In my life I’ve lived in more places than I can count, starting when I was a child. The earliest house I remember was in Newark, Delaware, where we moved when I was three. After that we lived in New Jersey, Pennsylvania (two different houses), and New Jersey again (one house, then an apartment—after which I went to college and started adding more places to my list). No, my father was not in the military—he was an engineer with good skills but some issues dealing with employers.
And all along the way my grandmother and then my mother collected and hoarded “things,” many of which had belonged to other family members (on their side of the family tree only). Now my sister and I seem to have inherited all of those things.
The most recent time I moved was over 15 years ago, after living in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania for the prior 15 years. That last move came about because my husband got a job in Massachusetts, on Cape Cod (I would happily have stayed in Swarthmore). One of the plusses of that change was that because he’d been a government employee in Pennsylvania and was moving to a comparable government job in Massachusetts, the government paid for the move. All of it. Which meant we didn’t even bother sorting through our possessions—we just packed everything up and took it all with us. Which means that we haven’t gone through all our possessions for over 30 years.
Can you guess where this is going? In Massachusetts we found a lovely 1870 Victorian house in a mid-size town (no, it’s not a mansion; it’s a nice house in a middle-class community, and it was built by a guy who worked at the local grocery store, and shared the house first with boarders, then with his mother in law). It has two parlors, a dining room, and walk-through pantry and a kitchen, and four bedrooms. Plus a full basement and attic (with a servant’s room, without heat), and what was once a stable out back. Guess what? They’re all full, with the original stuff we brought plus things we acquired since.
And now it’s time to reverse the process. My husband has Parkinson’s Disease and is now in assisted living. Our daughter graduated from college and is living in the Chicago area. So it’s just me, bouncing around all these nice Victorian rooms. Which means it’s time to downsize.
It’s hard to do, as anyone who has tried it will know. There are so many items that have sentimental value, even if they belonged to an ancestor I never met. Things like my great-great-grandfather’s commemorative Civil War sword, or his daughter’s extraordinary lamps, including one from Tiffany Studios in New York. And the whole blinking family seemed to collect china: last time I counted I had 14 vintage teapots and 69 tea cups, not including the every-day sets in the kitchen. Don’t get me started on pots and pans (I think Revere Ware will outlive us all) and baking tins and cookie cutters and generations of mixing bowls, and … you get the idea.
I can’t take it all with me. Which means some of it has to go. But how to decide what? Some of the things I have were among the few constants in our gypsy life around the East Coast. I still use many of the heirloom items, thinking fondly of those people who used them before me. They are part of my life, so how do I get rid of them?
Other random items:
But one thing offered me hope. You may recall that a couple of years ago I bought a cottage in Ireland. It’s only 1500 square feet. It was unfurnished when I bought it. It took all of two days to furnish it with a range of pieces of furniture that included a lot of 1920s vintage things, like an amazing drinks cabinet, and a collection of figural lamps, one of which incorporates a real stream of water and a windmill that turns. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else, and certainly no one else in my family would ever have looked at it twice.
Bottom line? The place is small and uncluttered. I furnished it with things I like, without considering anyone else’s opinion. Nothing is particularly valuable. I wiped the slate clean and started over, and surprised myself. I like the simplicity of it (although so far there’s only one bookshelf in the place).
But it’s still hard to say goodbye to so many years (and generations) of heirlooms. My sister is coming later this month to help with weeding things out and maybe finding them good homes. I wish there was a ceremony for bidding farewell to things you once cared about—maybe we’ll make one up. I know it will be hardest to get rid of all the books.
What about you? Have you been faced with this dilemma? How did you do it?