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Downsizing 101: But it belonged to _____

While I was in Atlanta this past weekend for my cousin's daughter's wedding (more on that in another post a bit later this evening), I got to talking with my Aunt Betty (whom some of you may remember from this post about AT THE BOARDWALK, who has begun the downsizing process herself. And one of the questions she had is how to decide what to do with stuff that has sentimental value.

Especially stuff that belonged to ______. (Fill in that blank with the appropriate name(s).)

This is a comment that I've seen come up in discussions on my downsizing posts time and again. For Aunt Betty, it's possessions she has that were gifts from or used to belong to/were inherited from parents and in-laws, as well as some other relatives. For my cousin Stewart, it's stuff that belonged (quite literally) to generations of relatives on her father's side, with a healthy side-helping of stuff from her mom's side. She has, I am certain, furniture, housewares, linens, and more.

Anyhow, we all have this sort of stuff. I know I do. I have side tables, a bedroom set and some other furniture, as well as various small housewares, that belonged to my parents, and that came my way when they moved to Arizona more than a decade ago. (They're now in South Carolina, but they still don't want their stuff back.) I have mirrors, a painting, some wineglasses, some lamps, and a corner cupboard from my grandmother Ramsdell. I have a dining room table and chairs plus a variety of housewares from my other grandmother. I even have some furniture that belonged to my ex-husband's family - a piece from his grandmother, a few from his aunt and uncle - that nobody else in the family wanted and that stayed here when he moved out. You get the picture.

Here are a few tips that I've been thinking up that you might find helpful in dealing with these sorts of (family-) history-laden objects:

1. Remember that people aren't their things. Or, conversely, that the things with which you are struggling are not the people who gave them to you. Maybe, as is the case with my grandmother's and my ex's grandmother, those people are no longer walking the earth. Their stuff may still be here, but it doesn't contain the person they came from (with a notable exception for crematory urns). They, and hopefully their spirit, have moved on. The objects are just objects.

2. Object retention is something separate and apart from keeping the memories associated with them. Just as keeping objects that used to be somebody else's doesn't amount to keeping the person they came from with you, passing along what used to be their stuff (but is now YOUR stuff - an important thing to remember) doesn't get rid of them or their memories or any of the myriad of things that may be of value to you from that relationship.

As an example, if you have a complete service for 12 of china that came from someone important, and you really have great memories of using that china with that important someone over a lot of years, then maybe you keep 2 place settings or a particularly favorite service piece and pass along of the rest. Or take photos of it, and liberate the whole set. Even if the whole set is gone, it doesn't negate all the years you spent eating off those plates with your important loved one - you get to keep those memories. You just don't have to keep the dishes for those memories to remain.

And hey - once it's yours, it's yours, unless it's the subject of a special codicil in a will or something, where you get it for life and then it goes to the Louvre. Or your niece. Whichever. In that case, you can always send it on its way a bit earlier without a problem and feel you've done a good deed. Point being, if you think of it as your stuff instead of thinking of it as belonging to whomever it came from/through, then it's a bit easier to wrap your head around the fact that you can do what you'd like with it. Savvy?

I don't know about you, but if you're anything like me, the thought of disposing of "other people's things" is a daunting one. Because you start to second-guess how they'd feel about what you're doing, etc.. But the thing is, those items don't belong to those other people anymore. They belong to me (or, in your case, you). It's not your grandmother's tablecloth, it's your tablecloth. It's not your grandfather's desk, it's yours. Sure, that teacup and saucer used to belong to my great-great-grandmother, and were given to me by my beloved grandmother, but they are now MINE. (They are also a terrible example here, since they are in the non-negotiable "not getting rid of" pile, but still - it's what my eyes fell on. So there's that. Still, the point is that they belong to me, and I get to say whether they stay or go, not my grandmother or her mother or her mother's mother.)

Ooh - better example: my grandmother's silver gravy boat, which I totally love, by the way, but never use, is being sent off to one of my cousins. An antique card-table set (tablecloth and napkins), which was given to me as a shower gift by my grandmother when she was still alive, is going to a different cousin. Because I don't need those items to remember my grandmother, and they are mine to pass along.

3. Think about why you have the stuff in the first place. Presumably, the sort of inherited or hand-me-down "stuff" we're now talking about, which can range (as seen above) from furniture to housewares to artwork to linens and more, came to you because (a) you really wanted it and called "dibs" or (b) the person who used to own it believed it would be useful to you and make you happy. Let's talk about those categories separately.

a. Say you called "dibs" on an item, and now you find you no longer want it. You really ought to cut yourself a break. Remember that Love's Baby Soft that you really wanted in the 7th grade? You probably stopped wearing it a long time ago, right? (If not, then rock on, sister!) Or that Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper? Yeah . . . perhaps they are silly examples, but I'm guessing your catching my drift, which is that we all change over time. And our tastes change, too. Along with what we have the time and patience to deal with.

