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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‘Tis the Season to Give…with Gifts That Make a Difference

You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.  ~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

In this season of giving, there’s no better gift than giving back. Keeping in mind that most of us have too much stuff, really, way too many material things, we relish the idea of giving gifts that can be consumed, or used up, or ones that will help others.

Here’s our guide to what we call alternative, maybe subversive gift giving – subversive in that they don’t accumulate in your house later.

Family items

One of the people we interviewed for our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, told us how her mother gave family items, family heirlooms, as gifts for birthdays and anniversaries. She said she didn’t want her family members to wait to inherit them from her and preferred that they enjoy the items now. We agree, and think it’s an idea worth considering for the holidays. And don’t forget to share the stories behind the objects.

Food and drink

We love to receive gifts of homemade food or something we wouldn’t necessarily buy for ourselves. Things like good chocolate, wine, home-baked banana bread, homemade pickles, a jar filled with dry ingredients and a favorite soup recipe, a make-your-own spice mix, an assortment of tea or coffee, a hot chocolate kit. Who doesn’t love food made with love.

And you could make a recipe book, a compilation of family recipes handed down over the years, for each member of your family.

Experiences

Giving a gift of an experience lasts far longer than a new scarf or gloves. Gifts of outings such as a camping trip or dinner at a lovely restaurant, a horseback ride, a massage, a museum membership, a bike rental, a yoga class, music lessons, or a workshop in their field of interest.

Sharing your talents

Use your skills like knitting, crochet, and woodworking, to create one-of-kind gifts. Or, your skills are more modest, you could frame a loved one’s wedding announcement or diploma, get seeds or bulbs for an avid gardener, or create a photo album commemorating a family event this past year.

A gift of time

Homemade gift certificates allow you to offer to help others in a festive way – and you get to spend time with friends and family while getting some chores done. You could offer to help with yard work or planting, make a dinner, bake a cake for a special occasion, offer babysitting to new parents, or take your grandkids out for ice cream, or help someone sort through their clothes or books.

Adopt a family

You can help those less fortunate by purchasing gifts of clothes and food for those in need, or adopt a soldier who is serving overseas and send notes and gifts.

Make a donation

Donating to a worthy cause is a gift that gives back. There are so many places to give but here’s a list of a few to consider.

A good place to look for creative programs is New York Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof’s annual gift guide. Here’s this year’s list.

Reach Out and Read is a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage parents to read to their children. During checkups, doctors hand out free books and “prescribe” reading to the child.

The Environmental Defense Fund helps to find climate solutions. They “create solutions that let nature and people prosper.” Their $1-for-$1 gift match offer, in effect until the end of December, doubles the impact of your gift.

The National Audubon Society’s Adopt a Bird program will send a plush toy bird as a gift for adopting a bird.

Heifer International helps make an impact on world hunger and poverty by finding sustainable solutions. You can donate an animal, help promote women’s empowerment, provide basic needs, or fund a project.

Help domestic animals by giving to the ASPCA.

It’s difficult to feel festive when you’re hungry. Feeding America supports a nationwide network of Food Banks and is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity. For every dollar donated, the Food Banks help provide 11 meals to people in need.

The best way to celebrate the season is to practice gratitude. Be happy and thankful for what you have. Recently spotted on a T-shirt: “Happiness is homemade” and I think that’s a great attitude for the holidays. Someone will always have more than you do. You could always have more than you do. But studies have shown that being thankful for the things you have, for friends and family, is mentally freeing, makes you calmer and more loving, and leads to a more peaceful life.

Wishing you and your family a peaceful holiday season.

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

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

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

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

All That Stuff

All that stuff

“Who doesn’t have a basement, attic, closet, or storage unit filled with stuff too good to throw away? Or, more accurately, stuff you think is too good to throw away,” says Alison Stewart in Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff, the culmination of her three-year investigation into our society’s obsession with stuff.

Stewart journeys through basements, attics, closets, and garages in an attempt to understand why otherwise intelligent people hang on to seemingly worthless things like old Christmas bows and chipped knick-knacks and clothes they will never wear. You may have mementoes and family heirlooms but stashed away with all those items is also a lot of junk. She came to understand that “the key element of true junk is worthlessness.”

