Interesting Questions to Ask your Parents and Grandparents

“Uncle George went to Indiana because he was put on an orphan train,” my cousin told me in a recent phone call. Conversations with family members can lead to the most interesting stories! That’s how I learned that our great great-uncle, our great grandmother’s youngest brother, was taken on an orphan train from New York City to Terre Haute, Indiana. We had visited Uncle George and Aunt Ann in Indiana but I never knew what the circumstances were that had brought him there.

What questions didn’t we think to ask? Unfortunately, far too many.

What did we learn when we did ask questions?

I remember the questions my kids asked when they interviewed a relative for a school assignment. My younger daughter, who talked to my husband’s aunt who grew up in Eastern Europe, asked what her favorite chore was and found out she liked going to the chicken coop to gather the eggs.

My older daughter asked my father what he recalled about one of the major headlines of the day. He told her he remembered the exact spot where he was standing when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. What a way to make history real for her.

Interesting, open-ended, thought-provoking questions can spark meaningful conversations and help keep the family stories coming. Everyone has a story, and many of them turn out to be more interesting than you might think.

Lots of sites have lists of questions to ask. Here are a few that spoke to me.

From A Place for Mom’s list of questions:

Who in your life has shown you the most kindness?

What an out-of-the ordinary question and what a wonderful story it will evoke.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

Sharing recipes is such a wonderful way to keep the family history alive, and how great to share the stories that go with the foods, whether the food was a gourmet triumph or a total disaster.

From a genealogy website:

Did you and your friends have a special hangout where you liked to spend time?

So was it a friend’s backyard, or the ice rink, or the local candy store? What a wonderful question to help bring to mind stories of your parents’ youth.

What was the funniest thing you can remember that one of your children said or did?

Little kids say the darndest things and your family will love to hear those stories.

From a blog:

What was your second choice for my name?

This was always my daughter’s favorite question – she wrote an essay in school about our answer – because my husband had a way-out, hippie choice and I had a elegant, old-fashioned name in mind, and I prevailed.

What was the best trip of your life?

It could be leaving everything and heading to Alaska, or collecting seashells along the shore of an exotic island, or it could be visiting a grandparent. All good stories.

What haven’t you asked your parents? What do you still need to tell your kids?

We want to come to understand the significance of sharing our family history, of sharing our family stories. We want to realize that stories are more important than any object that was left to us, or anything we could leave to our kids. The stories are the memories that we will hold onto, the memories that will stay in our hearts for all time.

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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Poignant Personal Stories Are Motivation for Living With Less

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Touching stories, sometimes heartrending, always deeply personal, help us see our lives more clearly. These authors, all declutterers and minimalists to varying degrees, have engrossing stories that explain how they got to the realization, whether sudden or painstakingly forged over time, that less is indeed more.

Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus

Joshua Fields Millburn grew up poor and worked very hard to become a poor man’s version of a rich man. He made more than enough money to have a nice house with lots of furniture, a nice car, and more tech toys than he could possibly use.

He was not happy. The idea that he could do something more meaningful with his life nagged him. “Something I’m passionate about,” he says. “Although it’s usually codified with statements of significance—declarations of  “following one’s passion”—I simply refer to it as my life’s mission.” His mission, he decided, was to divest himself of most of the things he owned.

His epiphany: Having less makes what you have more meaningful.

He thought, “If I adjust my lifestyle to revolve around experiences instead of material possessions, then I need much less money to live a fulfilled life. As long as I earn enough money to provide my basic needs—rent, utilities, meals, insurance, savings—then I can find my happiness in other ways.”

He embraced uncertainty. “I didn’t really have a grandiose plan in which every detail was set and every contingency was outlined. And I certainly didn’t have an end goad. Instead, I knew my direction, and I knew how to start walking in that direction.”

And walking in that direction led him to write a book, a self-published book.

 

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The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under the Things You Own by Joshua Becker

Joshua Becker was spring cleaning with his wife and kids one Memorial Day weekend. He and his son started in the garage. His son worked a bit and then went into the backyard to play. As Joshua stood there watching his son, conflicted with wanting to play with him and wanting to clean out the garage, his neighbor said, “Maybe you don’t need to own all this stuff.”

His epiphany: The best things in life aren’t things.

He asked, “Am I buying too much stuff because deep down I think it will insulate me from the harms of the world?” He states that a desire for security and a craving for acceptance are two basic human objectives that “we can foolishly try to fulfill by overaccumulating.”

Early in his journey towards simplicity, he says, that one of his favorite decluttering techniques was to grab a large trash bag and to see how quickly he could fill it. Sometimes he collected trash, sometimes he gathered things that went to charity.

One revelation that spoke to me was getting rid of things, like a tennis racket, that are not who we are now. He says, “It was tough to give up my hope of being someone I am not and not likely to become.”

Don’t settle for less, says Becker, find the freedom to pursue the things that matter the most to you.

