Packing Up a Life

I haven’t been able to sit down and write for a while, but I’ve definitely been writing blog posts in my head. I wasn’t sure where to start. I’ve decided to write about last week, when my sister and I spent 7 out of 8 days at my parents’ house.

In May, we decided it was time to go through their things. We know they aren’t going back to their house and it only makes sense, from an expense perspective, to sell the house. I sometimes think it sure would have been easier to do all of this when they could make their own decisions about what to do with things. Other times, I wonder if it wasn’t easier for us to just do it.

When my mom had her cancer diagnosis two years ago, she started to ask all of us what we wanted. We took a few things and my nieces have their names on the items they chose.

My mom and dad had also started getting rid of things on their own. There were very few Christmas decorations. My dad had already sold all of his guns. All of this did make our job easier. But it doesn’t mean there still wasn’t a lot to go through.

Getting started

We started by designating a spot for accumulating all the things we expected to sell. We’ve had so many garage sales over the years, we knew we could handle another one. Then we picked one room at a time and focused on it until we were finished.

The first and second days were the most productive. We made great progress, filling up several garbage bags and the “sell room”. We emptied all drawers, cabinets, and closets. We identified those things we each wanted, as well as things we thought the girls might want. We created special piles for those things.

We never argued about what each of us wanted or what to throw away. You hear so many horror stories about families fighting over who gets what. We had none of that. Some things we split evenly, such as the gazillions of light bulbs they had. With other things, we each have our favorites and it was no problem deciding who should get a treasured item.

Well, wait. There are two items we haven’t decided on yet. They were placed between our two piles. They have no value to anyone but us. They were simply things we used a lot when we were growing up – an ice cream scoop and a cake spatula. Anyone else would look at those and say, what??? I guess they just remind us of happy times.

I think what helps is, my mom and dad don’t have a lot of family heirlooms. Fortunately, she had begun marking those they do have so we would know where they came from. We are definitely holding onto those. I already have a few, like the little dish from my dad’s mom that I use to keep my jewelry in when I take it off each night.

A tough day

By Tuesday, it started getting to me. Maybe it was because we’d visited my mom’s primary care doctor (who has also been my doctor for over 30 years) to get some straight answers about her condition. I knew she’d be honest with me. She pretty much told us she wasn’t going to get any better. I think we knew that in our heads, but it’s still tough to hear. I didn’t realize how tough until later in the day, when I broke down.

I kept thinking about how we were packing up someone else’s life and memories. All of these things meant something to them, even if they didn’t mean anything to us. And we had to make decisions about all of it. The weight of it finally got to me.

It’s also a little unsettling to be doing this while they’re still alive. I know older couples often go through a downsizing period but that’s when they’re still involved. This made me feel like they weren’t even here anymore.

My dad asked about the doctor visit, of course, and I had to be honest with him. He took it hard, which didn’t help me at all. But I know it was the right thing to do, so we could focus on what she needs now to be comfortable and happy.

I’m not saying we’ll give up hope, but we’ll hope for different things. Right now, it’s all about her safety, as she has a tendency to do things that make her fall.

It’s definitely helped that Vintage Hills is letting them spend time together now (as part of Phase 2 of the reopening). I know the not knowing was what stressed my dad out the most. Now he can go to the memory care area any time he wants to see her and back to his apartment when he feels it’s time.

The home stretch

It was easier after Tuesday to get back to work. However, we could tell we were pooping out. We’d start the day talking about things, take a break when my brother in law brought lunch, and end the day talking about the next day. I think it was good for both of us to have this time together. I can’t imagine doing this without my sister.

As you’d expect, some rooms were easier than others. Going through both of their closets meant a lot of decision making – what might they still want, what should we try to sell, what should we donate, what should just be thrown away.

We’ve put aside a few things to go through later. We aren’t sure what to do with some of my mom’s collectibles and there are pictures and family history information to make decisions about. We said that could be a winter project.

What comes next?

On the last day, we spent a good deal of time talking about how we were going to manage this. A garage sale would not be simple. The non-furniture items would be big enough to handle, but what about all the furniture? We can’t fit everything in the garage and what if it rains? Do we want people traipsing through the house? Are people even going to garage sales right now?

I am feeling overwhelmed by it all. We decided to explore options and we met with a company on Wednesday to find out how they might help us. It sounds like people are having success with online auctions right now.

They would do everything for us, if that’s what we wanted. It comes at a price, of course, but I think they might be able to get more money for some items through an auction than we could through a garage sale. We can still handle the donations and other things.

Not knowing how much we might get for everything makes it challenging to compare this option to our original garage sale plan. We also have to weigh the work and coordination involved.

