My parents were hoarders. They kept everything because they believed that everything had the potential of getting used. When relatives bought new kitchen curtains or bath towels, shower curtains or blankets, they’d pass along their older stuff to my family. My father was a penny pincher and so the relatives felt they were helping to give our family new-to-us items for our home.
Some items got used. Some didn’t. Items got stored in unlabeled trash bags and boxes up in the attic. I remember my mother sending me up into the attic to paw through bag-after-bag in search of kitchen curtains and bedspreads.
After my mother passed and my father went into assisted living after being diagnosed with dementia, I started cleaning out the collections of stuff that had made the 800-square-foot ranch-style house a dark, cramped living space.
My brother and I filled four 30-yard Dumpsters (and that still didn’t empty the house). I made numerous trips to the Salvation Army donation center a few miles away. We held a yard sale.
I found items that had probably belonged to my grandparents and even great-grandparents – the tchotchkes essential to the décor of those time periods. I looked at all these items that I had never seen before and felt … nothing.
If my parents had valued any of these items or held close memories of the original owners of these items, we couldn’t tell. A box filled with turn-of-the-20th-century items was piled between a box of thirty-year-old car magazines and a bag of clothing from when I was in elementary school.
Our house was filled with the type of mass-produced knickknacks that cost three dollars and ninety-nine cents while the attic hid vintage and antique items that would have personalized the interior of the house.
Not to sound like horribly unsentimental people, but none of this stuff meant anything to me or my brother. Decluttering the attic and basement of our childhood home was, at times, like sorting through a stranger’s house.
The market was (and still is) glutted with cut-glass bowls and silver-plated trays that don’t complement today’s decorating standards. All this stuff didn’t mean anything to anyone else, either.
What Do Items You’ve Inherited Mean to You?
While decluttering, an older neighbor from my apartment asked about my efforts. I commented that all the stuff in my parents’ house was overwhelming – what was I supposed to do with it?
Her response? “Wrap up everything and put it back in the boxes and bring the boxes here. Store them in your area of the basement until you buy a house.”
And that woke me up.
This is what my parents had done. Wrapped up items, tucked them into boxes, and stuck them in the attic. When I found the items, the yellowed newsprint was dated the year they moved into their house. These items had spent 38-years stored in the attic.
Did these items mean anything to my parents if they never incorporated them into their home? I’ll never know.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter what my parents thought or felt about these items they had stored in boxes. These things now belonged to me and brother. Did the items mean anything to me or my brother? No.
It can be difficult to decide what inherited items mean to you, but once you gain that clarity, you can release your doubt and questions.
Is There a Best Time to Declutter Inherited Items?
Please note that I’m not prompting you to discard cherished items. You make your decisions. If you have a room filled with boxes of items that you’ve inherited and you’re okay with the space you are devoting to these boxes, then you’ve made your decision. (And I’ve met people who’ve decided that they want to keep items in boxes.) A year or five or ten from now you may decide to make another decision. And that’s okay.
If you have boxes of stuff that you’ve inherited but have never gone through, plan time to sit down and go through the boxes. Sometimes, people hold onto boxes thinking that it will be too emotional to sort through the items. When they finally open the boxes, they find a haphazard assortment of shopping lists, greeting cards, address books, candles and other items that have no significance other than being part of cleaning out an apartment or house.
I certainly held onto a few items for a couple of years before feeling comfortable with de-owning them.
Find the Memories, then Find the Items
Realize that the item no longer belongs to its original owner. It’s your item. You aren’t saving the item for its former owner.
Start with your favorite memories of the person you inherited the items from. Is there an item or items that symbolize that memory? If you went fishing with your grandfather, then his fishing pole or hat may be an item that you’d cherish. Find a place to display the item, perhaps next to a photo. Consider if other items that belonged to that person are as important and necessary to keep.
Or, tuck the item into a memory box that you go through a time or two each year, reflecting on your memories.
If you find yourself holding an item that belonged to a relative, but you have no memories of this person, what do you get from the item? You may feel a connection to your ancestors through the item which gives it personal value.
Storing Inherited Items
I feel that if an item is special to you in some way, you should display it. Or, at least have it in a drawer or cabinet that you go into frequently, allowing you to view the item. Maybe you keep your grandmother’s earrings in your jewelry box even though you’d never wear them. Maybe your father’s favorite tie hangs from a hook in your closet.
Do you really want to keep items in a cardboard box in your garage? I find that a sad fate for things you say are special.
Deciding to Sort through Inherited Items
You’ll decide when you feel comfortable sorting through boxes of inherited items. However, if the items are crowding your living space or preventing you from using your garage or basement the way you’d like to use these spaces, then consider what is most important – your life and that of your spouse and children or storing boxes of objects that now belong to you?
You probably won’t be able to make decisions shortly after losing someone close to you. But, sometimes, the longer you wait, the more important you believe the items must be. Sit down with a close friend or family member as you uncover what you’ve kept and decide what you will hold onto.
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Susan, chief (and only) organized squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life, pursues learning, practicing, and sharing information about the everyday habits that can lead to living a better life.