The three women are my sisters and I. The dumpster deposited for three weeks at my Aunt Ruthie’s house on Anchor Road was 30 feet long. Or should I say “is”? Weeks ago, a husky guy with an extra-long tow truck carted off the mammoth container filled to the brim, but my memory of the sight of the disappearing hulk is as sharp as though it happened today. (Click below to see the show!)
Into the dumpster went squirrel-nibbled National Geographics and Readers’ Digests; we saved the Priscilla magazine editions from the early 1900s. We threw out, kept, and donated the possessions of four or more generations: some special artifacts went to the Anabaptist and Pietist Center at Elizabethtown College. We set aside most of the furniture, wall hangings, photographs, blankets, and crockery to keep or sell.
This energy-sapping, emotionally draining experience of clearing out Aunt Ruthie’s house continued for four months.
Now we’re older, more tired, but wiser.
Some tips for Dumpster Damsels
- Wear masks
- Expect to develop muscles flinging stuff from the attic, dragging bags without going to the gym,
- Work in pairs, or single efforts
Sister Jean assisted with identifying items using a journal of provenance created when she and Aunt Ruthie went through her valuables many years ago.
- Ask for help!
- Savor treasures + treasure your history
- Take off mask and make time to smell the roses and other natural beauty beyond the walls
As a point # 7, I could use the metaphor of sisters (including me) with porcupine quills, but I’ll resist. It’s hard to do such intense work without conflict, as emotionally draining as it is physically—and in such close proximity—for months on end.
We spent half of every month between February and May together this year moving from attic to cellar, from house to barn to garage, curating as we cleared out. We stayed on speaking terms. One sister even remarked, “I’ll miss this!” meaning being together as we honor our legacy.
Two Authors, On Dumpsters and Bulldozers
One of my favorite authors is memoirist/novelist Dani Shapiro. I have read many of her books. My Mother’s Day gift, Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage flashed a light or two on the dark corners of the dumpster dilemma. Here are her thoughts from pages 34-35:
After our housecleaning, we still had a few rooms that remained untouched. We kept waiting for a rainy weekend to tackle the basement, which, M. [husband] would argue, ought to be next on our list. But I found it overwhelming. The basement requires a Dumpster, or at the very least a pickup truck to haul stuff away.
It was easy to part with the contents of closets and drawers—the old sweaters, jeans, dresses, boots. The gold satin dress by the Italian designer, worn to a friend’s black-tie wedding . . . the scraped-to-shit pans, broken thermometers, stained dishtowels. But to get rid of my mother’s sister’s china, for instance, is to cut loose the hopeful young woman who chose the pattern decorated with cheerful bursts of gold and silver confetti. To tape up that box and cart it off to Goodwill kills her all over again. Or perhaps this is sentimental and foolish. She’s dead, dead, dead.
Rainy weekends come and go. The basement remains an obstacle course of boxes. I can’t part with the framed diplomas of my parents and their siblings. They were the first generation in my family to go to college. How does that get tossed in a Dumpster? My uncle’s pipe, my aunt’s forty-year-old golf clubs, ceramic figurines from my grandmother’s apartment in her assisted-living facility mingle as if at a family reunion with [son] Jacob’s discarded booster seats and board games. I am an only child. I have inherited it all.
[My husband] goes there, once in a while, and hauls up a few boxes filled with long plastic containers of slides. There are thousands and thousands of them, mostly from my parents’ vacation, and they’ll be ruined soon if not already. He sifts through them and digitizes the ones with people in them. These are few and far between.
“What we have,” he tells me, “are endless Alps.”
Ruth Bell Graham, wife of the evangelist, hears stern words about her hoarding habit in the recently released Legacy of a Packrat, page 13:
You need to get a bulldozer to clean out your attic,” Bill exclaimed one day. “All that junk—just clean it out and burn it. You’ll never use it. And what will the family do with it after you’re gone?”
“Get a bulldozer and clean it out,” I replied.
And so it went. For years. And the wonderful old attic continued to accept contributions gracious, endlessly, never complaining.
