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.

Given to great-great-grandfather Silas Barton, for his service to the Grand Army of the Republic after the Civil War

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.

When I was young I called this the Naked Lady Lamp (actually they’re mermaids and dolphins)

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:

My great-great-grandmother’s cast-iron peacock doorstop (it’s really only six inches high)
My great-grandmother’s childhood embroidery (it looks so very New England!)
A painting given to my great-grandmother when she was a wealth widow by a suitor, because her father had shown the artist’s works in his shop in Lynn years earlier

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.

The insane windmill lamp

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?

48 Thoughts

  1. Sheila dear, please read “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning–How to Free Yourself and,Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter” by Margareta Magnusson. After that, in the Japanese manner, thank each item for the joy it has given, then let it go.

    1. I haven’t heard of that book–I’ll look for it. I did read the Kondo book a few years back, and I do appreciate the idea of keeping only things that give you joy. My problem is, too many things do. In addition, I quail at the idea of handing over those dozens of teacups and teapots to an auction house or flea market organization and having them trashed (not that I’d ever see that), when my family members were so proud of them.

      1. You might give the teacups/teapots to any historical houses in your city of the right era to add to their décor. There are also professional estate sale people who’d run the sale from your house/yard/garage.Church thrift stores abound where I am. The gift to church thrift store or historical house may be tax deductible.

      2. My first thought is to ask Laura Childs if she wants the tea cups and teapots! When we did the estate sale for the parents house there were a lot of things I’d like to have kept – but getting them in the car, into my house, finding a place – that weeded out a lot. For others, I think taking a photo reminds you of it without having it with you. I like to think of someone else getting as much enjoyment out of it as I did. It pays not to look back. Maybe Sherry Harris’ character can set up a yard sale for you! And yes, books are the hardest to part with. I have a list of people I share with. Their enjoyment of the stories makes it easier.

  2. Sheila, would it help to catalog the items you find new homes for or sell with photos and short write-ups? Maybe you could put them into a book that you could enjoy and then hand down to your daughter some day. That way you would still “have” them and the memories and history, all in one place. I am the keeper of the stuff in our family, from great-grandmother down, and I fully understand. I know a lot of people Kondo-bash these days, but one idea of hers that stood out to me was not the brutal tossing, but the focus on imagining your future life and what you want it to be. (The grieving-widow episode in the TV series brought that home to me.)

    1. It would be a hefty volume! I’m not sure who would appreciate such notes as, “this was my grandfather’s favorite demitasse cup” even though I never met the man (he died before I was born). Funny that personal stories attach themselves to so many objects. Sometimes I wonder if my daughter is a changeling, because she has no interest in acquiring stuff–she travels light.

  3. I know how hard it is to divest of things with emotional value, or that you’ve had your whole life. I’m not good at it, so can offer no advice. Sending hugs and support, though. And Barb Ross wrote a great post here in the last year about how they emptied an even bigger house full of stuff – there are companies who can help.

  4. I did read the article Barb wrote, and that organization did a wonderful job (I may have the same amount of original clutter). I contacted the local franchise and they came out and looked at what I had and made some good suggestions (and said it all could be accomplished in two weeks!), but then they disappeared and I haven’t heard from them since, despite three attempts at contact. The other problem is that I (and my cats) have to live in this house until it’s cleared out. And I need to rent some strong bodies, because I’ve got two humongous steamer trunks in the attic and no way to get them down to where I can look through them. If I recall, they contain such diverse items as the polka-dot girdle I wore in high school, every personal letter I ever received until I left for college, and Playbills for every New York performance I attended. There are days when I fantasize about having a huge bonfire and just getting rid of everything (except I don’t think it’s legal in this town).

  5. I feel for you, Sheila. We just went through my mother’s home, and had to decide what to do with all her things. It wasn’t easy. We donated a lot to St. Vincent DePaul and the Salvation Army. Things with sentimental value that no one in the family wanted, we took photos of and then donated them. Good luck to you. Only keep the things that bring a smile to your face.

