Over the last few posts I’ve been writing about the experience of change that my Mom has been going through. As I mentioned in my last post, she caught me writing about her and suggested a couple of topics that would fit in with the theme.
Bigger Is Not Better
The first topic is the challenge of leaving your dream home to downsize. I feel like this is an underappreciated topic, rarely seen in, for example, Hollywood movies, where the mother of adult children retains the house – with the whole clan descending chaotically with much hilarity at every holiday – until her eventual death at home and in bed. Hmmm… Fried Green Tomatoes? Road to Bountiful? That gem of a Canadian movie about the old ladies on the bus that breaks down that I love but can never remember the name of? (Google it – which I couldn’t do when I was writing this because Mom’s internet had gone down…again – when you do, it comes up almost right away, and it truly is a beautiful movie.)
None of these capture the challenges my Mom mentioned: the logistics of figuring out how to get rid of the stuff that you don’t want any more; the physical challenges of getting it all packed up and moved; and the emotional challenge of letting go.
Just look around you. Look at your stuff. Sure, some of it you could get rid of easily (you could; I live with a sentimental man who doesn’t like letting go of things, so that would be my fourth challenge): the old magazines; the chipped plates; the (ahem) airline flatware from earlier days when even in coach you had flatware as opposed to plasticware; your collection of plastic Chinese food containers.
Some is harder: the gifts you received from people long out of your life but that you retain in remembrance of them; the aspirational selections you made in wedding registry; the tools and equipment that reflect who you once were but are no longer (sports equipment you no longer use; textbooks from college classes that intrigued you “what if”; poetry you wrote in college before you realized that all college poetry sounds the same); family treasures you inherited, some of which you retain in memory, some because it seems a crime to donate or discard the twelve unique silver chargers that your grandfather received from local Mexican Rotary clubs when he was traveling there; or the matching silver coffee/tea set that your grandmother received from their wives on that same trip). Just the thought of going through it is daunting.
First the logistics of decision making: what to keep, what to give to the next generation of the family (if they’ll even take it); what to try to find a home for (historical foundations, resellers, where else). Every piece you pick up and examine holds a memory of some kind, a memory that reminds you that you’re not just letting go of a thing, you’re letting go of something you were, something you wanted to be, someone you remember, an experience you enjoyed.
Even though you may never have used the tea set or looked at the photographs, they still evoke stories when you handle them, and they are still a part of you that you have to let go of.
It’s not necessarily something you want to let someone else do – they won’t intrinsically know what is important to keep and what to let go of. I like to think that the great apartment flood of 1999 changed how I think about this – I became much less attached to stuff after I lost so much of it then – but I do have over 4,000 books in my tiny little apartment and, although I do try to weed them out annually, it never seems I can get rid of many. I can only imagine this gets harder as you get older and have accumulated more experiences, and the loss of memories comes to represent much more symbolically.
Which leads me to the next point: beyond the logistics of actually sitting down and going through stuff, making decisions, lies the emotional symbolism of what this means.
My mother built her dream house – literally, she designed it with the architect and she actually installed the electrical wiring. It was exactly what she wanted: open, modern, isolated, multi-level… exposed. (For a woman who valued her privacy there wasn’t a single window covering on her floor to ceiling windows.) It was a beautiful house, completely suited to her, and completely unsuited to my sisters and me, both by location and style. (I always said it would be perfect for a divorced dad who only had his pre-teen kids on weekends.)
To let go of that house meant letting go of the independent woman, the woman who traveled the world, the woman who took on the system, the woman who literally flew (with a pilot’s license). When she left that house she had to accept that she was now a woman who lived in the middle of a small town in an old house (that she beautifully remodeled, but still), because she was no longer able to live by herself and had to live close enough to my sister that she could be rescued as need be. The decision to let go of enough stuff to downsize can be hugely emotional.
The third component was literally the physical component.
Look around your home again – just glance around. The last time you moved, did you pack up yourself? We did when we moved into our home in 2000 and we had gotten rid of a lot of “starter” furniture beforehand and have acquired more “permanent” furniture since then.
After last summer’s flood required the replacement of our floors, insurance paid to move and store our furniture and it was so lovely that I swore I’d never pack another box – an argument I anticipate having when the time comes because my husband, like most of us, sees no point in paying someone to do what he can do myself.
Mom was the same way. She had invested a lot in her new home but wanted to save what she could for the grandkids, and it seemed like she’d never get the old place packed up – until my brother in law showed up with a U-Haul. “You don’t have to finish before you leave,” he told her. “We’ll bring it to the new place and you can finish the job there.”
A great strategy, although several years later, entire rooms are still in boxes and she shows no signs of finishing the job.
And that’s ok. The important thing was not to arrive clean, with all the hard work done. The important thing was to arrive somewhere safe, where she has local support in an emergency.
The rest could wait.
5 thoughts on “She’s Leaving Home…”
That whole issue of “letting go” is near to my heart I watched my mother go through that when she moved from the house she had lived in for 40+ years to a retirement community and a small apartment. I watched my niece do it FOR my sister when my sister had to move without the capability of choosing what to keep/throw away/give away on her own. Now at 80, in a home I dearly love, packed with the “stuff” you describe of treasured memories and valuable family heirlooms, I wonder… when is the time to start letting go? Must be now. But how? I like your last line! “The rest could wait.” Yup! I can do that!
Jan, what a great question! I think letting go is something we all struggle with, no matter our age. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. When I was there in early August, Mom had started taking steps to let go of the things that have been sitting in boxes in her “office” for the last two years (and were in her basement before that). She told me that she was hampered by her home-assistant who hated to see her discarding her “memories” but, as she said, how can they be memories when I don’t think about them? We discarded the yearbooks (when her assistant wasn’t around) and I hung a wall of her favorite photos so she’d see them when she wakes up every morning. For that trip, that was enough. Good luck with your own journey.
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Thank you… it’s not a “phase” I look forward to. Instead I need to see it as an on-going work in progress. Waiting is probably not a good idea for my children’s sake!!
My advice: Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Don’t think of the big picture, just start somewhere small, with one room, or one box in that room. It will build up speed and you will surprise yourself over time.
My other advice: enlist a neutral party (not your kids) to help you – if you find that you can’t let go of something that seems like it should be useful, “give” it to the other person, with the understanding that you are letting go of it and they can do whatever they want with it. In a post last summer, I wrote about helping my 90-something in-laws pack up their 3-bedroom/2-living room house in Florida and move into a one-bedroom apartment at their daughter’s house. I don’t think we would have made it if it weren’t for a young man who offered to take some of their “but this is still useful” things off their hands. He confessed to me later that these things would not be re-used, but it made my in-laws happy to think their things were going to a good home. I’ve used this technique with my own possessions, and it’s wonderfully freeing!
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Thank you so much for the advice. I will try that one box at a time idea.