A trunk going back to my childhood in China . . . Newspaper clippings of the fall of Shanghai to the Japanese in 1957 . . . High school in Korea, old love letters from Bill, boxes of photographs . . . An old Roman earthenware bowl dug up from the Thames River . . . A box of arrowheads and spearheads from Australia . . . Crutches to fit any height . . . Christmas ornaments . . . My old wedding dress (the veil was used to trim four bassinets; when Ned, the fifth, arrived he had to make do with a cradle) . . . Enough old luggage to start a used luggage shop . . .
A veritable treasure trove of disorganized surprises.
“When are you going to clear our the attic—all that old stuff you save? You’ll never use it. The children won’t know what to do with it–”
And so it has gone. Year after year.
Ruthie’s Display of Intention
Minimalists clash with conservators when it comes to keeping “stuff.” Many millenials don’t want old stuff, so it’s no surprise they may not want your stuff!
According to this article no one wants your stuff anymore, published at www.nextavenue.org.
What do you think about the headline in this article? Do you have children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews who think the opposite and cherish hand-me-downs?
Have you experienced clearing out a loved one’s house? Please do add another tip to my list. Or, share a story of your experience.
Dear Marian, you’ve shown us the Herculean nature of the clearing out task. So many layers of physical and emotional challenges which are difficult to tackle in one full swoop as you all did. Discerning the treasures from the trash sounds exhausting. I keep thinking I need to start that clearing out process now, a little at a time. I know our children neither want or need all our “stuff”. I’m happy to hear you sisters accomplished this with your relationships intact😊
Hercules is the right god to summon as a metaphor for this process. Atlas would work too.
A little at a time is the right way to tackle the job. We had a deadline to meet which added to the burden. We focused on the goal: Honoring our legacy the best way we knew how. I hear your voice of empathy, Kathy. Thank you!
I cared for my dad for his last three and a half years and watched as his posssesions which once filled a home, dwindled to filling a luggage cart. It’s a good perspective to use as we go through life. Possessions need to be easily carried because we will leave them behind. We need to sense what real treasure is. The things I treasure about my dad don’t take up much space and are easy to carry. Blessings to you and Cliff, we miss seeing you each week.
That is so true, Matt, we take nothing with us. I am glad that son Joel brought back with some mementos from Aunt Ruthie’s house. None of them were very expensive, but some are intended to pass on, like my little -girl rocking chair.
After the sale this weekend, I hope life will return to more normal rhythms, like getting together around the table on Wednesday evening with you and Donna.
The discoveries must have been pure joy but it must have been hard labour albeit a labour of love.
xxx Huge Hugs xxx
Yes, the pendulum did swing from “labour of love” to “hard labour,” the latter usually in the evening when we were tired. I could not have done it all without sisters, other family and help from Aunt Ruthie’s church. Thanks, Sir David – and huge hugs to match!
That video of the dumpster is quite moving, disturbing, disheartening, but thanks for sharing it. Thanks for sharing the difficulties too. My parents had 3 auctions over the course of their lives and moves and that has helped thin out what we’ll need to go through when the time comes.
Right now our office is preparing to move (did I tell you this?). I keep looking at my bookshelves here and paring down, one box of books at a time. Eventually when I retire I can get rid of many more but there are so many I use frequently! It is an ongoing chore. Loved the links and quotes from Ruth Graham and the article on “your kids won’t want your stuff.” Thanks.
Your comment reflects the attention to detail that I notice on your blog posts too, Melodie. I’m glad you enjoyed the links. Apparently, milllenials like yours and Gen-Xers like mine don’t want stuff. Their own stuff perhaps, but not ours.
No, I don’t remember you’re telling me about the office move, but that’s a good place to start. I found that getting rid of prize books went easier if I handpicked books for special people or invited them to my office: The Spark of Joy Marie Kondo writes about in her books – ha!
I was exhausted just reading about this huge task! I do understand though the bonds it must have built with your sisters–as well as the sense of accomplishment and relief once it was over with. How wonderful that you had so many helpers. I’m glad you put in the reminder to stop and smell the beautiful flowers, too.
Like Kathy, I’ve thought we need to start cleaning out and getting rid of stuff–though actually some of our girls’ stuff is still stored here, too. 🙂
Years ago Mother would say, “Get your stuff out of the attic,” but we never did. There was always a good excuse: Our trunk is full . . . We can’t take that on the plane . . . .
It caught up with us after our mother died 3 years ago and we had to clear out her house. (Maybe your daughters need to read this as a cautionary tale – ha!)