    1. The local Salvation Army is definitely on my list. But I keep remembering when my sister and I started to help clean out my mother’s house. She was ridiculously protective of the things she had kept and at one point she yelled at us for daring to open her storage trunk in the basement (would you believe she still kept one baby dress that had been hers?). Even funnier was checking out a large carton of china. When we opened it, my sister and I realized we had never seen that set before–my mother had been carting it around the country for decades without using it.

  6. I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s illness. That can’t be easy. My family and Mark’s family are constantly bringing stuff to our house that they think we might want. Some stuff we do, but most we don’t. We end up having a huge garage sale every year or donating it to Goodwill. I inherited a piano, end tables, a coffee table, a queen sized bed and a matching dresser from my grandparents and my godmother. Of all that, the only thing I really want to keep is something my dad has but hasn’t been able to find yet…my grandparents’ wedding bands. When my grandma died, my grandfather took her wedding band and his and put them on a chain around his neck. He wore that till he died. That’s the only thing I want. As far as the other stuff, it has sentimental value, but I’d rather see the piano go to a nursing home or school and see the bed set go to someone that needs starter furniture. We’ve already decided, when we move, we’re not taking anything with us.

  7. We filled the trunk of our car yesterday and took it all to Goodwill. I’m having the same dilemma. There’s what my aunt called a hot chocolate pot that was some ancestors sitting on the shelf in the basement, the figurine of a little girl that sat on my grandmother’s windowsill, and the Waterford crystal I used to love but now not so much. I love that you have the cottage that you can fill with things that catch your eye.

    1. And then there is the prospect of finding a “new” treasure from a yard sale, Thrift Shop, or sitting on the curb, calling for you to take it home.

  8. Good luck. Downsizing is never fun. I struggle with this often. While growing up & then being in the military myself I was good at purging during the moves; now not so much.

  9. My heart goes out to you because I have very definitely been in the same situation. We were a military family so we didn’t accumulate things like most. However, when my Dad retired when I was 14 after 29 years of service, I think they more than made up for it. When my grandparents died, they inherited their stuff. An uncle who came to live with them suffering with cancer, left all he had to them as well. Then when my parent’s died we got it all. We had the room so there wasn’t a problem with storage of stuff we never saw or used other than maybe during “spring” cleaning when it was looked at and then packed right back up.

    Almost two years ago, we moved to our dream destination since there was no one holding us to where we were any longer. In doing so, we took our time and designed the home of our dreams as well. With it just being hubby and I, we didn’t want all those extra rooms to heat, pay taxes on and that just seemed to accumulate more stuff because we had the room. Guess we were ready, because we looked at things with new eyes and decided if it really meant something to us or was it because it belonged to a relative and “might” have meant something to them. Then we realized that maybe it didn’t mean that much to them either. They were from a generation that didn’t throw things away that couldn’t be used or weren’t broken beyond repair – not like our throw away society now. In our smaller but very comfortable home, we had it figured out where the pieces of furniture we wanted to keep would go, how many closets we had (one very large one in our one and only bedroom) and exactly what we had room for. For example, hubby and I not only collected Emmett Kelly Jr. clowns, but were personal friends with him as well as being clowns ourselves. We had one Amish made display that we knew we were going to keep that had to fit not only clowns but all our collectibles that didn’t go in the curio. We decided what area would contain the clowns and then we each took a turn picking our favorite clown and placing it on the unit. When the unit was full we looked around at our choices and seen if we wanted to make any changes. The rest had to go. We did the same with draw space and kitchen items (and yes Revere Ware will last, and last, and last). Thankfully we were building a home so we could take out time and give it thought so there wouldn’t be any regrets. By the time we moved, we had given to other family members, sold or tossed what wasn’t going with us.

    Believe it or not, once moved and settled in, we loved the freedom of getting rid of “stuff” gave us. We actually felt like this was OUR home and not deceased ancestors. They have their special places in our hearts and our memories. Plus we know that when it’s our time to join them that someone else won’t have to go through what we did.

    Good luck in the move and may your decisions be easy, the downsizing and the move be painless and you enjoy your new clutter free home. <3
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  10. You need to speak to an antique dealer. You have very valuable items. I am a retired dealer. Please see one before you do anything else.

