“We are all toys. Unique, beautiful toys. I will explain everything.” ~ Forky, in Toy Story 4
“Upstairs, in the cupboard, he had a box of things he had saved as a boy and a young man. He hadn’t looked into it in twenty years or more. Nothing fancy or valuable, but things that had meant something to him at one time.” ~ Jane Smiley, from her novel, Some Luck
“Then it’s out with that box of baby things with the milk-stained bibs.”
“Now just a darned minute,” I said. “Any mini-brain knows that you do not throw out baby clothes.”
“Because you’re asking for it, that’s why. I knew a woman who gave away her baby clothes and the next month she became pregnant.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“She was 53 years old!” ~ Erma Bombeck, from her book, I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression
The word, “declutter,” can strike fear into the hearts of pack rats like me. I find it very difficult to let go of anything. Part of that might stem from my personal life and moving a lot when I was a kid in which I seemed to lose some precious item each time. Another part might arise from my professional life, much of which I spent as an executive secretary. The very definition of a secretary includes the responsibility for maintaining records. And I became very good at that. I could pull a file on any subject when required. I kept track of essential information. I could back up an argument on just about anything by producing evidence that I had documented, sometimes going back…a long time. A very long time. Along with librarians and historians, secretaries were a major part of the original, pre-World Wide Web “information superhighway.”
So to do the reverse — get rid of things instead of keep them — was against my nature! Thus, I greeted the task of decluttering my entire house as a rookie mountain climber might view conquering Mount Everest. My entire life so far was filed away in this house, mostly in the attic and garage, but also in closets, drawers and under beds.
I began accumulating stuff in childhood, although most of that I left behind to be divvied up among my cousins for their children. But everything I accumulated as an adult moved with me from state to state, county to county, address to address. Yes, I lost a few important items along the way, but mostly everything traveled with me intact through seven apartments with various roommates to my co-op with my husband to the house we settled in for three decades. “Everything” included clothing and accessories, photographs, books, letters, gifts, souvenirs from travel, mementos from my career that spanned 40 years and four industries, and more. And when I married, husband Ted’s belongings joined mine. When our daughter came along the items accumulated from her birth through her childhood, travels and college years and straight on through to her wedding were added to the inventory. And then my mother, who had reached the age of 97, passed away and I inherited her personal and family treasures. Among us all, we had acquired lots of stuff, and several lifetimes of history and memories.
Years ago for fun, my friends and I took one of those quizzes you find in magazines, one that revealed to which species you would belong if you weren’t a Homo sapien; my result was that I would be a squirrel.
At this point, I have to say that if you are seeing yourself in this scenario don’t worry that you might be a hoarder. People are not hoarders if they can walk through their house safely and find things easily — or, okay, eventually. And even a messy room here and there is considered quite normal. Yet, at some point in our lives we are going to have to deal with the clutter that has accumulated in those crammed garages, attics, sheds, closets, etc., because if we can help it we don’t want to leave that task to our family members or friends after we are gone, or should we become incapacitated. Moreover, who wants to pay a mover to haul stuff that is no longer needed and for which you might not even have space in your new digs? It’s bad enough that you will have boxes everywhere full of belongings you do want and need without having a bunch of boxes filled with meaningless clutter from your old house.
Some people in this position might simply — and perhaps wisely — hire a professional decluttering service; that is something you might want to consider once the pandemic has ended, when it is again safe to work closely with contractors in your home. But at the time I felt that if I had to cut costs somewhere I did not want to pay someone to argue with over what I was allowed to keep and what I must discard when I had my husband and daughter to argue with for free!
So Lyn and I formed our decluttering team, with husband Ted providing moral support and occasional muscle in moving and carrying boxes. We set mutually convenient days for us to tackle this mammoth task.
We decided to start with the garage. That way we would have someplace to put all the items that we cleaned out of the attic and main part of the house, and to use it as a staging area. Ours was a two-car garage, but we had just one car (Lyn and her car no longer lived here). The garage also contained closets with built-in shelving and a massive free-standing floor-to-ceiling shelving unit that we had brought with us from our apartment 30 years before.
All that space beckoned to us over the years to fill it up with as much stuff as we could manage! That included all of Lyn’s college things that she had accumulated, along with those aforementioned items of hers that I kept from her birth through her wedding, and my mother’s belongings, including some very important family history items. There were boxes full of books, photos, correspondence, career awards and mementos, and even some boxes that remained unpacked from our last move!
We followed the formula set forth by various decluttering experts. We established piles for:
With our work cut out for us, for several weeks — yes, I said, weeks — we went through all of those boxes and other containers and sorted out what we wanted to keep, donate, give away to others and discard. It took that long because we kept stopping to read and look at every photo or other memento. There were tears (mostly mine), laughter (mostly Lyn’s), and tussles between us over things I wanted to keep. Lyn’s good sense and determination overrode my frequent protesting, sobbing and total abandonment of sound judgment.