And what mattered the most to him was to write a book about his experiences.

 

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White Walls:A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between by Judy Batalion.

Judy Batalion grew up in a house filled with stuff: tuna fish cans, items of clothing still in packages, pens, papers and magazines, almost all bought as bargains by her mother who is a hoarder. She says of her mother, “She built bigger and bigger walls around her to protect herself but all she was doing was creating a smaller and smaller, deathly dangerous universe inside.”

Of her mother, she says, “I glanced at the bags under her eyes, shelves that stored sadness.” Reflecting on her dysfunctional family, Batalion discovers that her grandmother, a Polish Jewish immigrant who escaped the Holocaust, also used accumulating things as a way to heal her wounds.

When Batalion leaves her Montreal home, travels to Europe, she lives a minimalist life in an apartment with white walls, a vivid contrast to her childhood home.

Her epiphany: She was looking for a home.

“I was not my heritage of trauma and terror…I had been seeking something intangible. But Jon [her soon-to-be husband] was real. He was my home, which I now understood was not about a certain place, present or past, but between us. It was the ability to be your self around those you loved.”

And from a quest for a home that reflected who she is, Batalion wrote a book, a memoir that is poignant, funny, and warm.

We started our quest by emptying our childhood homes of decades and generations of stuff and wrote a book about it: Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family HomeIs there a story behind your quest for less? We would love to hear your story.

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

A Gift of Family History

img139. 1893-1895 Johannes Persson (1851-1933) and Johanna (1858-1950) Per Joel is boy on the right

My grandfather’s family in 1893. My grandfather is center front, my cousin’s grandfather is on the left.

 

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The first page of our family history.

When my cousin Cecilia visited from Sweden this summer, she told me that she had a family history that traces our family back to 1663. She sent it to me recently, just in time for Family History Month.

Our grandfathers were brothers and someone in her family has traced back our family, on our grandfathers’ mother’s side, to Bengt Persson, our six times great grandfather, a man who lived from 1663 to 1709.

This is amazing to me. I’m so grateful to the person who researched this and to Cecilia and her husband Lars who preserved it and scanned it for us.

The gift of the family tree sent me to my grandmother’s photo album and what fun it was to see some of the history in family photos.

 

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The family farm, called Gyllholmen, in 1930.

 

img138. with Anna Rahm Johnson 1930

My great grandparents with their 10 children, some of their spouses, and a few grandchildren.

 

For a previous post on Family History Month, I talked about school projects that got our family started on researching our history. And in another post, I listed some places that may help you get started researching your own history.

You can also get some help from the experts.

Family Tree Magazine has some suggestions for tracing your family tree.

Family Search Blog lists activities for celebrating the month.

On the Ancestry website, you can find family history events.

Here’s hoping you find a special way to celebrate and honor the story of your family.

 

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The first generation born in the U.S. on a street in Brooklyn. My mother’s family on the left, cousins on the right. My mother is the baby standing by the carriage.

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

What You Leave Behind

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What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone but what is woven into the lives of others. – Pericles

And what you leave behind is not what you keep in storage. Wonderful memories are woven into the fabric of my life without any need to keep my mother’s teapot, my father’s books, my mother-in-law’s shell collection, or my father-in-law’s paintings.

After writing about downsizing for more than a decade, from co-writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and this blog to giving talks about how to live with less to helping people “Keep the memories, toss the stuff,” I have a confession to make. You guessed it. I have a storage room.

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. Sound familiar?

My husband and I decided that it’s now time to get rid of the storage room so we have been going through its contents. Here’s some of what we found there and how we dealt with it—and are continuing to deal with it.

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Toys

Too many of my kids’ toys were put in storage. A dump truck, a talking Alf doll, stuffed toys, Raggedy Ann, a child’s rocking chair.

The truck is on e-Bay. The stuffed toys were donated to charity. We’re still deciding about the rest.

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China

We stored various pieces of china, some of them handed down in my family for several generations.

My mother’s lusterware teapot is on eBay. I haven’t decided yet what to do with my grandmother’s pitcher and basin and other pieces of a boudoir set. I am giving a set of my mother’s dinnerware to my daughter.

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Clothing

For some reason, I kept some not very interesting or particularly good clothing that belonged to my mother, as well as several bridesmaid dresses from my wedding and my sisters’ weddings. I also had some old baby clothes. One piece has a German label in it, which means it probably belonged to my father, so it would be more than 95 years old.

I may look for a collector for the baby clothes. All the other clothing went to charity.

Camera equipment

My husband stored all his darkroom equipment (he hasn’t had his own darkroom in years) as well as a strobe meter and some other photography apparatus.

He is looking for a student who shoots film, not digital, who might want the equipment.

Old suitcases

We had large suitcases from the years when we traveled for several weeks at a time. We donated all of them to charity.

