At some point in just about everyone’s life the question of what to do with the possessions of those who have died comes into play. I was visiting with friends the other day when someone shared a really beautiful story. As her 100-year-old grandmother lay dying she gave them a stern directive: “It’s all just crap. If you see something you like, take it; otherwise just donate it or toss it. I won’t care.” How I wish those had been my mother’s last words to me. I was directed to save everything. My mother identified herself with her possessions. In her mind to toss something she loved would be the same as being disrespectful to her. In addition she had consciously purchased beautiful things so that I ‘ wouldn’t have to furnish my own home.’ The task would have been done for me. My mother loved the world of interior design. It never occurred to her that my taste would be completely different from hers or that I might actually enjoy the process of feathering my own nest.
Needless to say my friend’s grandmother gave her freedom and mine enslaved me to her ‘stuff’ for decades. This was long before I ever dreamed I’d become a professional organizer. In many ways the Universe was training me so that I might be able to help others with similar family issues. What did I do at the time? My innocent 25-year-old self maintained my parent’s retirement house nestled in the Allegheny Mountains for five years after their deaths. The heat was on in the winter and in the spring and summer people came to cut the three acres of grass that surrounded the home. I paid the property tax and visited a few times a year. While my ‘valuable things’ lived in Pennsylvania I was back home in Brooklyn in a tiny studio apartment. From this vantage point I can see how absurd the situation was but at the time I was an emotional slave to my dead mother’s wishes.
On the Road
After five years I decided to sell the house and move all the furnishings back to New York. I found a huge apartment in Forest Hills in the borough of Queens near the famed tennis courts. My new apartment was amazing and I remember it to this day. Fate however had other plans for me and in a surprise twist six months later I moved to Los Angeles. Once again I hauled everything with me and crossed the country somehow finding another apartment large enough to accommodate all my stuff. I marvel at the thousands of dollars I threw away due to this twisted sense of loyalty. Isn’t it amazing how we dress up neuroses and make it appear to be something wonderful? My life has been filled with miracles and more were on the horizon. The next one arrived in the form of a party invitation.
The Invisible Cord Snaps
I was told to come to this theme party and bring two items I would be willing to give to someone else. The caveat was that the items had to have a story. I was surrounded by stuff and considered canceling because I couldn’t imagine parting with anything. At the last minute I grabbed two decorative items and went off to the most unusual party of my life. We sat in a circle and each person shared the story of the item they had brought to give to someone else. The majority of the stories indicated that the items had belonged to deceased relatives and friends.
The next round was your opportunity to give your item to someone else. You had to tell them what in their story made you feel that your item now belonged to them. The final round allowed the new recipient to pass the item to someone he or she felt needed it more. Some people went home empty handed while others had a bevy of new treasures. Something happened to me that night and I knew the tie had been broken. It was indeed all-just ‘stuff’ and no dead person has ever come back looking for a single item. My mother would not be the exception. It took a few years but gradually from furniture to decorative items everything went except for two or three items that I truly wanted and still enjoy using. I found my own style and had great fun creating a space that reflects and enhances who I am at my core.
I hosted several of those ‘Share the Wealth’ parties over the years and it was my privilege to watch the invisible cord of attachment snap for others. I know they hosted such parties in their homes and the ripple effect is amazing to consider. If you are stuck in any way and weren’t lucky enough to have a grandma who released you it might be time to host a party for your circle of friends. What follows are some tips to help you make decisions about what is to go and how to dispose of it. I am not suggesting you dump the possessions of another without respect. Those items may indeed need new homes but the house they wend their way to need not be yours! Rather than a recipient see yourself as a good steward sending the items on to homes where they will have a new lease on life. It’s OK if you have to sell or donate the items. Let the Universe decide how they find a new home. You don’t have to personally place every cup and saucer.
Grandma’s Party Guidelines
A nice way to end is with a sweet dessert and some tea. This will give the participants time to digest what has happened beyond the literal exchange. Be sure and explain that leaving ‘empty handed’ indicates nothing special any more than leaving with multiple items means you’re more loved or special. And stress the importance of bringing an item that has true emotional value. This isn’t a While Elephant exchange!
Who gets your china?
The rubber hits the road for some people when the china in question is their own. It behooves all of us to have a written directive letting everyone you love and wish to honor know exactly what your intentions are for the items in your personal estate. If you feel comfortable have a chat with your closest friends and family to be sure you are leaving them something they will treasure. If they express no interest you are free to make other plans. Is there a charity you support? They may have the ability to accept items and in turn sell them for the charity. You might leave your books to the local library and your china to a women’s shelter. There is no right or wrong but there are myriad ways to be both generous and creative.
‘The Zen Organizer’
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