    1. That’s my plan (I did that with Freeman’s in Philadelphia for my mother’s antiques). Luckily most of the “good” pieces have long since passed out of the family. But I won’t give up my grandmother’s antique sewing table, which is still filled with all her sewing materials.

  11. I had to do this when my mother and my aunt died. It was easier with my aunt because she had 18 nieces and nephews. When my mother was dying, I had to fly to Florida, pack up her condo, donate several thousand books to the local library, and then move all the rest that she refused to part with to my house. There were weeks of climbing over sofas to get to the kitchen stove since every square inch of my house had both my things and hers. She died soon after and I began giving away her things. All the ‘good’ stuff went fast to my siblings but the rest took forever, and a move to a tiny house (less than 900 square feet) to get rid of most of it. I am still surrounded by desks and bookcases I grew up with. At least it keeps me from buying anything but computers and other technology for the house. There is no room.

    1. My, that sounds familiar. Unfortunately There weren’t many relatives in my family: my grandfather was an only child, his mother was an only child, his wife was an orphan who never knew her family, and my mother was their only child. I was lucky, I suppose, was that my grandfather sold most of the nice stuff when he decided to buy a dairy farm in Maine (which failed). My sister has already taken her share.

      My grandmother, when she left her husband (shortly before the dairy farm went belly-up–I’ve never known why a kid who’d grown up rich in suburban New Jersey decided he wanted to raise cattle) lived first in a residence hotel in Manhattan, then in a one bedroom apartment, and finally in a studio apartment with a Park Avenue address. She chose her possessions very carefully.

  12. We will be moving to our new home within the next couple of months–they started painting the inside today, and floors start going down later this week. Since we’ve lived in our current house for almost half my life now, we’ve collected SO. MUCH. STUFF. Including many inherited items. All beautiful, but honestly, some days I’d love to just start over and choose the look of my own home, for a change.

    The problem with downsizing is, despite having three daughters, they mostly don’t care for the old stuff. Their preferred decorating style is clean and modern; the fancy china and crystal does not fit their lifestyle. We have a beautiful set of china that was my in-laws, English bone china with multicolor flowers, place settings for 12, that was meant to go to our nieces in California. They don’t want it, have no place to put it, and no need even to split it into two sets of 6 place settings. So it sits in our garage, all boxed up.

    So I hear you, Sheila. And sympathize, especially since you have to make all these decisions and choices on your own. Best of luck, my dear.

    PS I hope this is not a duplicate post. If it is, I apologize.

    1. Oh yes (and thank you). I’ve been told by more than one real estate person that the younger generation (those who’ve worked long enough to be able to buy a home) simply don’t want all the stuff we thought was important, like matching china sets. My daughter is now in her thirties and this past year was the first time she actually had her name on a lease–until then she’d been camping out in friends’ spare bedrooms.

      Have a wonderful time in your new home. It’s so nice to be able to make your own choices.

  13. Aloha, Sheila. Thank you for sharing …. as a military veteran/spouse, I’ve always downsized 3-4 years, even if we have the weight allowance to move everything. I found that it was easier to start fresh in a new location. Of course, every new assignment brings new opportunity to procure trinkets from the local area, yard sales, and Thrift Shop on base. My advice to you is to downsize at a pace that makes you comfortable. You will find that you can let go as you focus on the future!

    1. I confess I do love thrift stores and flea markets. The Skibbereen Farmers’ Market in West Cork is addictive but convenient, because I can buy a couple of plates just because they’re pretty (and I have no plans to serve dinner to eight). I did buy one batch of small plates with bunches of lily of the valley on them as an inside joke–lily of the valley is poisonous.

      And I’ve bought a lot of very nice pots and pans there without paying too much. Given how small the cottage is, I can’t do too much collecting any more.