There may be more to move to my dad’s apartment and my mom’s room. Since we haven’t been able to get into their places at Vintage Hills, we have no idea what else they need. At a minimum, we’d like to hang some artwork. But we don’t know what sizes we need or how many pieces. This pandemic thing is a real pain. We may just have to make a few decisions and hope we get it right.

My own life

This whole process has motivated me to do some organizing of my own life. I have been planning to donate clothes but I know there’s a lot more I should go through. You know how things accumulate over time?

I really need to clean out drawers and closets more often and stop saving half-used items and things I know I’ll never use. The closet in my studio has become a bit of a dumping ground. That’s my first project.

I know someday someone will have to go through my things. I don’t know who it will be, but I would like to make this process as easy as I can for them. I’m also realistic enough to know most of what I have will have no value to anyone else.

Although I would like to think maybe a niece, a grandniece, or a granddaughter might have fond memories of spending time with me and find a couple of mementos in all this mess.

25 thoughts on “Packing Up a Life”

  1. My experiences mirror yours to an extent. My stepdad died last year. Mom’s memory issues were much worse than I realized. Throw in a 3rd bout with cancer, and the last year has been super difficult. I got her moved to memory care a mere two weeks before covid hit. Then it was a rush to empty the house so it could be sold to pay her monthly fees. SO much stuff! Years of accumulation was cleared in just a month by me (an only child with no kids) and my supportive hubby. It’s been a journey. I keep reading about how Americans are drowning in “stuff” and I can honestly say I believe that is true. Maybe covid will teach us all to appreciate what we have and stop accumulating more, though I doubt it.

    1. Your situation sounds much worse than ours so I feel for you. My mom wasn’t a big keeper of things but she did like to decorate. I tend to agree about drowning in stuff and my plan is to start weeding things out. I know it won’t be easy. Thanks Bobi.

  2. My mom is 94 now and is still in relatively good health except she has developed breast cancer. So far there isn’t any pain. She has decided not to have any treatment, which my brother and I agree with. She has been slowly cleaning out her home as the days, weeks, and months roll by. My son and my brother help her with this. I would too except I live three states away.

    I don’t think people get attached to “things” like they used to so this chore ends up being a little easier to deal with.

    1. You may be right about that. I think my dad thinks more about what my mom would think forgetting that she wasn’t a keeper. He’s just very melancholy right now and worries way too much. In the end, we’ll all be fine.

  3. It all sounds so stressful for you and your sister. My sibs and I were lucky for the most part because my parents managed to deal with most of their possessions prior to moving into independent living. We all got we wanted, or at least lip service was made to that effect. 😉 In your case, you both are having to make such difficult calls; I do wish you well with it.

    On a sidenote, I love the light bulb fetish of your dad’s. 🙂

    1. Thanks Marty. We found light bulbs all over the house, some in the oddest places. Almost like they stuck them anywhere there was a spot. Not sure why so many, but my mom was like that with things like aluminum foil too. I’ve heard similar stories about the types of things parents keep buying whether they need them or not. Makes for a good story. 😊

  4. Linda, a formidable task for sure. Your comments resonated with me, #1 being the motivation to do some organizing/preparation for the time I need to leave this house. like with so many end-of-life decisions, I’ll make the decisions or someone will make them for me. My mom moved into an assisted living lodge a year ago. She hasn’t returned to her home once, saying “I’ll tell you when I’m ready” after an offer to take her there. Her home needed to be dealt with and her dementia (?)keeps her from even asking about it. I am packing up someone else’s life as if she isn’t there. And the fact of the matter is, she is in another place mentally & physically. So many of those things no longer have meaning to her; she doesn’t even know they’re there. So many of the things in her home have no value to anyone, not even us. I cleared out 30 yrs of greeting cards that mom had saved. It was obvious that she hadn’t ever revisited them when the elastics that bound them would disintegrate. There are oodles of unused Christmas decorations, books from 90 yrs ago from another generation. And what is with the oodles of spare light bulbs? Do you want to make money from the remaining items or do you want to clear out the house? A friend of mine had a similar experience in the past yr. She did have a garage sale and put as many items in one room for people to see besides the stuff in the garage. Pictures were posted so people could see what else there was if they were interested. You’re to be commended for your effort. It’s not the physical work of doing this that’s so hard; it’s the emotional toll.

    1. Our situation is very similar in that my mom doesn’t ask for or even recognize things that used to mean so much to her. I knitted an afghan for her years ago and she told me often how much she loved it. She doesn’t even recognize it now. I don’t think our goal is to make a lot of money, although we want as much as possible for my parents’ financial security. You’re right; it’s definitely taking an emotional toll. Thanks Mona.

