The Desire to Divest - une femme d'un certain âge

The Desire to Divest

Pretty Stuff at the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy

Value, as in value of Things is a very fluid concept. There’s sentimental value, which can’t be added to a spreadsheet with an accompanying photo, or weighed or added up on a calculator.  Then there’s monetary value, which can be almost as capricious.

We’ve been going through my MIL’s things (and I use the term “we” loosely, as I’ve been more peripherally involved than le monsieur and his brothers) in order to determine what should be kept, sold, donated or tossed. We’ve had items appraised and dealt with consignment people, and those who have a business reselling things on ebay. I’ve seen some families have terrible rifts over family possessions and estates; in le monsieur’s family everyone seems to be going out of their way to be solicitous and painstakingly generous and fair. As I mentioned before, most of us don’t have the space or lifestyle for the kind of household items that my in-laws collected over the years, so the vast majority is being disposed of one way or another.

It’s been an interesting lesson that the current value of anything has little relation to what was originally paid for it; some items that were quite expensive 10, 20, 30 years ago have little (if any!) resale value now, while others that one would think are insignificant have become minor collectors’ items (1980’s Lucite trays? Really??)

Clothing is especially fraught. Because she and I were roughly the same size, I’ve come under a lot of pressure to take some items. While she did have some nice clothes, they aren’t my style, as “nice” as they might be. At some level, I worry that I’ll be perceived as somehow disrespectful for not wanting things that belonged to her.

Despite our protestations, le monsieur and I have somehow wound up with a living room full of dusty boxes to sort through. Glass swizzle sticks, olive bowls, paper Hanukkah decorations, plaques and awards…it looks like a scene out of Hoarders and I have no idea what we’ll do with it all. The overwhelmed part of me just wants to set it all out on the curb on trash day.

Having had to deal with all of this Stuff has not only made me really want to have less Stuff, but has brought home that anything is only as valuable as the enjoyment we get from it now. Use your “nice” things now; enjoy them.  And if you aren’t using or enjoying them now, give them away to someone who will treasure them, or sell or trade if you can. And buy anything only because you will love and use it, not out of any perceived investment value (unless you have a business doing so, of course).

I have a lot of heirlooms from my own family, many of which are packed away in boxes because they are either fragile or valuable or we have no place to put them. I’ve been thinking that it might be time to start selling what I can and perhaps donating the rest as there’s no one to hand them down to, and maybe someone else will get more enjoyment from them than we can.  The sentimental value no longer seems to be enough to warrant keeping them. I’ve set this as a project for next year.

Do you have stuff you keep for sentimental reasons? To hand down to the next generation? Stuff you’ve inherited and would like to get rid of but feel guilty about doing so?

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  1. October 26, 2011 / 11:40 am

    We are on the same page here. I no longer attach much sentimental value to much of anything and have been in the divesting mood for quite some time.

  2. Carol
    October 26, 2011 / 12:21 pm

    There’s nothing like cleaning out someone else’s house to make you want to go home and do a major decluttering in your own place, is there?

    I’ve got my great grandmother’s china – service for (mostly) 12, plus serving pieces. I’d love to just twitch my nose and have it all disappear!

  3. October 26, 2011 / 12:31 pm

    I had my major epiphany about all the “stuff’ in our lives when I cleaned out my father’s very neat organized home nine years ago. I was remarkably sad at his sudden passing. But as I prepped the house and his belongings for a sale I saw that the things he owned were only that, things. I missed his kindness and his humor and his affection for people. The best way to honor him was to become more organized and less of a consumer since one day someone will have to do this same task for me. I saw his organization and simplicity as his final gift to me. I do this imperfectly but it has had a last effect on my life.

  4. October 26, 2011 / 12:38 pm

    It took three years-since my mother died, and we moved-to complete the divestment process. Not only her estate Stuff, but the Stuff she gave me while alive. A very few (count on one hand) items summon memories of our family’s life and are a pleasure to live with. A basement crammed with Stuff did not.

    Carol, I gave a service like that to a friend’s 83 year old mother, who always wanted that kind of china, and she promised to pass it to her granddaughter (her proviso, not mine). She was thrilled and I was so relieved.