Maybe you really loved that Christmas china you put your name on once upon a time. Only for the last decade, you've taken to celebrating solstice instead. Or you've decided that it's best to take trips in late December, so you're never home for the holidays. Or the entire set requires extreme care and handling - I'm talking wrapping each piece individually in bubble wrap after hand-washing sort of stuff - and it just doesn't fit your current lifestyle, or serve your current needs.

Or maybe you really dug that nine-foot chaise longue that belonged to Aunt Whosit when you were 22, and imagined yourself sprawled on it (glamorously, of course!) while your cabana boy brought you a cold beverage. Only cabana boys are scarce, and the thing strikes adult you as hideous and oversized and out-dated, and you'd give anything to have some space to put a nice cozy reading chair with a side table and a light (or a sewing table, or craft area, or piano . . . you get the idea).

Or maybe you called dibs because, like me, there were a few items that nobody seemed to want (my grandmother Ramsdell's lamps and corner cupboard), and you thought they shouldn't leave the family. Look, if it weren't for me, those items would have left the family YEARS ago, so obviously nobody else in a cast of dozens saw a problem with passing them along. The only person between me and them leaving is ME. (Remember - they are now my items, and I get to say what happens with them. The corner cupboard I've offered to the Ramsdell cousins, and if nobody wants it, well . . . it should go, but for now, it's going into storage just in case one of the girls wants it when she sets up house after college. Because that seems practical, and there are several other "just in case" items being saved for the girls. And then, if it's not wanted, it will go. And I love the lamps. I'm probably the only one in the whole wide world who does. So I'm keeping them for me. I can almost hear the eye-rolling from anyone else who's ever seen them, but as I noted earlier - they're mine, and I get to pick.)

The point is, however, that you shouldn't be wedded to these items you requested just because once upon a time they really appealed to you. You didn't keep your mullet or your acid-washed jeans, did you? (If you did, then please know that I mean no disrespect - I was trying to find things that were once crazes that have mostly passed.)

And most likely, nobody is keeping score if you decide to divest yourself of them. (I realize that there are some cases where there is somebody who'd be keeping score, and would be really pissed to learn that you got rid of Uncle Whatsit's nutcracker collection. If that is going to be the case, you probably know who the score-keeper is. May I suggest offering the item(s) to them before making any other move? If they want them, the objects leave your house for a home where someone really wants them, which is a win-win. Yes, even if you were/are rivals. And even if they are still pissed that you had whatever-it-is for all those years and they didn't. Good karma, my friends, is good karma - let it go to the person who wants it, even if their motivation isn't the same as yours.)

b. It was given or left to you because the donor thought it would be useful and/or make you happy. This is one that actually makes things easy, if you simply ask yourself these two questions:

(1) Is this item useful to me? In short, what you are asking is does it fit my lifestyle and personality? Do I use it? There's a second way of approaching this, which comes from the reverse side, more or less. It goes like this: "Even if this item is actually useful, at least in theory, do I want it, and/or does it actually work for me?"

For example, let's say it's a mixing bowl. A BIG one. I mean, mixing bowls are always useful, right? Except that this one is a color that you find revolting. Or has some sort of artwork on it that turns you off. Or it's SO big that it's not something you can actually use, because you only cook for two people, and it's not like you can scramble eggs in the bottom of this thing before adding them to the pan. In this case, the bowl is not actually useful to you, either because it fills you with negative emotion or it simply isn't something you can utilize in your everyday life. If this is the case, then pass it along. Remember that the giver was trying to be helpful, not tie you down or saddle you with something that doesn't work for you.

Same goes if you've inherited clothing, shoes, or hats. Do they fit you? If not, they aren't useful. And that's before we get into the "do you like it" questions, below. No reason to keep these items if you don't like them. And if they are truly vintage and there's a collection of them, you can either sell them to a vintage dealer, or donate them to a museum that keeps those sorts of items, if you'd rather not just send them to whatever charity you usually use.

(2) Does this item make you happy? In other words, do you like it? Like, actually like it, not just put up with it? Or, conversely, ask yourself "Is it something I hide because I don't like it or can't stand looking at it?" Or, put otherwise, "am I annoyed or embarrassed by this item?"

True story: I once gave a friend penis-shaped salt and pepper shakers from Delft, Holland. They were funny, and the sort of thing that would make her and her husband laugh. They accomplished their purpose. And really, they are useful items - salt and pepper shakers - but does she really want them on the table? Probably not, although who am I to judge? The point is, if she finds them embarrassing or annoying at this point, I hope to heck that she has divested herself of them. Because they were intended to make her laugh, but once they did, they really weren't serving much else of a purpose, functionality aside.

Or let's put it another way. Say you have your grandmother's china (I do not - I was supposed to get it, but I had some china of my own already, so I demurred and it went to another cousin, who I believe still uses it in good health and humor, which is as it should be). Take a look at that china. (And if you really have to go searching to dig it out, or if it's already packed away somewhere in boxes, then you probably already have your answer to the next questions, but here goes.) Do you like it? Do you like how it looks? Do you like how it feels in your hands? If you have other china, do you like your grandmother's stuff better than the stuff you picked for yourself? (The same questions apply for jewelry, really.) Because if the answers to these questions are all "no," then it sounds like this isn't exactly useful or something you actually like, and you should probably pass it along.

