Women often feel the weight of responsibility to maintain family connections and history. We are the keepers of the social calendars, planners of family events, and coordinators of holidays. Many times, we are the caretakers of relatives and the one on whom the downsizing and estate settlement responsibilities fall.
Generations of stuff
It’s no wonder that we often take it upon ourselves to preserve the family history from generation to generation. I often work with women that have entire homes full of their stuff, their parent’s stuff, their spouse’s parent’s stuff and their grandparents’ stuff. These Keepers of the Family Story are holding on to all these things to hand down to their children and grandchildren. It’s what they saw their parents and their grandparents do — handing down the family story by handing down the family possessions.
Buried in stuff?
I often see the Family Story Keeper who is literally buried in stuff, overwhelmed and frustrated that she can never schedule time with her adult children to go through all the stuff and (finally) take the things they want. Family Story Keepers often feel they can’t move forward until family members all come together and review these things together. And so, they spend yet another year in a home that is too big and hard to maintain or delay their own plans to move.
As a Professional Organizer, I help families navigate life transitions
As a mom, I understand the importance of a family’s shared history, the records of those precious relationships and the recording of those precious stories. Yet, the story often gets lost in the stuff. There is nothing sadder than going through things after a loved one is gone and knowing that the ‘history’ has gone with them. Don’t let your family story get lost in the stuff.
Here is my advice to ensure you carry forward the family story without needing to carry forward everything else.
- Break down the project for easy decision making According to a UCLA study on clutter, the majority of Americans describe their homes as ‘cluttered’. Adult children may be struggling with their own guilt or feelings of overwhelm from not finishing baby books to managing professional demands and this season’s sports schedule. When I am working with a family to downsize for a transition, I break the entirety of the project down to manageable steps. For example, a recent client had downsized to a smaller home five years ago but had been unable to unpack much her things due to her role as a caretaker. Both of her adult children took one look at her basement and said, ‘We don’t want anything!’. The OrganizeWell team worked with the client to sort and categorize everything in the basement. All obviously damaged items were discarded, and many donations were made. We set aside two areas for each adult child with clearly labeled bins for easy review. Both of her children made time to review their bins and both discovered items they actually wanted to keep. By breaking down and pre-staging these decisions, the client is satisfied that her children will keep and treasure some of the family items that are important to her. And, the adult children are happy that the process was relatively pain-free and quick.
- Bridge the generational change of what younger adults use today There is a huge difference in the size and volume of things in the average American home. In 1950, the average home was 983 square feet. Today, the average home is over 2,500 square feet and is much fuller of paper, technology, photos, and decorative things than the homes of the 1950’s. Families are often smaller, which means more stuff to distribute per child. The logistics of getting family together for long enough to work through decisions are more complicated than ever. And, while we are blessed to live longer than ever before, it means we may be trying to find room for a grandparent’s large dining room set in an adult child’s home already full of furniture. One client I worked with shared that when her husband was alive, she hosted two large Thanksgiving parties and two large Christmas dinners every year. She had a large amount of beautiful holiday serving pieces, crystal and dishes, but she was unable to cook/host anymore. Her daughter currently hosted Thanksgiving/Christmas but much more informally that the family dinners of the past. I suggested my “Chinet Plate Rule” of table decorating: “Would this serving piece or table decor go with Chinet/paper plates?” The client picked out some lovely platters and bowls that would look festive on an informal buffet table and we set them aside for her daughter. Her daughter was happy to have the items as they were useful and would complement her holiday style without adding to her clutter!
- Carry forward the story without carrying forward everything – let the children choose As a professional organizer, my job is to work with families to navigate these tricky negotiations. I always tell clients that I like to think in terms of Challenges and Solutions.
I remember working with a client who was closing her mother’s estate and selling the home in Chicago. Her adult child was out of state, and she was disappointed that he could not fly back and see the home one more time and choose what he wanted to have from his grandmother’s things. She was considering her options to pack the items that he might want of his grandmother’s and place them in a storage unit until he could travel to Chicago. When she asked me for advice, I stressed she had placed a tremendous burden on herself to try to decide for him and pack, move, and store all the ‘might want’ items.
My client was pretty adept with an iPhone, so I suggested she schedule a FaceTime session with her son, where she could walk with him virtually through her mother’s home and share their memories and say goodbye to the house. I also suggested she offer to take and store anything he wanted, but I stressed the importance of letting him pick what he wanted. I even said she might be surprised by what he picked. The next week, we meet for our usual organizing session, and she was beaming! She told me the FaceTime meeting did work well. It gave her the closure she needed, and they had a wonderful time sharing the good memories of the house and of her mother.
Best of all, her son did indeed express that there was something he really wanted from the house. Three small blue plates that hung on the kitchen wall. He related how he would walk to his grandmother’s house after school, and she would always have a snack for him in the kitchen. From where he sat as a young boy at her kitchen table, the blue plates were in his line of vision and served as a reminder to him of those special afternoons he had shared with his grandmother. In telling me this story, my client admitted that she probably would have saved and stored half of the items in the house but probably would have donated those plates. She went on to tell me how easy it became to let much of the remaining stuff go once she had the certainty and the comfort that her son was keeping something from her mother that had great sentimental value to him.
The Family Story is composed of the ordinary moments of our lifetimes woven together but can be lost in the sheer volume of a family’s possessions. The most rewarding part of my job is when I literally lighten the physical burden on Family Story Keepers and still give them the comfort of preserving the most precious items and history for future generations to love.