  5. October 26, 2011 / 12:54 pm

    I understand what you’re going through because my husband’s mother passed away last year and we’ve just finished emptying and selling her house. This was a house that had been lived in for over 30 years and was never decluttered in any way during the intervening decades.

    Unfortunately, one thing my husband’s mother did do in the final years of her life was spend some time sifting through the piles of stuff, putting items into large boxes, labeling them with the name of one of her children, and then storing the boxes in the attic. These were items that, for the most part should have been thrown away years ago — my husband’s PSAT scores from 30 years ago, a receipt for a blazer that he wore in high school, and so forth. At this point, my husband has been able to do no more than open a box, look inside, groan, shut the box, and stash it in a closet. I guess he’s hoping that fairies will deal with the garbage. I, on the other hand, am resentful because what should have been thrown away decades ago has become our shared problem and caused clutter in our home. And, I am more determined than ever to pare down our possessions and own only what we need and truly want.

  6. October 26, 2011 / 12:58 pm

    I’m getting ready to head to IKEA for new Stuff for the new flat, so my perspective right now is on the opposite end of the scale. It’s hard to keep myself to the basics!

    But in the past when I’ve had to go through Stuff, I found it enormously helpful to have someone with me who had absolutely no attachment to anything, and who could say kindly, “What will you do with it if you keep it?” It was such a relief to have that input and it made it a lot easier to de-clutter.

  7. October 26, 2011 / 1:57 pm

    Glass swizzle sticks? I’m so envious, where are our family’s swizzle sticks? I absolutely love those things.

    I don’t hang onto much, I have my dad’s medals and a few photographs, that’s it really. It’s a heartbreaking process going through someone’s belongings after their death.

  8. October 26, 2011 / 1:57 pm

    Glass swizzle sticks? I’m so envious, where are our family’s swizzle sticks? I absolutely love those things.

    I don’t hang onto much, I have my dad’s medals and a few photographs, that’s it really. It’s a heartbreaking process going through someone’s belongings after their death.

  9. October 26, 2011 / 2:42 pm

    I think the trunk of our car might still hold an item or two that Paul’s dad “rescued” from one of the trips to the dump when they were downsizing to their condo six or seven years ago. Paul couldn’t say no, but we had no need for whatever Dad was “gifting.” Every visit to my Mom’s now, she’s offering photographs or books or, last visit, the three huge vases that my father brought back from England after his mom died. Really huge, they’ve sat on my parents’ mantel for decades, in all their Victorian glory. Luckily, at the moment one of my brothers thinks he has just the mantel for them, and unless his wife protests, that’s where they’ll end up. . . Good luck with your sorting!

  10. October 26, 2011 / 2:47 pm

    After my maternal grandmother died, there was a big house that had been in the family for two generations to clear out. Family members chose a few items to keep, the rest was put on the lawn for a giant auction. The auction itself was amazing. It was so wonderful to see people get excited about their purchases. Sometimes the most mundane items were most prized like a stove pipe cover? We knew her treasured items were going to new homes where they would be aprrectiated and used – not stored in a basement or garage causing resentment.

    My mother is now in the process of clearing her house thinking about moving to an apartment in the future. I’ve got a couple of items “reserved” but the rest can go as she sees fit.

  11. October 26, 2011 / 3:04 pm

    Am going through the same process having lost my mother-in-law last month. The saving grace in this case is that she had moved 3 times in the last few years so things had been somewhat pared down already. Nonetheless the amount of clutter that has to get sorted with decisions made about it all is overwhelming. Definitely makes me want to continue paring my own stuff down and makes me live in real fear of dealing with my father’s home when the time comes since he never gets rid of anything!

  12. Carolyn from Oregon
    October 26, 2011 / 3:07 pm

    Easier said than done, but (IMHO) the best way to pare down is not to make a choice about each item (you end up with too much) but to pick the 5, 10, 15 or whatever items you truly want and get rid of the rest. A few sentimental items can mean a lot more than a houseful.

    I also find that the next generation isn’t very interested in having all the sentimental items that my generation values. That makes it easier for me to dispose of things than keep them for posterity.

  13. October 26, 2011 / 3:12 pm

    Having been through this once with my in-laws and also when we moved my mom into her condo I know how important it is to go through the stuff just in case there is a valuable gem that should not be overlooked.

