In my haste to close our father's estate, I was left with the task of determining what to take and what to toss. After my brothers had chosen what they wanted, I hired an auctioneer to sell many of the valuables. I then contacted a nearby not-for-profit group and donated the remaining furniture to help start homes for the less fortunate. I gave most of his clothing to a homeless shelter and donated the kitchen utensils to another charity. But there was still a ton of stuff to deal with.
I decided to keep as many of his smaller belongings as I could possibly squeeze into my apartment, my friends' basements, my son's attic and my pal's garage. I could not bear to part with a thing, not because of greed, but because each time I let something go, I felt I was betraying my mom or dad.
These items had sentimental value -- they had been used, touched, cherished or at least liked enough to be kept. To discard them was like saying their possessions were worthless, useless or a waste of time. I couldn't do that.
A very long year later, after much self-flagellation and many stubbed toes trying to get around the basement, I decided I had to be proactive and clean out my belongings, as well as the stuff Dad had left behind. It was time to sift through it and keep only the truly appreciated treasures and functional items. From this experience, I vowed to lighten my children's burden of someday cleaning up after my life. Here are some of my insights:
1.) Make lists of what you value and why. Like the pink floral fine-bone china tea cup and saucer that belonged to your great-grandmother. Tell them about the ornate secretary in the living room that your mother slaved for years to be able to afford. You want them to be able to appreciate why you have kept the desk in such pristine condition all these years.
2.) Label every single photograph that you really feel a need to keep for all posterity. Keep in mind, some might get tossed anyway, but let's face it, any left unlabeled really won't hold much meaning. And honestly, the hundreds of landscape photos will likely get tossed, too.
3.) Remember, anything you keep will have to be dealt with by your children or someone at some point. Make it easy on them -- not just physically easy. Save them the agony of tearing themselves away from what they assume must be treasured keepsakes. Spare them the drudgery of tossing out leaf bag after leaf bag overflowing with papers, like old college notebooks and letters from former lovers, or useless antiques like watches that haven't worked in a half-century.
4.) If food or cleaning products have expired, ditch them! Make this a seasonal habit.
5.) Compose a letter to your family telling them that you understand they can't hold on to everything. Encourage them to keep certain key items to be passed down; then list them. (Keep the list short.) Tell them that you hope they will feel joy when they open a box and review the contents -- that you want these things to bring only heartwarming or enlightening thoughts about their family history.
In short, go through your belongings, papers and all, with the intention of alleviating your family of your excess clutter. The rule of thumb I have been using is "if it brings me joy or enriches my life, it's a keeper." In other words, love it or leave it! Your kids will thank you.
Nancy Jo Eckerson, of Akron, is the historian for the Town of Newstead and Village of Akron.