help you?

George Carlin was right: We do need to find a place to keep our stuff. But that place doesn’t necessarily have to be in our home. We can find other homes for our stuff by giving it to friends, donating it to charity, or reusing it creatively.

We would love to hear your stories about storage: good ones, not-so-good ones, and even disheartening ones!

LH