    We had a yard sale and consigned the better things and family took a few trinkets.

    I do not use the good china as it has gilt edges and is not dishwasher friendly. I do use it for dinner parties and Thanksgiving and Christmas.

    What I discovered after sifting through our parents’ (who grew up in the Depression and hoarded) stuff was that I needed to sift through our own so our children were not faced with the same task.

    Good luck with this task, I empathize.

  14. October 26, 2011 / 4:19 pm

    “Do you have stuff you keep for sentimental reasons? To hand down to the next generation? Stuff you’ve inherited and would like to get rid of but feel guilty about doing so?” Oh God, yes! Having no (available) siblings, I inherited all of my mother and father’s belongings, had a giant garage sale, and still have family heirlooms (china, glassware, silver) that I cannot part with; my husband is on the same position – he is childless, my daughter is across the country studying, and of course, I am probably the only person alive who knows the stories associated with the things. What to do with my late aunt’s wedding pictures and bible? All those medals? At least I use the china, silver, etc., at big meals a few times a year! I don’t even know exactly who is in many of the photos, but they are KIN – I MUST somehow keep the story going. We’ve scanned and labeled several photos, but there is still a lot of stuff. Thank heaven my mother wore a different size of clothing, but that doesn’t solve the problem of my husband’s mother’s family kilt – when will I wear that?

  15. Anonymous
    October 26, 2011 / 5:07 pm

    I am in the process of decluttering my home right now and it is quite a job. Deciding what to keep has been easy but what to do with all the other stuff is the hard part. Yard sale, charity , ebay, my grown kids? The thing is though it feels good to see it move out. I am looking forward to less clutter….much less.

  16. October 26, 2011 / 5:25 pm

    For some reason I’ve always been a keeper. I have so much trouble throwing things away, for fear I might ‘need’ it at some point in the future. I recently moved twice in about six months and went through a tremendous ammount of things and got rid of a lot. Somethings had sat in storage for 2 years. I still have a ways to go, but instead of waiting to throw that fabulous dinner party I should instead use those wonderful heirloom dishes now. Thank you for the post.

  17. Anonymous
    October 26, 2011 / 5:38 pm

    Wholeheartedly agree. I just visited my 80 year old mother who gifted me with a bag full of Plastic swizzle sticks from restaurants, bars and hotels she visited decades ago. Myself, last weekend I ran across a suitcase in the basement and opened it to find it full of clothing I’d kept from college days (early 1980s) – seemed an important “time capsule” at the time, now it’s just silly. Strange the things we hold on to.

  18. October 26, 2011 / 5:52 pm

    Back to offer an idea, for those wondering what to do. When we moved, we had so much Stuff. Our 24 yr old sons threw a huge houseleaving party and the day before, I had a brainwave. We put all kinds of Stuff on basement shelves, and asked our sons to invite the guests (all of whom we knew) to take what they *needed and liked*. That was the only request, that they use what they took.

    Most of them are setting up first apts. and appreciated things like rooster napkin rings, candles, cocktail shakers, new bedding.

    As for family things with a story and provenance, there has to be a limit to what we keep. Antique and secondhand stores are full of pieces and portraits, every one with an unknown story.

  19. October 26, 2011 / 5:53 pm

    I have a great emotional attachment to things owned by my maternal grandparents, who left Austria with nothing in 1938. Interestingly, my mother gets rid of this and other stuff as fast as she can–almost as if she is recreating the original traumatic event.

    This is a painful issue, both personal and cultural for those of us lucky enough to live in abundant America.

  20. Pam @ over50feeling40
    October 26, 2011 / 11:44 am

    Excellent Post! For the past eight years, I have been using the nicer things that I did not use for so long and I have been purging items I felt guilty about getting rid of. I confess that when my mother has asked me about some items, I have told her that they are tucked away safely…just not finished the sentence as to where they are tucked away. There are a couple of items I know she needs to see to have peace so I keep them visible. Sometimes STUFF can become a shackle around our necks.