Once we completed the sorting through of the vintage family clutter, we turned to Lyn’s many college cases — none of which had been touched since she dropped them off piecemeal over a four-year period — text books, notebooks, keepsakes, dorm and campus apartment trappings, costumes, clippings, programs, an assortment of early to mid-twenty-tens technology, etc., etc., etc. And there were more containers of mementos and photos from high school and Lyn’s CTY camp that she attended over several summers while still in high school.
Throughout the project, except for those items that were obviously ready for the trash, I had a hard time giving up very much. I sorted out the most precious items I knew I had to keep lest I be struck by a bolt of lightning by my mom, bless her, as well as those vintage items that had sentimental or historical value or were still in good shape to use or keep for posterity.
Lyn’s approach differed somewhat. While she, too, was touched by some of the things she uncovered, she was a bit more disciplined than I, keeping some items, but documenting the rest with her camera for herself to enjoy as well as for friends who would appreciate her finds.
A word about garage sales: They can be fun and produce a nice piece of change. But they are also labor-intensive and time-consuming. So it’s a great idea to plan such sales as you declutter on a regular basis, as one can be a major project to pull off while you are preparing to sell your house unless you have the time and people power. As we had our hands full enough, we decided to pass on a garage sale.
The conclusion of the garage decluttering was that at least we now knew what had been in all those mysterious boxes and on those shelves. Lyn’s personal Keep pile was smaller and her Donate/Sell and Trash piles were larger. Mine were the reverse, but Lyn was there to resolutely reorder my piles. Often she was successful.
With the preliminary steps taken to list our house and the garage decluttered, and because we had to fit this project in among work and other responsibilities, we were now well into the summer. At this point, because the decluttering had been physically and emotionally draining, we decided to take a few weeks off before we reconvened to tackle the attic.
Talk about taking a journey down memory lane! The garage had plunged us into the past two decades or so; the attic was about to take us back even further in time. Together Lyn and I went through dolls, toys, baby clothes, baby furniture, items belonging to former pets, corporate magazine articles I wrote during my public relations stint, family photographs going back more than a century, family records dating back to the 17th century, old letters and newspaper clippings, vintage clothing and other hallowed family memorabilia. And we discovered some valuables about which we had long forgot. It was an overwhelming undertaking. And it was a lengthy one because we had to examine each object for its possible value — both sentimental and monetary — and it seemed that I had a story to tell about each one! Ted would pop his head in occasionally to see what the laughter, shrieks and occasionally tears were all about, and to lug boxes and bags down to the garage!
There were treasures for the Keep pile, and some items for the Donate pile, but a lot of stuff went into the Trash pile. And, then, finally, the attic was empty and the last of the items to keep and donate were transported to the garage staging area.
The Main House
After the garage and the attic, I thought the main part of the house would be fairly easy. Negative. Going room by room, we emptied closets, drawers, cupboards, shelves, storage boxes under beds and sorted through all of those items. Out went old kitchen utensils, broken staplers, excess pairs of scissors (where were they when I was looking for them?!), chipped dishes, stained and frayed linens (that had not been used in years), duplicate photos and junk in the junk drawers in the kitchen and family room (oh, that’s where that was!). It was also time to bid adieu to (some but not all of) those clothing items that no longer fit (I will lose weight to fit into some of them again, dang it!), broken jewelry and all those earrings that had lost their mates years ago. Funny how we always seem to have a surplus of the things we don’t want or need, but the items we do want manages to disappear! I really was hoping to come across a missing ring that had disappeared in my distant past, but no luck there.
Then there were the pieces of furniture and some furnishings that had outlived their usefulness and had to go. Our realtor and son-in-law, Paul, enlisted his business partner and my machatainista, Valerie Leis, to provide her staging and design expertise. While we were not planning a full-blown staging endeavor, we were prepared to do some sprucing up to show off our home’s best features. Our hardwood floors were a major feature, as well as the number of windows in each room that let in an abundance of natural light. Valerie encouraged us to upgrade some of the window treatments and provided some good tips to maximize their appearance. Valerie also pointed out where a paint job would enhance and open a particular space, and how updating even our switch plate covers would make a difference in the overall positive impact. Paul suggested that removing two wall hangings (that we considered to be beautiful and striking) would further open up the space visually. Outdoors, we were advised to remove a section of our old chain-link fence, which we had installed shortly after we moved in decades ago to accommodate our new puppy. Chain-link fences apparently went out with chevron wallpaper and ceiling fans (the latter two according to HGTV), and they can adversely impact curb appeal.
Once we decluttered we had to have that clutter removed. Disappointingly, several furniture pieces that we considered to be in good enough shape to donate were, in fact, not acceptable to the charities in our area. They would not accept furniture and other items unless they were in near-pristine condition. And the items we were ready to donate needed to be refinished or professionally cleaned or required some repairs. So Paul recommended a top-notch junk removal company that carefully and efficiently removed all the clutter we had bagged and flagged.
With the house spruced, inside and out, and the clutter gone, we were now ready for the next step! To find out more about that, join me next week for Your Home/Selling & Buying: Part 4 – The Listing.
Until next time,