Almost five years ago I wrote a blog post about stuff – stuff with meaning, specifically family heirlooms, along with stuff without meaning, and decisions about what to do with it all. In the years since, I have had the task of going through the stuff of three individuals, deciding with others who should take what, what to toss, and what to give away. Now that the stuff has been disbursed or disposed of, I am feeling a need to record and share the stories about the stuff. But first the stories about distributing the stuff. . .
My Three Adventures in Distributing Stuff
The decisions about what to toss and what to take are complicated by the closeness of the relationships with the previous owners of the stuff, as well as by the relationships with the other people who are involved with deciding. My first experience was going through my brother’s storage unit after he was placed in a care center. Not being too attached to his stuff, I looked more at usefulness with most of it. We had a garage sale, which I vowed would be my last. I took some useful items that didn’t sell and a few I just liked. Other family members took some things. We donated most of the rest to thrift shops. I ended up with a bin of personal items and a file box of his records that I felt responsible to hold on to, just in case he might need them.
Dispersing my mother-in-law’s stuff was a little contentious in the beginning, with some eyes on the monetary value of things. Eventually however, we all just wanted to get it gone. I took less of useful things, and more of the things that I just liked. One surprise with this endeavor was the question of what to do with the stuff from the deceased steps – her husbands’ (my husband’s step fathers – yes, two of them), the last husband’s previous wife (who actually had some lovely things I took, but also other family history type stuff no one wanted) and that husband’s wife’s deceased only son. Look forward to more on this complicated stuff in another post.
The last adventure was with my Father’s stuff, which included my family’s heirlooms and stuff. At age 94, we finally convinced Dad to move in with my brother and sell the house – the house he had built and lived in for almost 55 years. Yes, there was lots of stuff. Because we moved him first and had him pack up what he wanted and thought he would need, we didn’t feel much urgency with this. The problem was that it drug on for weeks, even months, of Saturday visits to the house, with him included. Dad kept finding more stuff to take to my brothers, and unfortunately for me, I managed to take another box or two of random stuff back to my house after each trip.
I always thought tossing stuff would be easy for my kids and their cousins, but we found it otherwise with their Grandma’s stuff. We got a big dumpster and some of us started tossing stuff in. There was really a lot of plain garbage in the house, or so we had determined. What ended up happening was some serious dumpster diving. Family members were pulling treasures out of the dumpster almost as fast as others were tossing in, validating the saying “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”
With my Dad’s disbursement taking so long and I being the one living closest to his home, I had the weekly task of filling up the garbage cans and putting them out to be picked up. It seemed rather never-ending at some points, with the cans being filled up right after being dumped and more bags full and waiting for the next week. Even the recycle bin filled up quickly with all the small boxes Dad had saved (not really big enough to haul stuff away in, but saved for wrapping gifts), plastic containers (that had been reused) and bottles that served as water storage. After weeks of this, we started filling up truck beds and making weekly trips to the dump. Those included the 50 year old wheat and food storage no one dared to take, along with building materials and spare parts for everything.
Dividing up Family Heirlooms
My Dad tried to give away some of family heirlooms earlier, but somehow no one wanted to take anything out from under him leaving gaping holes on his walls and in the rooms he lived in. Some things had names put on them from when he had told his grandkids to do this at his 90th Birthday. There were other things that one or another of us had put dibs on or he had promised to us. I will have to share the stories of this meaningful stuff in separate posts.
I have a really hard time with meaningful stuff like family heirlooms being given away or sold to strangers. My tendency is to take what others don’t just so it stays in the family. I took more of that stuff than I intended because somebody had to keep them in the family, right?
As the designated Family Historian, I was tasked with going through the boxes of certificates, old letters, journals, unidentified photographs, and Mom’s youthful scrapbook full of ticket stubs, old programs and commemorative paper napkins. I did some tossing as I went through, with lots of scanning to digitize the memories, without having to keep all the stuff.
Dad had a library that seemed to go on and on, with many old, rare books. I ended up with more that I had space for so I ended up taking home a small bookcase which I immediately filled up. Mom was an artist, so the house was filled with her art work. Dad wanted every one of his children and grandchildren to have a painting. I think we eventually fulfilled that.
I attempted to keep with my hoarding-resistant pattern of getting rid of something when I acquire something new. This worked well with some pieces of heirloom furniture which replaced some things I donated to charity. I was amazed though at how a box full of random small stuff could so easily fit into my drawers and closets and on shelves – kind of like sand filling in the spaces between rocks in a jar.
To Sell and Not Really Make Money
We went through Dad’s house in winter, so rather than one big estate sale, we posted things online and ended up with several min-estate sales. At least we were able to keep going through cupboards and closets while waiting for the people who said they were interested in furniture, but never came. We had a few productive sale days. What was satisfying to me was sending items off with someone who I felt would give them a good home, either because they really needed something or because they loved those things.
One day someone who was interested in a family heirloom that no one in the family had a place for, showed up with two other women. They ended up going through the whole house and bought many things, including that heirloom cupboard which was quite a feat to get up the stairs and into their truck. This woman loved this cupboard and I shared the story of it with her. It had been in my Grandparent’s house in Jackson Hole where Grandpa homesteaded. In talking we found out that she knows a cousin well, one whose own father was born at that house in Jackson. She later sent me a picture of the cupboard in her house, all decorated for Christmas.
Giving Away Stuff and Memories
I felt good about other items finding good homes. There was a soup tureen from Mom’s stoneware set that was left in the house when she had given my brother the set. I sold the set to a friend when going through his stuff. She was excited to get the whole set. Then I gave her the tureen just in time to use for Thanksgiving dinner. We were able to find a good home for my brother’s large aquarium with a local non-profit. I took a whole carload of my mother-in-laws suits to the local women’s shelter.
Mom and Dad had made porcelain figurines for years and often gave them for gifts. They made good Christmas gifts, as did the books, movies and CD’s that went to a Veteran’s home. Blankets were given to those in need. I took a case of soap to a homeless shelter. Some things we just offered to whoever would haul them away. Because we were doing my Dad’s house during COVID, it was a challenge donating to thrift stores. We had to make appointmentsm, so tried to maximize with as much as we could take at a time.
Finally Dad’s house was empty, but there was still stuff in sheds in the yard when we put it up for sale. The people who quickly bought the house are now the new owners of some of that stuff. Sometimes leaving stuff behind is all you can do.