  21. coffeeaddict
    October 26, 2011 / 12:31 pm

    Another brilliant post. In the past 7 years I’ve moved 4 times. Each one more exhausting than the other. The sheer volume of things leaves me feeling annoyed and tired each time.
    My grandmother died several years ago and going through her stuff was similar to what you describe, a mix of sympathy, nostalgia and annoyance over the amount of money, time and energy spent pinning over and accumulating stuff.
    In Slovenia it is/was customary for people to build enormous 2 even 3 storey houses fully expecting their children to remain at home. Another aspect of accumulating something and then pressuring other people to hold on to your ideals. I find it horrifying.

  22. Anonymous
    October 26, 2011 / 8:35 pm

    Loved this post, having move.d my widowed MIL from her home of 43 years into our granny annexe 4 years ago. It took MIL a year to prepare for the sale of her house, taking time, selecting and choosing which charity store got what. It meant that she could ‘shed’ the stuff gradually, which was more comfortable for her. The ‘Just do it’ driver is important here, but it doesn’t have to be ‘ Do it all – NOW!’

  23. kathy peck
    October 26, 2011 / 1:48 pm

    Great post. The items I have from my grandmother, I love. I don’t hold onto stuff for sentimental reasons really. Not much packed in boxes at all.

  24. October 26, 2011 / 9:17 pm

    As the only remaining child when my parents were gone, I was the inheritor of all the “stuff”. A few things I took happily, and I do have children to whom these things can be passed (stuff like china and silver…not furniture. That’s much harder to absorb into a household). But I also ended up with a TON of photos many of them with people I don’t even know in them. How I wish my parents had labeled them or somehow put them into context. (Must confess I’m guilty of the same!)

    But when my husband’s parents passed there were some real hurt feelings between the two sisters…it was all very unfortunate. It’s all fine now, but it was a terrible time, during all the sadness to also have the acrimony mixed in.

    DH and I moved this past year, downsizing, and in doing so got rid of a bunch of stuff…it felt great!

  25. Susan Tiner
    October 26, 2011 / 3:39 pm

    I really sympathize with you and your husband being unwilling recipients of stuff you don’t need or want.

    You are so right that it’s best to enjoy stuff now, not assume anyone in the family will ever want or need it, and to gradually downsize over time. This is one of the reasons I bit the bullet a few years ago and paid about 2k to digitize all of the family photos. It felt great getting rid of all of those bulky photo albums!

  26. Priscilla
    October 26, 2011 / 3:42 pm

    I’m not surprised you posted this, today. So often, when I’m facing a problem or have a dilemma, someone posts the same thing.
    My daughter moved to her own apartment earlier this Summer and I’m dealing with her “leftovers”. All the things she didn’t have room for or didn’t want any longer. I have my old things, my mother’s old things – all treasures that I really don’t want anymore, but I love them, I HAVE to let go.
    I have to keep reminding myself that keeping these things won’t bring them back. Letting go of them won’t make me forget my mother, or my husband, or even my grandmother.

  27. October 26, 2011 / 11:22 pm

    When my mother died some years ago, my brother, sister, and I had professional movers pack up her apartment and store it for a year. Then we spent a summer doing as many boxes as we could stand every weekend. I kept things in two categories: (1) important to me because of personal memories, and (2) useful items I needed and didn’t have.

    Two of the pieces I kept are completely different black velvet cocktail dresses. One has a square neckline and big skirt (meant for a crinoline, I’m sure); the other is a very sophisticated shift with loose panels from the back shoulders to the back hips (lined in a stiff but sheer black fabric). When I was thinner I wore the first dress a few times to events, but I’ve never been thin enough to wear the shift.

  28. October 26, 2011 / 11:43 pm

    Its tough to sort through the “stuff”–that was probably only meaningful to the person it belonged to.
    I worked for a historical society for many years, and many people would bring in their family “heirlooms” that no one wanted any more. So many years they were kept for a reason–and then that reason disappears. Sad, really. But so much of it ends up being stuff.

  29. October 27, 2011 / 12:00 am

    Your post resonates with my current situation. I have yet to go through Nelson’s clothing, books, etc. I know that I will keep some of his belongings for sentimental reasons, and ‘let go’ as I feel comfortable. Wherever the process takes me!

