Saturday, April 25, 2009

Distributing a Life of "Stuff"

A friend recently posted a note about having to clear out her mother-in-law's meager possessions after she'd passed away. Her MIL had been living in an assisted living facility, so it's not that she had many possessions in that space.

Although the pile of stuff was relatively small, my friend still had a hard time letting go of these things. Thank goodness some things could be passed on or used by other members of the family - a frying pan or robe. Other possessions were baffling to find a new home for them. They must be of use to someone! Yet why did her care-givers keep buying her yet more nightgowns, more hair "product"? And what about old wedding announcements and letters from her sister? They all became things to get rid of eventually.

It seems my friend's difficulty in getting rid of any little thing comes partly from her poverty-stricken past (as she freely admits) and partly from maybe not wanting to shuffle her MIL's memory off so quickly. But more of her disquiet seems to come from just, stuff. You know, *stuff*. The stuff that we accumulate in our lives to some little, big, or no purpose. And what the heck to do with it, now that it has entered our lives demanding time and energy.

Yup, when we pass on, our stuff becomes other people's stuff to deal with. Is it any easier to deal with other people's stuff than one's own?

On one hand, I like to have a say in what happens to my own stuff. On the other hand, it's sometimes easier to deal with other people's stuff more dispassionately. ... Or not.

The one time that my sister and brother-in-law had to leave to go overseas for a year (in a hurry - plane to catch, lease to fulfill, etc), they left (at the last minute, because who has times to tie up all the loose ends when the semester is about to start?) an apartment full of stuff to sort, to throw out or to move to a designated storage unit for a year. My mom and I and my sister's in-laws made a heroic effort to clear the space of their remaining possessions before the lease ran out.

Some things were easy -- that half-used jar of mayo in the fridge or nearly empty bottle of nasal spray under the bathroom sink. Other things were harder - crafts that might have been artwork and possibly useful herbal supplements in the kitchen cabinets. I can't even remember (don't want to remember) how many bags of stuff I threw out or how many bags and boxes of stuff I packed and moved in the back of my truck across the county. It was daunting. And one sometimes ran across things that were a little personal. Nothing bad, but just a little awkward to find. Oh, I didn't really need to know about THAT. (If my sister is reading, Don't worry, I've wiped my memory on purpose - I don't need to have any of that knowledge in permanent storage!)

It was an interesting exercise in cleaning up someone else's stuff in a hurry. Cleaning and sorting someone else's stuff, period!

I start to understand why some perfectly useful things end up in landfills. I can see that one might throw up ones hands and say "Trash it! Just get it out of my sight!" I have that impulse about my own stuff sometimes, and that's a whole 'nother post I hope to write someday.

So my friend talks about clearing out a room or two and how hard it is to distribute everything appropriately. I start to think (again) about what I am going to do when it comes time for me, as executor, to distribute my parent's property. (I'll let that thought sink in for a moment...)

Okay, yes, my parents have a moderately sized house. Four bedrooms plus a family room, plus various closets and an attic too. It is all filled with stuff. My mother has been fighting The Stuff for years. She's laid down a few grounds rules because my father, he of the Great Depression childhood, is always rescuing stuff and bringing it home.

This salvaging tendency has its upsides and downsides. The upside being that lots of perfectly useful things are not just tossed into the landfill to molder. (Helloooo, baby clothes.) The downside being that one (especially my Dad) can end up with a LOT of stuff that you will fix or use someday.

I know, I know. I have written about this before. It's one of the themes of my life: What to do with stuff. Especially stuff that is not quite right and not quite used, but might be useful or used someday. Some people cannot leave an abandoned animal alone and bring them home. I can't stand to see something being neglected.... poor little wingback chair! Let me take you home and fix you up pretty again. No, I am not kidding.

But the things we leave other people... that is a task. And yes, my parents will be leaving me a large task.

I did mention this to my mother about a decade ago, about how I was trepidacious about distributing their mass of household stuff when that time came. I think she said, "Oooh..." with some recognition. I think that's when she enacted some new ground rules to slow the flow of stuff coming in.

And this post of my friend's brings this back to my attention. Part of me is paniced, resigned, dreading this eventuality. Part of me is plotting strategies to do it! Supposedly it is easier with another person's stuff. But that's not taking into account the extra layer of nostalgia and competition. My sisters and I will have to find a way to be equitable.

So my mind is thinking, what, database? A spreadsheet! Okay, so we each pick a room and document what is there so we can figure out what we want to save for outselves and what to distribute.

After my grandfather died and we had to clean out the farmhouse, my eldest uncle (as executor) had what I thought was a great strategy.

Everything in the house and property was documented and listed. Then it was mostly laid out for the family to come through and see. *Then* each person and each family made a ranked list of what items they wanted. Starting in order of birth, each child and each family got to pick thier number one thing on their list... if someone higher than them hadn't already gotten it. So first, it was my uncle, then my aunt, then my other uncle, and finally my father, the youngest child of the family. Then it went to spouses... my aunt, my uncle, my other aunt, my mother. Then it went to eldest grandchild in each family, and so on through the lists... If the next thing on the list had already been chosen, you got to pick the next thing available on your list. It seems like a beautiful, elegant system, other than a few things on our lists that did not appear to exist any more. That old mirror my mother wanted, the crystal goblets on my list that turned out to have been loaned by my aunt.

Some of my cousins pooped out early. No, no, we couldn't take another thing! They said. And they were smart. But when it came down to old screwdrivers and pottery crocks, I was still there. That's why I have a fair number of mundane odds and ends that I'm very sentimental about. That's also why I have all of my grandfather's mismatched flatware, depressionware glass plates and a couple of old quilts. (One sister and one cousin to this day complain bitterly that they did not get a quilt. I have to wonder where were they when they were choosing items. I didn't go for the silver; I went for mundane but nostalgic stuff.)

So I have this as a good model for how to distribute a whole household and farm worth of stuff. I think this would work on my parent's house. But first, we'd have to clean and sort... and then negotiate with my sisters about how fast to get rid of things (since they have equally bad tendencies to hang on to stuff). But I'm thinking one of those rent-a-dumpsters for cleaning, sort, document, distribute, then estate sale for anything left over! I may have to pry extra duplicates out of my sister's hands out of mercy. Then to fix up and sell the house... do I even have time to do this for my own stuff?!

There could be complications. Nostalgia and competitions, conflicting ideas of how to undertake this task.

If I'm lucky, my parents will pare down on their own and even sell the house before we get to that point. But I'm not counting on it. I know I shouldn't worry about things ahead of time. I'm trying to NOT spend time energy worrying about it. But I do think it's worth thinking about ways to approach it. Because one way or another, I'll have to deal with their stuff someday, just as someone will have to deal with *my* stuff someday. Now that's a scary thought!

On that note, I'm going to start bagging some stuff for the thriftstore.

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