I know of what you speak. My wife throws nothing away and I feel sorry for our children who will have to deal with parting with stuff after we are gone. I myself have been weeding out my “stuff” and so my thought process is that it won’t be as nerve-racking were they to have to get rid of tons of stuff from the both of us. But….I’ve tried talking to my wife – unsuccessfully, I might add. Problem is we’ve been together 54 years and it is hard. Enjoy your posts. Keep on writing.
Thank you, Irwin, and welcome! It’s nice to see you in the comment column today. My husband too had a hard time letting go. Our own move last year was the prod to relieve himself of about 1/3 of his stuff. But I remember he started small – just a few things at a time. Mary Peacock’s advice is wise: “To save, one must value. And to throw out, one must value moving on.”
Again, thank you – do visit again!
I so resonate with your experience at Aunt Ruthie’s home. Your experience there was certainly at the extreme end. Congratulations on bringing all to closure.
I wouldn’t characterize my mother as a hoarder but clearly ‘a holder of things.’ Perhaps the only distinction is a matter of degrees.
We lived in the same home for over 60 years. My dad died in 1999; he had left a small shop with tools, painting equipment and old cans of paint related items, books and papers, and building materials from various projects under the back porch.
My mom had boxes and boxes of various items in closets and the basement. We would often offer to help her get rid of things. On a few occasions, she would relent. We would open a box and start. She would express a need to look through it again or save it for this or that reason. The box would be closed again.
When my mom died of cancer in January of 2015, we had to clear the house in order to sell it. A few of my brothers living away wanted an inventory (after a surprisingly testy funeral week). Although one brother living nearby helped when he could, the clearing and inventory fell primarily on four of my five sisters and me. It took us five months of work. When we finished we had hundreds of pages of inventoried and reboxed items. We recycled or donated more non-wanted items. Tossed items from the basement that had mold on them and other broken useless stuff. We had a 20 ft. soft haul bag of trash plus every week tossing cans full of garbage.
One of my sisters created 12 archival type boxes, one for each of the 12 children, now adults, for baby photos, etc.; they were emptied and refilled numerous times. Other photos were taken to another sisters’ home (we later spent another year sorting photos and family history papers).
We had a family lottery on inventoried items.
The entire experience was exhausting. We, the sisters and brother. and brother-in-laws who went through this did grow closer. Then, we called for an all family day where we lovingly worked to clean the house for sale. Very emotional time.
I see we have had nearly parallel experiences with clearing out a house; however, yours seems more purposeful than ours: Contents inventoried and archival boxes. Yes, feelings do run high when a loved one dies. Sometimes testiness arises out of grief – doesn’t excuse it, but perhaps explains it.
Thank you, Audrey, for the idea of “holding” rather than hoarding items. Again – sounds more purposeful, less pathological. 🙂
The “weak smiles” you noted on the male faces made me smile broadly, Marian. Now that it’s all over and I wasn’t the one wearing a mask and lugging bags. Two of my sisters did two dumpsters when my mother moved out of the farmhouse, lightening the load for the next move to Landis Homes. Soon we’ll pare back one more time when Mother moves closer to the center.
This honest documentation serves all of us not only as we help the next generation and try to sort wheat from chaff among our own things but also as think about how important it is to persist in the mist od hard tasks and love each other even through tears and exhaustion.
Twice tiers of trash bags encircled the wrap-around porch before the dumpster arrived. All that + unsaleable furniture that Bossler Mennonite folks carted off may have amounted to part of another dumpster.
I caught your phrase “when Mother moves closer to the center.” I know that feeling. How lovely to contemplate Lydia Ann’s entrance into the world as you and your loved ones move through the cycle of life.
Watching the brief clip—Dumpster Finally Leaves—was amazing! A minimalist, I don’t own even a quarter of what was in that container.
Your words, “This energy-sapping, emotionally draining experience,” capture the essence of what I thought about your ongoing (four months!) task. I’m fairly confident I would have run away.
Your tips are excellent; especially “take off mask and make time to smell the roses and other natural beauty beyond the walls.”
A gift from my friend, Daisy Hickman, I recently read (and thoroughly enjoyed) “Hourglass: Time, Memory, and Marriage” by Dani Shapiro. It has since been donated in one of the little lending libraries.