  14. I love the advice to imagine the life you want to live – and it sounds like you are doing that in your cottage. All I can say is that at one point in our many moves (military) we rented a furnished cottage (aka “Musty Manor”) and all our stuff was in storage. It felt wonderful to be so free of stuff! Now we’re in a home we purchased, all our stuff is in the basement and I’m only letting a few things upstairs. But I feel the tug of those boxes. A big yard sale is in the plans for this spring. I wish Sherry made house calls. Good luck, Sheila!

  15. I need to downsize myself, and it’s just me. That’s the problem when you are a collector. My books and ornaments especially have taken over my condo. I’ve taken a few baby steps in the last couple of weeks, and it feels good. But they were the easy steps and I still have a very long way to go.

    1. The books are a big problem! Not when we moved into this house, but then things took off. We built a full wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and now they’re full and two or three layers deep, and there are lots more bookcases. I keep thinking, do I have enough time in my life to reread all of these? But I can’t get rid of all my original mysteries, and I do actually refer to them now and then. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. We won’t talk about the cookbook collection.

  16. I wish you luck. I’m still in the process and it’s taking way too long. I started with clothes (no I will never be able to wear that size again) then books (I pared it down to three bookshelves for me, my husband’s just starting). Next came all the toys and school things I’d stored for my son, he actually came to help a couple of days last summer (grateful I’m trying to weed stuff out). I still have the heirlooms facing me. I made the point of making my son look through them to see what he wanted–not much.So I’m left with stuff that probably has some value on ebay, but I’d rather give it to family. So I hope you are more efficient than I am.

    1. I still have my daughter’s Beanie Babies and Barbies in the attic. I don’t thjink she wants them. Oh, and a Victorian-style dollhouse that we bought her as a kit for her first Christmas. It’s not finished yet.

      1. We eliminated the majority of the Beanie Babies last summer. The 6 and 8 year old in the family got to take turns choosing. Next we attack Star Wars–there’s a number of sets stored in the attic. We haven’t moved in over 40 years. A lot of the stuff I’m going through is sitting upstairs because we took it out of my mother’s house when she passed away. Good Luck, Merrily

  17. I wish you all the best as you’re downsizing. The sentimental items that have been passed down in my family are mostly smaller items (such as photos) that are easier to transport & store.

  18. Good wishes on finding the way to say good bye to treasured stuff. I started about 6 years ago when Mother died and I realized all my parents’ stuff would not fit in my home or in my life, and adding to the estate sale things from my home that no longer fit, physically or emotionally. Each year more and more stuff leaves, under my “rule”: must be actively in use or on display (except for specific holiday attached items and even those are slipping out the door more easily each year). The “actively on display” is how books stay on and on. Blessings for your future.

  19. I agree with Lisa. The photographic process and remembrances are worth it. The stories that can be told are amazing but the photographs can be shown as the stories are told. I have downsized multiple times! Getting “rid” of stuff is painful at times and pure joy at others. The photos are a great way of documenting things for yourself.

    1. Actually my sister and I discussed doing just that, at least with all the china. And she wanted to take the family photograph albums (hang on a sec, Sis–there are more pictures of me than of you in those!). We we may end up making copies of all the pictures so we can share.

      I think we inherited from our mother (who rarely got rid of anything) the idea that all the heirlooms, etc., were like a nest egg or savings account for us. Unfortunately, nobody seems to want all our “valuables,” since tastes have changed.

      1. I’m stuck with a whole lot of “valuable” Hummels my mother collected for me. I can’t even give them away!

        Sent from my iPhone


  20. I have to down size this month I’m moving into one bedroom apartment. So much stuff!

  21. I have been downsizing endlessly and not so well. Bill and I lost our three remaining parents between 2011 and 2017 and that certainly contributed, especially on my side because my family is tiny so a lot came to me. My general philosophy is that the stuff you love should be out where you can see it and enjoy it. Stuff packed away isn’t really being enjoyed. Exceptions are things that only come out for holidays or special occasions or when special people visit. Those are okay, but stuff that stays in boxes year after year might as well be enjoyed by someone else. It’s not easy, I know and I don’t follow my rules perfectly, but they help.

    Good luck with it. It’s emotionally and physically grueling, but I hope it is worth it in the end.