If the answer is, however, "yes, I like it, but . . . " then I would suggest that it's probably also in the "pass it along" category. With a caveat that you can always photograph it, and/or keep a couple place settings or a favorite serving piece if that makes you feel better. But I also suggest that you pack the whole set up nicely in boxes, and store them someplace out of the way, with a note to yourself to check on a future date to see whether you've missed it or regretted the boxing. If you haven't regretted it, you should probably pass it along.

4. Remember that you're deciding whether to keep your own stuff or pass it along. And I've been using the term "pass it along" on purpose throughout this post. Not "dispose of" or "get rid of", because those have a somewhat negative tone to them. No. You, my friend, are passing these items - furniture, art, housewares, linens, possibly shoes & clothes & accessories and more - on to other owners out there in the wide world who are going to select these items from all the rest because they actually like them and will use them. Which is what the person who gave them to you wanted. Isn't that something?

"Passing it along" can involve all of the following:

a. Offering it to other family members
b. Offering it to friends whom you think might want whatever it is
c. Selling it (which will be the topic of another post, but can include auction, private sales via Craig's List or eBay or otherwise, consignment shops, or yard/garage sales).
d. Giving it to charity (which I have posted about before).

Man - this turned out to be a Much Longer Post than I'd anticipated. Hopefully, it was helpful to you. I know it helped me to work some things out!

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( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Tricia Stohr-Hunt
Jul. 31st, 2013 10:36 am (UTC)
Thank you for this. As we work frantically to get my mother in a nursing home by summer's end, we are faced with the task of emptying and selling the house quickly. It's absolutely overwhelming. I'm going to share this with my sister and try not to feel guilty about the fact that we don't want all the stuff that's been collected over the last 84 years.
Jul. 31st, 2013 02:56 pm (UTC)
Oh, Tricia - your job is a hard one. First, you have not a lot of time. And second, the stuff really is still not "yours". I hope it helps you to know that you are definitely not alone. And I don't know if you've seen prior posts, so here is a link to Being Organized, the website of a professional organizer/downsizer in Canada named Lisa Patriquin. On the right-hand sidebar of her site, you can enter your name and email address and get a free copy of her excellent self-published how-to manual for downsizing.

Also, in the spirit of letting you know you're not alone, I thought I'd share with you the comments I got to my last downsizing post from my cousin Stewart, who is and/or will be the recipient of hundreds of years of accumulated stuff from her parents:

A good topic for the last few years of my life, and the last few days specifically.
Just yesterday in fact, I brought a van load of "stuff" down from mom& dad's storage locker - this stuff isn't even everything and yet it is apparently boiled down as far as my dad thinks it can go.

it is daunting - perceived value, importance, preciousness, memory, possession, and just hanging on to things - some of which are now almost 200 years old and from our family makes me the bad guy, or the guy who is going to burden my son? either way, the outcome ain't pretty.
Jul. 31st, 2013 02:31 pm (UTC)
Yup. I have soooo many things which fall into this category. Our solution has been that the kids and the critters break them. Easy fix. *sigh*
Still rockin the Love's Baby Soft, over here.(as is my daughter)
Jul. 31st, 2013 02:57 pm (UTC)
Rock on with your bad self! And yeah, breaking things does make some of the decisions easier, even if it's not an ideal way to make a decision!
Joyce Moyer Hostetter
Jul. 31st, 2013 03:15 pm (UTC)
"They, and hopefully their spirit, have moved on." ; )

This is helpful as I declutter and also make decisions about my Mom's things. Just a few moments ago, I was wondering what to do with her glasses case.
Jul. 31st, 2013 06:17 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad this is useful, Joyce. I really hoped it would be!
Jul. 31st, 2013 03:27 pm (UTC)
I keep small momentos, like my grandmother's tea strainer, or the bow from a special gift, even though that gift is long gone. Seeing that item brings a memory that makes me happy.

A very dear friend gave my daughter her beautiful wedding china. Very expensive. Very old. Very dear. She is going to sell it, eventually, because much as she loves it and dear as this woman was to her as well, what is she going to do with very expensive, very old, very dear china when it can help put a downpayment on a house?

I kept a teacup and a saucer--there were extra in the set--and the rest I can let go with a clear heart. Whenever I drink tea out of that cup, I remember my friend, and I feel that little connection with her.
Jul. 31st, 2013 06:32 pm (UTC)
See? That teacup and saucer is all you really need to remember (a) the dishes and (b) your friend. Not that you were ever going to forget.
Jul. 31st, 2013 03:32 pm (UTC)
The store that I mentioned in a previous post's reply where I took the good china and silver was a consignment shop. We got 60% of the selling price (which the store decided); the store got 40%.
Jul. 31st, 2013 06:33 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Barb!
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 1st, 2013 02:09 am (UTC)
Yay! Glad to be of service!
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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