You asked, “Have you experienced clearing out a loved one’s house? Please do add another tip to my list.”
When my mom died, my dad asked my sister and I to come and take care of her things. Julie and I (I’m a minimalist, she’s a minimalist-wanna-be) took photos of things we wanted to remember, then hired an estate sale company to take it all away. After the sale, we donated the funds to a local women’s shelter. We did “same song, second verse” when my dad died.
I’m the first one to recognize that just because I believe something doesn’t make it right. So I’ll just make this statement for me: We arrive in this life with nothing. We depart this life with nothing. To me that points to “travel light, travel fast” (my mom’s saying) and I try to adhere to that.
If Len and I were to die today, it would take our son, Evan, about five hours to clear out our little space. That—in and of itself—is an intentional gift we’ve worked toward.
Laurie, you have an attitude toward possessions that I began trying to mimick over a year ago when we began to downsize. After all, Mies van Der Rohe’s philosophy is true: “Less is more.”
You and Julie had the right idea about your parents’ estates. I admire that!
Ah yes. And I live in Thoreau country where his quote is taken to heart: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” xo
I admire how you make this blog a true conversation, replying to other comments. You are the BEST, Pam!
Oh Marian, I so resonated with everything in this post. My husband is a hoarder, and when we moved from Ontario to Manitoba, it was quite a job to clean out our two-story house after 24 years of raising our family there. I did all the throwing out by myself while Hardy did the packing. A friend came to help me with the garage, where all the stuff I had assigned to thrift store give-away, my husband had not delivered, but kept in the garage. There were also mice in the garage. It is not easy!
Like Hardy, my husband is a hoarder too, but he had to part with a lot of stuff (including many items in his art business) before our move. God provided help in the form of his brother Larry, an organizer extraordinaire. I’m glad you had a friend’s help. Even so, it’s not easy!
Marian, thanks for sharing this experience. I especially liked the idea of creating a “journal of provenance”. Beyond cataloging items with material value, recording the history and significance of family heirlooms is so important, and invaluable to those left behind.
I believe, the journal of provenance was Aunt Ruthie’s idea years ago. With the help of sister Jean, we could connect item with family lineage, sometimes from the Horsts, Martins, or Longeneckers.
I would imagine you have an inventory of your extensive trivet collection. Thanks for chiming in here today, Lynn.
Your post and photos stirred mix emotions for me. I’m smiling at the obvious love you all had for Aunt Ruthy. She was a blessed woman. I’m sad because of the finality of it all. That said, I would imagine it helps one to work through the grieving process. My father and I have been working on weeding things out in their home, but my mother is not interested. She wants to hold on to everything. She wasn’t always that way, so I’m guessing her dementia is coming into play. I hope you get some rest, Marian!
You hit upon so many high points in this post – thank you, Jill. Carefully curating Ruthie’s possessions, sometimes at wit’s end, did help us work through the grief as she declined. When we were close to the finish line, we told her that everything was taken care of and that a nice family (still hoping for that!) will move into her house. She died just a day or two later.
Thanks for the good wishes for rest – I’ll looking forward to that next week with the sale behind us. 🙂
I love hearing about this communal effort.
My friends are moving to North Carolina, and I’ve helped for two days, packing and moving some stuff to my driveway. It’s nothing compared to what you and your sisters and so many helpers have been doing, but it brings up a lot of the same experiences and emotions. I definitely know my friends better.
The place a lot of the stuff in my driveway will go soon (I hope) is to the Depot for Creative Reuse. I’m glad there is such a place nearby!
Packing and moving items, like traveling, is intense living. How generous of you to help.
I know you are a creative soul, so I wonder if the Depot for Creative Reuse is a tag you gave this depository or if it’s the actual name, truly motivational, I have to say. Thanks, Dolores!
What a generous soul are are to help pack and move your friends’ boxes. Moving, like traveling of any kind, is intense living.
I know you are a creative soul, so I wonder if you invented the name Depot for Creative Reuse or if that’s the actual name. Either way, very motivational. Thanks, Dolores!
It’s a real place and that’s the name…west coast creativity.
I was only a small part of the “getting rid of” scenario of Aunt Ruthie’s possessions.
But besides all of all of her stuff (her mother’s, her mother’s mother, and perhaps even another generation up the line) she left a great “beyond this earth” legacy of giving to various charities, helping family members, and many refugees who saw Ruthie as their Statue of Liberty of new hope, and a new life.