Books

I have a couple of degrees in English. We stored cartons and cartons of books, from a combined six years of college and graduate school, as well as some books from my parents. (I’m not sure how we managed to bring so many heavy boxes to the storage facility.)

And—ta da—I found my high school yearbook! A little late for the reunion but I can now look up classmates I have recently become reacquainted with.

All the books—except my yearbooks and diplomas—went to charity. Once I made that decision, in the storage room, we put the books in the car and drove directly to the thrift store, no stopping at home to second-guess myself. I’m very proud of that but, of course, this was an easier decision than most because the books are replaceable; I can always buy another copy of a book or get it from the library.

So, the purging continues. I will keep you posted about my progress.

As we celebrate Grandparents Day tomorrow, may we honor our grandparents by the values they lived rather than by the stuff they left behind.

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

Is an Appraisal the Way to Go?

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My parents’ Herter Brothers furniture.  We researched it online, in books, and in museums, and then had it appraised on “Antiques Roadshow” before we sold it to a dealer.

As we approach the holidays and anticipate spending time with our families, some of us may be traveling to houses that are full of stuff and some inevitable questions are sure to arise. A discussion of “What will we do with all this stuff?” may lead to “Who will get what?” which may lead to “How much is this worth?”

Is an appraisal right for you? An appraiser can give you the value of a single piece, or can go through the entire house, in what is called a “look-see,” to tell you which pieces may be valuable. The value of an item is determined by its condition, its rarity, and its provenance or history. The stories passed down in the family about the original source of items, however, are not always accurate, says Helaine Fendleman, coauthor of Price It Yourself! and past president of the Appraisers Association of America. So you will need more than family lore to establish provenance.

A good appraiser, according to Fendleman, is someone who is sensitive and caring and who understands the financial responsibility of giving an accurate appraisal. Appraisers will charge a flat fee or by the hour. (It is illegal to charge a percentage of the item being evaluated, since this would lead to artificially increasing its value.) It’s important to hire someone you feel comfortable with and someone you feel is honest.

Some appraisers may simply assign a dollar value for the objects, but most will also shepherd you through the process of selling them, by suggesting the best place to sell it—to an antiques store, dealer, or consignment shop—and then will help you work with the store or dealer, if that is what you want.

Sometimes an appraiser will suggest that the item has little or no monetary value and that it would be more appropriate to donate it to charity than to try to sell it. Don’t be discouraged. As Fendleman says, “Every object in the world has a value; you just may not like the value it has.” And of course, the process of appraising has nothing to do with emotional or sentimental value. In some cases, finding out that a particular item has no financial worth may be a relief.

To find a professional appraiser, ask your lawyer, banker, real estate agent, or friends for a referral. The appraiser should ask probing questions in the initial interview, and you should, too. Ask what qualifies him or her to appraise your items, what their area of expertise is, and what professional organizations they belong to.

Can you estimate what something is worth without a professional appraiser? Certainly you can do your own research in the library, on the Internet, or in museums, and browse through antique shops and attend auctions to get an idea of what your special items are worth. If you have the time, researching the history and value of a favorite family item can be fun.

Online appraisals are another option, but they are only as good as the photographs you send in, and the expertise of the appraiser. If you plan to sell the item, you may want to then hire an appraiser who can see the object in person.

You can check out these professional appraisal organizations for more help.

The Appraisal Foundation is the organization that has issued the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP).

Appraisers Association of America, Inc. (AAA) is the oldest professional association of appraisers and is the recognized authority for standards, legal issues, and regulations. It provides a database of members that can be searched by location and by specialty.

International Society of Appraisers (ISA) has a library of over 50 webinars, some of which are free.

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

What Lessons Have We Learned?

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Having emptied our own family homes of decades’ worth of accumulated stuff, we are well aware of how much work it entails and what an emotional roller coaster it can be.

After having had a chance to sit back and ponder the experience, we are very glad our parents saved all the family stuff they did, but we also know in our hearts that the most valuable thing in the house was the lives that have been lived there.

Working with multiple generations to empty a much-loved home does present issues, however. How one deals with those issues differs with each family and with each family member.

How do we assess the process? Was it a job well done? Were there issues that were resolved? Or was the process fraught with problems? What did we learn from downsizing?

Here’s a checklist of questions to ask ourselves.

  • Are our parents content with their new living arrangements? Do they feel surrounded by a few favorite things? Were they happy, or at least able to come to terms with, what they let go of?
  • Are we still on speaking terms with all of our siblings? If we are, then we can feel, rightly, that it was a job well done. If not, what can we do to mend fences?
  • What have we taught our children as we worked through the process of emptying our parents’ home? About the process of downsizing? About working with others? About the importance of possessions? And about the importance of family?
  • What are we doing about our own accumulated stuff to make things easier for our children when we are no longer around to help them?
  • What have we learned about the value of stuff? Has it made us grateful for what we have and, more importantly, for our families?

Things to ponder. What would you add to the list?

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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