In this series, I was going to head in a lighter direction, since we talked about stuff with strings last time, but I decided to continue to wade in deep waters and write to those who are the “keeper of the stuff”.
This is the person who ends up with all of the family stuff that “needs” to be preserved for future generation. It’s not cut and dry, though. There are different categories of keepers…
1.) Those who are willingly, perhaps even enthusiastically, stewards of family items.
This is the easiest category to deal with, because they want the stuff and don’t mind giving up living or storage space to preserve some family history. I would consider myself in this category.
We have some boxes of family photos, genealogy books, papers to prove we’re descendants of those who fought in the Revolutionary war, my Opa’s WWII letters to his mom, mini-balls from the Petersburg siege during the Civil War, the top hat my great, great grandfather wore at his wedding, the rocking chair my Oma sat in as a child, a crazy quilt from Jeff’s family, engraved silver, etc. I really love having these items and keeping them to pass along one day.
The key to the stuff I’m keeping is that it’s manageable and I feel a connection to it.
When we were cleaning out my Oma & Opa’s attic, I found tons of pictures and clippings that featured people I didn’t know and they weren’t labeled. I just wasn’t willing to keep boxes of paper that didn’t have any meaning to me and no one else in the family was either, so they ended up in the dumpster. (They were pretty infested with silverfish, too.)
There was a moment of sadness about that, but even willing keepers need to set limits.
So, if the stuff you are keeping is manageable and you feel a connection to it, great. Good for you. Nothing to see here.
Category number two is where it starts getting dicey…
2.) Those who are forced or guilted into being “the keeper of the stuff” by others.
They don’t have the space/time/ability to be the keeper of the stuff, so they nominate you and do a ding-dong-ditch with boxes of memorabilia or suites of furniture. Well, not really, but they somehow thrust the stuff upon you in a way that you feel like you can’t say no.
In my opinion, it’s unfair for one person to insist that another person keeps things in their home that they don’t want. I wrote all about that in the “stuff with strings” post, so I’ll refer you THERE instead of getting into all of that again.
When you’re dealing with “family stuff”, I know it’s a little bit different, especially if it’s pictures, yearbooks, letters, very special pieces of furniture (like hope chests, furniture that is in old photographs, etc.) While I think those things are worth keeping in a family, I don’t think they should fall entirely on the shoulders (or in the home) of one individual.
“We want this stuff in the family, but we don’t want it. We want and expect you to keep it.”
Here is how I would handle that situation…
Sort through the stuff and pick out what you want to keep. Put the rest together in an out-of-the-way place. Take pictures of everything and send them to your family. Let them know that you do not want to keep this stuff, but you would be happy for them to take what they want. Anything that is unclaimed will be sold/donated/pitched.
I did this with several furniture pieces from our families that didn’t fit my style. Some pieces were claimed by other family members and some weren’t. And it was liberating to get rid of things that I didn’t want!
Some things to remember as you sort through that stuff…
- Not all stuff that belonged to a family member needs to “stay in the family.” Look around at all of your stuff. Do you think your kids or grandkids need to keep every chair, lamp, sofa, bed, plate, book, etc. just because it was yours? No. There are a few pieces that are special and worth keeping, but not everything. And someone shouldn’t tell you which pieces are special and which aren’t. That’s up to the person keeping it to determine.
- Getting rid of stuff doesn’t mean you don’t love the person who owned it. I know that’s a no-brainer statement, but our hearts might disagree in some cases. I held onto some of the silliest things that belonged to my Oma…a tube of her bright red lipstick, for one. I felt like throwing it away was letting go of a piece of her. Well, I pitched the tube and I still love her and miss her and I’m glad I have a few special pieces that belonged to her and I connect with.
- Stuff is just stuff and you can’t take it with you. If you doubt this at all, just go to an auction or estate sale. You will see that everything eventually ends up “leaving the family”.
So, you should sort through your stuff guilt-free and, if no one else in the family wants it, you should send it out into the world guilt-free.
3.) Those who have ended up with everything by default.
This is the hardest one. I’m thinking specifically about people who have ended up with everything, because they are the only one left. Not only is there the sorrow of loss, but there is a heavy weight of obligation tagging along behind.
My sister-in-law is the grand-daughter of a famous actor who passed away. Her parents, who were also actors, have both passed away as well, and she doesn’t have any siblings or close relatives on her side of the family.
With all of this loss, she has inherited a entire room, floor to ceiling, of boxes of pictures, papers, film, and memorabilia. I think she even has a Golden Globe in there, although maybe that’s been unearthed already. I know she’s been trying to sort through it, but there is just so much. It would be a full time job for someone and then how does one decide what’s worth keeping and what isn’t?
If you’ve ended up with everything by default and it’s more than what you want to or can reasonably keep, here are my thoughts…
- You are the only one who can decide when you’re ready to deal with the stuff, so if it has to sit there until you’re ready, then it has to sit there until you’re ready.
- Take baby steps. Deal with one thing at a time and take it at your own pace. If you have a lot to sort through, set some goals, like 3 boxes a week, and you will start to see progress. Pack boxes of things you want to sell or donate and put them in the garage or basement and see how that feels for a while. When you’re ready, then followthrough with selling/donating the item. I have found that decluttering can be like a snowball. It starts small and picks up momentum. Little victories lead to larger ones and it gets easier.
- Find creative ways to turn reminders of loss into joy. Clothes hanging unworn in a closet, boxes with unknown contents, precious things wrapped in newspaper, unused…they can be sad. They are evidence of loss. Imagine framing the pictures and clippings in a gallery and it makes you smile each time you walk by. Have an auction for memorabilia or valuables, so those pieces can join beloved collections and do something special with the proceeds. You get the idea.
- Put pieces of value up for auction. In the case of my sister-in-law, she certainly has pieces that would be valuable to collectors of Hollywood memorabilia. Auctions are a great way to get rid of stuff and let the buyers decide the worth of an item, so you don’t have to stress about that. Even if you don’t have memorabilia in your family, you may have some valuable art, collections, silver, antiques, paperwork with historical significant, etc. When I leave this world and my boys, who probably won’t be into ironstone, are left with boxes of ironstone, I would love it if they auctioned it off and did something fun with that money in memory of mom. People who love ironstone get my ironstone and my boys get something on their wishlist or they invest it or get to go on a memorable trip. I think many people would feel that way about stuff they leave behind with their loved ones. Right?
- The purpose of stuff is still true, even with family stuff. Your stuff is there for you. If it’s preventing you from enjoying your home, if it’s stealing away comfort and happiness, if it’s a burden, if it makes you sad… it’s not there for you.
As I’ve already said, this is a tough one. I know some of you mentioned you were the keeper of the stuff in your family. Any success stories? Any wisdom to share? Any happy endings?
Oh, speaking of happy endings…I found a WWI mail pouch at a yard sale a few years ago and I felt like I needed to buy it and try to find the family of the man who owned it.
It took two years, but with the help of some readers, Facebook and this blog, I was able to find the family and return the pouch to them. I realized through that process that they might not want it, but they did and were so happy I returned it to them. This story is a little off-topic, but just evidence that things come and go. You can read the full story about the mail pouch HERE and HERE.
If you like talking about stuff, you can check out the rest of The Stuff Series HERE.