Photo by Sarah Whiting
Photo by Sarah Whiting

Year by year, item by item, many of our homes become repositories for stuff: our stuff, stuff from past generations, adult kids’ stuff, stuff that seems to just appear. We feel guilty about the mess and guiltier about letting things go.

I wrote a book about how I reclaimed my stories, my time, and my space. I am making sure that my loved ones are not left with a mess of stuff.

Backstory

My parents are depression-era second-generation Americans who kept everything because “you never know, it might come in handy sometime.” A musty basement overflowed with outdated newspapers, unpopular canned goods, and boxes overflowing with mystery contents.

Visits included emotional appeals to take an item that “I thought you would appreciate,” such as a tattered childhood book report and a 1960s game with missing pieces. The purpose of these items was not to revive it, but rather to cherish and preserve memories — that meant more to them than to me.

Given my own full life, it was faster to smile and take the stuff. This pattern continued for more than a decade. As other relatives died, my parents acquired their stuff too.

Buried among the stuff they didn’t want, but couldn’t release, were remnants of their stories. With each visit my hope was to find things to launch the stories my parents held most dear. What was it like to be a Big Band musician in all-girl groups? What insight did 60 years as a mortician offer about life and death? Yet as their health declined, a lifetime’s worth of stuff remained the topic of conversation — and a roadblock to action. “We’d move, but we have all this stuff!”

As a mortician’s daughter, I had been taught that funerals were the final chapter. After Dad died, my parents’ unfortunate relationship with stuff became part of his final story, written as we faced the mess that was left behind. Searching through drawers for time-sensitive burial documents, discovering outdated drugs in multiple locations — every drawer, box, and corner of their home was a potential hiding place. The search took weeks. In the chaos, fond memories were replaced by exhaustion and stress. Dad was a proud, happy man with a deep love for family and community. Clutter and stress were not the stories he intended to leave with us — but there we were.

Today, Mom remains alone in their home, consumed with stress over stuff.


Freedom

One day, while sitting on the floor of my living room after a particularly difficult visit, I hit a wall. I was exhausted and emotionally drained. I vowed to do everything I could to avoid a similar experience for my family.

I would not let our final years be all about stuff. Instead, I would start by embracing today. I would find a way to preserve the stories I most wanted to leave behind: stories of hope and love and family.

I would make those stories obvious, easy to know, and easy to find in my space. I would let go of distractors.

Much has changed since I began this journey. My home reflects my themes and favorite stories, and supports my current lifestyle. I have peace of mind knowing things are in good order for loved ones.

The positive impact has gone beyond minimizing cleanup and highlighting stories. I have clarity about the life I want to lead now and the legacy I hope to leave behind.

I’ve had eye-opening conversations about stuff with GenXers and Millennials.

I’ve let go of once-loved possessions that no longer fit my life.

I have space for new stories, physically and emotionally.

I’ve learned how much my family appreciates this work.

The biggest surprise is the freedom and flexibility I feel each day. I feel it, in an unexpected deep breath, a gentle quieting of the mind — like a storm starting to subside. With each conversation I have about the challenges of our stuff, I’m reminded how big — and common — this task is.



This is excerpted from Laura H. Gilbert’s 2018 book “The Stories We Leave Behind.”