    1. Barbara, yours is a more eloquent expression of my “rule”. I don’t follow my rule perfectly either.

  22. It must be very, very, difficult a task, and one not to be envied. Carol Perry’s suggestion does sound rather joyous. A celebration of history. However you work it out, you will make the right choices for each item.

  23. I’m pretty good at continually downsizing, but there are exceptions. After my mother died, I asked my daughter what she wanted. We went through the whole house. Anything she didn’t want (and there was very little I wanted), out it went – Salvation Army, church rummage sale, nursing home, individuals who could use specific things,auctioneer, wherever. I tried hard to give things to the “right” place. I kept very little for myself. We just didn’t live the same lifestyle. She, too, had loads of china, crystal, and silver of many patterns. They were beautiful, but I didn’t even use my own anymore. That mostly went out, too. Of course, it made it easier in that there weren’t a lot of heirlooms. Books are harder, but I try to be honest with myself about re-reading them. There are so many new books I want to read. It helps that our daughter keeps telling us to clean out stuff so she doesn’t have to do it some day. She’s all the family that is left after my husband and I are gone. What would she do with all this stuff in an apartment?

    1. In response to your earlier reply, I think I have a box of Beatrix Potter china figurines in a box in the attic–my family thought I was collecting them (who, me?). I haven’t even looked at them for years, but I’m fond of them. Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddlejumper, Mrs. Tiggywinkle . . .

  24. Since I still live in my childhood home, I have a lot of stuff. I give to the church rummage sales and was giving to second cousins who knew my family but they are talking about moving to a retirement home.

    In the kitchen, I haven’t gotten rid of much because I didn’t cook or bake before my mother got sick. A friend told me to use a pastry cutter. I had to google a picture of it but yep Mom had it. I’ve found other things like that as I’ve been trying new things in cooking and baking.

  25. I know how fast stuff can collect, we’ve been in this home for 22 years now and I know without a doubt we have tripled what we moved here with. My grandparents had an antique store for many years and their house was full of antiques and collectibles. Everyone in my family inherited the “collecting” gene from my Gran! At least we all blame her for our hoarding tendencies! She’s gone now so she can’t defend herself from the accusations, so it’s all good! LOL! My grandma gave all of the granddaughters cedar chests when we were kids. Mine is used as a coffee table now because I love to see it every day. And then when the grandkids all got their first place to live she gave us all antique kitchen tables. Mine is a round oak table. Nothing super fancy, but has a nice looking base and the best finish job you could ask for. Wet stuff doesn’t leave a ring at all! One time my mom told me if I ever wanted a different table to not feel bad about getting rid of it, that it wasn’t a family antique, just an antique. I told her that I can’t get rid of it. I love my table, Gran picked it out for me and I love the casualness of it, it fits me perfectly, and one day it will be a family heirloom, just one that is passed down from me. OMG, and the doilies…. I’m not even sure how many of those she gave me. I’ve got small doilies under practically every knick knack in the house! As for your situation, you never know, maybe a family member would like to purchase some of those family heirlooms and keep them in the family, then maybe you could still see them once in a while. At any rate, good luck, because downsizing is not easy….or so I’ve heard, as I have yet to do it! LOL! Renee

  26. So hard to part with treasured memories, isn’t it? We seem to have become the “endpoint” for both families’ sentimental treasures. We will need to downsize in the next few years . We have been in an ongoing process of “culling”, but I dread having to dispose of all the plate collections, figurine collections, stamp collections and other items that were so valuable to our parents.

    1. It’s funny–there are some pieces that nobody ever liked (my grandmother had a nice small antique wingchair, which I now have, but she didn’t like it because it was not elegant enough for her, but it was what she could afford.

  27. 3 piles: keep, donate, chuck. Be ruthless.Be consistent. Stay focused…take lots of breaks. THEN attack Keep pile. Separate into Sell , Donate , Keep( only if gives you joy)

    1. That’s what the one firm I consulted recommended. Separate them into separate rooms if possible, and then get rid of each room as you can. Trying to do it all at once is overwhelming! But I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. Now what I need are strong bodies to carry all the stuff down from the attic.

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