Traveling the country as she interviews an interesting variety of people involved in every aspect of junk, she begins her book with a drive through a 250-mile-long series of yard sales along a stretch of US Route 4ll that meanders from Alabama to Georgia to Tennessee. The description of tables of people’s junk for sale was so discouraging I would have stopped the research here. But Stewart always shows respect for the people and their junk, no matter how worthless or sad.

Steward investigates the many businesses that have sprung up as a result of our need for junk. She rides along with junk removal teams such as Junk Busters USA, Trash Daddy, Annie Haul, and Junk Vets, all local companies that work much like the more well-known 1-800-Got Junk. And she describes the founding of The Container Store, a business that came into being to supply us with storage containers for our stuff, and of NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers, a career that came about to help us deal with our stuff.

Stuff has become entertainment, too. Stewart goes backstage to a taping of Antiques Roadshow, a show that “explores the relationship between an individual, an object and value,” and she talks about the more compelling junk-based television shows like Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and the somewhat exploitative Hoarders.

There is hope.

Stewart also shows how inventive people have been in reversing the trend of having too much stuff. She interviews the founder of FreeCycle, an online community of people who would rather give away than throw away their no-longer-needed possessions. She spends time at a Repair Café, where volunteers with fix-it skills restore broken appliances, toys, clothing, and other items. She visits junk recyclers, one of which has started a retail operation called Regeneration Station.

She talks a little about upcycling, the concept of taking a used item and creating a new use for it, like refinishing old shutters and making them into a bed headboard. And she mentions the tiny house movement, a community of people who choose to live in homes that are very small as a way to lower their personal consumption and preserve national resources.

And, at the end of this enlightening book, quotes from some enlightened people.

Adrienne Glasser, a therapist, recommends mindfulness. “The definition of mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment. This process is very helpful to increase awareness of habitual patterns because we begin to see how we get stuck.”

Dr. David Tolin, a professor of psychology at Yale University School of Medicine and author of books and articles about disorganization, talks about being mindful as you make a decision. “We sometimes refer to it as ‘being your own boss.’ You know, can I be my own boss rather than letting my thoughts and feelings be the boss here.”

And my personal favorite, from one of the crew members of Junk Vets, after cleaning out a house, “Once you turn fifty you should just have to start giving away things.”

My main takeaway from this book is to start giving stuff away.

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 Importance of a Family Photo Album

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My grandmother’s photo albums

A recent question in The Ethicist column in the New York Times asked if there was an ethical obligation for siblings to share the family photo album after the death of a parent. A brother took them with an agreement to duplicate them for the other two siblings. The letter-writer offered to pay the expenses involved. Kwame Anthony Appiah had a complex answer that basically said the one who took the albums should fulfill his promise or give them to the sibling who treasures them more.

The meaning of photo albums is a varied and convoluted as the families who own them. And the importance of the albums remains, long after the family members are no longer with us.

A compelling prescriptive is to use the albums now, to share them with family members. According to an article in Psychology Today (in the context of therapy, but relevant here), a different side of a person comes out when sharing family photos. Remembering visually is different than remembering with words.

In a scholarly article in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, one professor says, “Family photography has most often been regarded as a ritualized and deeply ideological bourgeois self-representation.” Ouch! (Perhaps that could be said more accurately of Facebook postings.) Other professors enumerate the positive aspects: One says that photo albums “identify the deeply personal affection” of family members. These albums are “about social and emotional communication,” says another. We like the “idea of the album as a place to symbolically define and order the world.” Most importantly, perhaps, “family photographs link people to people, and people to objects or things in their lives.” They strongly relate to memory and nostalgia.

Marie Kondo, in her Spark Joy: an illustrated master class on the art of organizing and tidying up (a good book; more about it in a future post), describes making a photo album for her parents as part of her research on tidying. “Although my parents had taken their share of photos of important family events…I couldn’t recall them ever stopping to look at these photos with us and reminiscing about the past…” She found that sorting through photos as a family led to a lot of laughter and talk about memories. Maybe that’s more the point of a photo album, more so than finding out whether making an album has an impact on how people tidy up.

With the darker days of winter still with us, now could be a good time to work on your photo albums. Share the photos, reminisce, laugh together. Create memory books for a family event or an album for one family member. Make a photo collage (as suggested in a previous post on photographs). All are budget-conscious activities that are rich in memories.

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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