  30. Tiffany
    October 26, 2011 / 7:52 pm

    I have a few family things, as my father was very interested in our family history – so medals, swords, duelling pistols (honest), mother of pearl gambling chips, silver. They don’t take up much room and are all rather nice to look at. Otherwise I try to be ruthless. I was looking around at my MIL’s the other day, wondering what would end up happening to all the ‘stuff’. There’s a massive, antique dining table she wants me to have – but it’s too big for our house and not even slightly my taste, so your point that you need to enjoy your things NOW and not keep them for posterity is a really good one.

    And good luck with it all.

  31. California Girl
    October 26, 2011 / 8:31 pm

    I spent oveer $1000 to have my brother & his wife take my mother’s things to a UPS store to box and ship them. Most of them were breakables including her Lenox china, which I’d always wanted. Many were the “collectibles” she liked, i.e. Bradford Mint plates, Maud Humphrey Bogart figurines, etc etc. I planned to sell those on EBay. What I didn’t realize was what a gigantic pain in the ass it was going to be to photograph the imprints, watermarks, what have you.

    It’s been four years since I rec’d them and we’ve already moved to another home and they are still in boxes.

    Live and learn.

  32. October 27, 2011 / 9:38 am

    We don’t really have space for much stuff – I’m constantly decluttering! – so I tend to keep photos and very little else. As you say it’s best to enjoy things now or give them to others to enjoy.

  33. audball
    October 27, 2011 / 4:02 am

    Pseu, I hope it’s not terribly tacky to post this, but I stumbled upon this great piece and was surprised at how much of it resonated with me. I’m going to try to humbly abide by it, since I feel like I’m drowning in my own possessions (and that of my kids! My DH is pretty good :)). Please excuse some of the vulgar language. I guess most hipsters use the “s” word a little loosely (ha!):


  34. October 27, 2011 / 4:06 pm

    I feel very fortunate to have my husband’s grandmother’s dining room set, plus her very fragile china and silver. I cherish the sense that many family gatherings have occurred at the table, and we are carrying on those traditions.

    I also have a 1920s Tiffany sterling boudoir set from my grandmother, and my inlaw’s old large dresser and mirror in a guest room. I guess I like surrounding myself with “old things”. It makes me feel connected to the past generations.

    Will my children feel the same? I don’t know, but I plan to pass them down and impress upon them how we honor the memories of our ancestors by working their reminders into our everyday lives.

  35. October 27, 2011 / 4:29 pm

    Estate sales cured me of any sentimentality. All you need are to see a few houses with 10 years worth of ‘teacher of the year’ awards, club plaques, collectibles etc. that no one wants to buy for $1 to realize that “less stuff is more.” However, I come from a family of pack rats and my mother is obsessed with her family (and her view of its importance). She probably has well over 2,500 family photographs, everything she could save from my grandparents’ home, my grandfather’s WWII uniforms etc. Honestly, when I get my hands on that stuff, 90% is going to the curb immediately. Anything of financial or historical value I’ll sell or donate but all of those photos and home movies are going straight to the dumpster. Need I add that no one has actually looked at the photos or movies in decades?

  36. October 27, 2011 / 4:38 pm

    One more comment – I just read the rest of the comments and must add that I am also an only child. I DREAD having to get rid of everything. The piano AND electric organ AND 1960s/70s Mediterranean (or Spanish modern)? furniture AND the trunks AND the hideous Victorian wicker garden furnitures. And my sentimental mother has kept ALL of my baby and child clothing, tricycles and toys (in case at the age of 40- 50 I should want to play with them).

    This sounds terrible but even though my parents are pretty health 70 year olds I’ve started planning. As soon as I can get control of the house a dumpster will be rented, and a truck for the charity store. If they’d go away for a weekend and let me bring the dumpster in now I would. The worst thing is that if I discarded half of the family crap stored in that house they might not notice – nothing is used or enjoyed (or even looked at). It’s just kept.

  37. Jill Ann
    October 27, 2011 / 8:49 pm

    I’m a little horrified at some of the comments; while I understand the aversion to clutter, and too much “stuff”, I guess “stuff” is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve done a lot of genealogy research, and I cherish the old family photos, the 1885 bible, great-great-grandpa’s Civil War medal, etc. If my kids sell that stuff on Ebay I’ll haunt them!