  5. I feel for you! My Mom passed away 10 years ago and yes we went throught so much, but I still have stuff in my garage. Then we sold our lake home 4 years ago, and it has been tough going through the stuff and it brings so many wonderful memories! I know in a few years we will be downsizing and this has to be done. I just pray I live to do this and not leave to my beautiful Daughter! Must get started sooner than later, so I say!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. I think we all have good intentions but there is so much that you can’t just throw away as if it never mattered. I’m sometimes too sentimental for my own good. I also have a tendency to think I might use something someday and then never do!! Thanks Pam.

  6. I was just reading an organizing book, and one of the things they mentioned is that some day someone is going to have to sift through your belongings. I actually think there’s a term or movement for that. But most of all…hang in there….sending good thoughts

    1. I’m going to think about that now with whatever I buy and keep. But I’m also going to have things that make me happy. 😉. Thanks for the good thoughts. We definitely need them!!

  7. Linda,
    Some intangible things (your time and sanity) are worth more than money. I have gone to “tag sales” where the company does all the work. In my opinion, it is the way to go. Whatever you do, just don’t beat yourself up over it. In the end, it’s just stuff and your parents would not want Terri and you to be stressed out about it. You are doing the best you can with a situation that is difficult. Focus on the love of family and cherish the memories. ❤️

    1. As we progresssed through the week, I became less and less excited about trying to have a garage sale. It just didn’t seem feasible for us. And who knows what we would have had to spend to do that anyway. None of us are equipped to carry furniture up the stairs and out the door so why kid ourselves? We talked to my dad and he’s all for it. He’s so grateful for what we’re already doing. Thanks An’Nyce.

  8. Oh, Linda, I feel for you and Terri! But yes, aren’t you glad you have each other! My parents downsized a ton when they retired to AZ and gave me much stuff then. Then my dad downsized again when he moved back to IA and gave me lots of my mom’s things. Then when he passed, it seemed there was still alot to go through but I’m sure not half what you have had to go through. It is funny, how it is usually some small item of no monetary value only sentimental meaning that ends up being what loved ones want to keep!
    Sorry to hear of your mom’s prognosis. ❤

    1. I’ve been surprised by what my nieces have chosen. You never know what has meaning to them. They’ve always been very tradition oriented so I see some of that in their choices. It’s easy for us in terms of what to keep as we both already have plenty of our own stuff. The few things I’ve brought home are easily assimilated into my stuff.
      Her prognosis was tough to hear but after almost 5 months, it wasn’t a huge surprise. I think my dad especially needed to hear it and face the reality. It also helps him to better understand how she acts and feels.
      Thanks Caroline.

  9. Unfortunately, I’ve been through this and a memory of that came up on my Facebook today. It was 4 years ago. My mom had already passed away and my dad moved to the nursing home. It was the 2nd time my brother and I sorted through everything. The 1st was when they moved from their home of 50+ years to assisted living. The 2nd time was harder.

    As you say, it makes it easier when there is no arguing over items. My brother and I argued over nothing, allowing for peace and calm as we made decisions.

    I, too, kept a few items that reminded me of growing up – sauce pans, measuring cups and salad bowls.


    1. I’m hoping we’ve been through the worst of it, since going through everything is the toughest. Now, if we can use this company to take care of selling it, we should be good to go. Is that wishful thinking? At least we aren’t dealing with a death at the same time, but it can feel that way at times. Thanks Trudy.

  10. We are still going through my parents house, so understand your feelings. Our hardest part is my brother will remain in the house. Its tough to remove things.

    1. Sounds like you can only do so much with your brother staying there. I’m hoping we can get this done and move on as quickly as possible. Good luck to you. Thanks Babet.

  11. It’s such a challenging time. My parents both were constantly downsizing in their own home, but there are still many rooms of things, some heirlooms, that would be hard to just let go of. But my house is a third of the size of theirs (and theirs is an average size home, not a large estate or anything) and I cringe every time a child comes home with another thing grandma gave them.

    Then my dad died.

    Some people hang on to stuff for a while. My mom didn’t. She packed up everything and got rid of his clothes and personal belongings within a couple of weeks after he passed. It’s just how she is. But there are still so many things there that belonged to both of them.

    You have to wonder how, or when, all of this stuff will be dealt with. In addition, I have my own house and pack rat family to contend with…

    It’s all very challenging.

    Good luck to you all!

    1. My mom isn’t usually one to keep things, but it’s surprising some of the things we’ve found. She obviously kept more cards, notes and other things from our childhood as well as things from her grandkids than we thought. Thanks Claudette.

  12. What a difficult time for you. I hope you continue to take care of yourself and find time to enjoy your retirement.

    I worry about all our stuff. My husband refuses to get rid of anything. He said we’ll be dead and won’t have to worry about it. I would feel better with a plan. I’ve wondered about estate sales and how those work.

    1. I’ll let you know how the sale goes. I sure hope it’s the right thing to do, but I guess we’ll never know for sure. I just know it will make things a lot easier for us. Thanks Donna!!

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