    That said, I am the only daughter of an only daughter, so I have quite a lot of china, silverware, embroidered linens, & so on. Most of that I don’t use, but could never ditch. The historian/genealogist in me values the stories behind the things. My mom was more ruthless, and when she & my dad sold my childhood home, she pitched a lot of stuff out of the basement that I see in antique stores; not terribly valuable, but cool stuff that I would have wanted. When she sold her next house & moved in with me, she got rid of still more. She told me she didn’t want me to have to go through all her stuff: I appreciated the thought, but I regret some of the items she got rid of.

    Mom died in February, and I still haven’t gone through her room. The dishes & a few pieces of furniture we blended in with our stuff when she moved in, so what’s left is mostly her clothes. I will keep a few things, but need to pack up the rest & send it to Goodwill. Too bad neither she nor my granny had any real jewelry except their wedding rings! I do, however, have an awesome collection of sparkly costume jewelry, mostly pins & earrings. I love that stuff!

    Good luck with your “stuff”, Pseu; not having anyone to pass things on to makes a big difference in the process, IMO.

  38. Anonymous
    October 27, 2011 / 9:02 pm

    Ditto everything Artful Lawyer said.

    I’ve just finished helping my in-laws empty their eldest child’s apartment (following her suicide six months ago). She had an unbelievable amount of stuff. They paid to have a good deal of it packed and moved to their home (three stories w/ a full basement, plus a storage shed, where it will sit unused until they die.

    My plan when they are gone is to give it all away, and put gasoline & matches to anything left over.

  39. October 27, 2011 / 10:41 pm

    This is so hard. The “shedding,” especially when we get a little older and become the caretakers of “stuff” for the next generation.

    I have things of my mother’s and my grandmother’s. And have shed, and shed, and still have no room…

  40. metscan
    October 27, 2011 / 4:20 pm

    This must be one of your most interesting posts!!
    I agree with you 100%.
    No use saving old stuff. I could never imagine myself wearing something that belonged to my mother or MIL, ugh.
    And yes, use your good china.
    Btw, I jumped straight to the comment section, so I have no idea what others have written. Off to read them now –

  41. metscan
    October 27, 2011 / 5:42 pm

    I just finished reading all the comments.
    All I can say, that isn´t it hilarious, that having experienced the ” joy ” of inheriting all the stuff, we same people still eagerly ” enjoy ” going to auctions and antique shops and likes – to see if there is anything interesting to BUY!!!!
    Please everyone, give the stuff to your kids when they move out of the house. I have given practically all my jewelry away already.
    I declutter all the time, and won´t save a broken thing in my house, to save my children from having to do the horrible task after I am gone.
    P.S. Only one thing is undone- the photographs.
    Were it totally up to me, I´d throw them away ASAP.

  42. Anonymous
    October 28, 2011 / 1:08 am

    My neatly clutted place HAS MANY memories that I don’t want to let go. My husband and close friends
    died of cancer and others from a different death. I’ve no family
    except for my dog, Pastis.My surroundings give me comfort
    and not feel alone.


  43. Anonymous
    October 28, 2011 / 3:36 am

    I love stuff. I just do. When I am no longer here, it will be a great estate sale and I hope some 19-year-old is very excited by all the clothes and the costume jewelry. So, if I were closer and had ever met you in person, I would probably pop over and offer to take some stuff! [but, yes, it’s a problem if people have “nice” things that just aren’t you and still you feel you have to take them]

  44. RoseAG
    October 28, 2011 / 1:11 am

    It’s too bad you have to move everything so quickly.

    A lot of dealing with the death of a loved one is getting beyond the last months or years of their life and remembering the person they were when they were in their prime.

    If your MIL loved a party and enjoyed going out maybe those swizzle sticks deserve to be kept as a rememberance of the fun she had. Could they be put into a shadow box with a few other items of a similar theme?

  45. Marie-Christine
    October 28, 2011 / 1:46 pm

    I’m stunned. You’d actually consider paying someone to put something up on ebay?!? I know you have a digital camera :-)..

  46. neki desu
    October 29, 2011 / 10:10 am

    this post hits home as i’m dealing w.the same situation sans siblings or in laws as husband-san was an only child.
    and it’s sage advice to use and enjoy one’s nice things now or if possible every day.

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