She does lie in peace and our vibrant memories of her live on!
Well said, Cliff! I like the Statue of Liberty image. Refugees fortunate enough to find shelter at her house were blessed mightily.
Beautifully said. I admire Aunt Ruthie so much. And I admire all of you in her family for taking care of her before death and after.
It does look indeed like a grueling procedure. But it seems a great strengthening exercise for both the mind and body. Good for you! 🙂
Yes, indeed, Debby. At home I do both PowerPump and Pilates classes once a week. As you can see, we powered bags to the dumpster and pumped up and down stairs. No need for the gym – ha! 🙂
Marian, just for fun I dropped back in on last week’s blog after commenting on your recent on that followed. I’ve been curious that every week I visit your blog I’ve never received a reply from you so I decided to check back and sure enough you replied.
Ever since you moved your blog I get no notifications or responses from WP or by email. Just thought I”d let you know.
Ah, there you are! Thank you for the courtesy of telling me about your woes with my website on a page few will re-visit. How courteous of you.
I’ll be sending you an email about what I found about your subscription.
I feel for you and your sisters, Marian. Peter and I are in the process of emptying our own house and have been selling, giving away and taking things to the local amenity tip for the last 3 years and it never seems to end. However, we have managed to empty to whole rooms upstairs and there is not much left in the attic either. Half of my kitchen has been packed away, so it is only our bedroom, dining room and living room furniture and small trinkets left now.
I agree with the article headline and I would add that not only is your parents’ stuff not wanted, but your own either. Charity shops are getting more and more choosy with the stuff the will accept and even the local library said they only took in new books! We have sold a few things on eBay, but had no buyers for others, so they were given away to friends and for my son to keep. Still, I am all for downsizing and living a minimalistic type of life. Here is to a de-cluttered future! Cheers!
Obviously, this desire to cast off rather than keep is a global phenomenon. I notice the phrase “local amenity tip” as another name for a donation location. Obviously, I enjoy learning from readers like you, Fatima.
I think you are almost there. The last third seems to go faster, probably because you already know the moves and also because as you close in on the finish line you pick up speed. 🙂
I join you in the wish for a de-cluttered future for both of us. Yay!
This looks absolutely overwhelming, Marian, as it has from the beginning. I’m so impressed with you and your family. Here’s my take-away: I’m never, ever, ever doing that to my family. Yes, there are treasures in this house (as I go through, I offer them), but I know things will go to a dumpster fast. They want the obvious treasures, but I’ve been giving them away. My grandmother’s bible to my son’s bride. Favorite books from their childhoods. I’ll continue with my slow pace (super slow this summer with gardening and family moving close by). I don’t have so much to deal with and no dusty attics and musty cellars packed to the rafters. I’m forever grateful to Vic that he cleared out a portion of his books and tools before he died and tidied shelves so everything could be found.
I have my mother’s photos, both grandmother’s photos, my mother-in-law’s photos, and my husbands. My biggest job is slowly going through all these images and tossing or labeling. I also need to get many notebooks full of Vic’s slides digitalized–another task that awaits me, but my own history is in those images. It’s hard to toss, but I ask myself, “Do my sons want this photo? Does it have historic value?” Usually the answers are no. Still I don’t want to do it. I’d so much rather write a nice fresh piece or go for a walk with my dog. Again, I’m impressed.
I appreciate your voice of empathy here, Elaine.
Clearing out our mother’s house galvanized me into action a few years ago. I saw the toll the task took on my siblings and me and determined that I would pare down before it was too late. Our move last summer sealed the deal and though we are far from minimalists, we are trying to keep our possessions from possessing us.
You are going about the curating process sensibly, dear one, and asking all the right questions. What a precious gift from Vic – getting affairs in order before he died. Like you, I prefer my writing chair and a walk around the lake. After the sale this weekend, I look forward to a return to the more contemplative life. Ah!
Well done for completing this mammoth task Marian – not only one of huge physical effort but also an emotional effort in saying goodbye to once treasured items. Take succour in knowing that they will go to grateful souls so Aunt Ruthie’s legacy lives on. Succour too in all the help and assistance given and taken … the photos are beautiful – there is always time to smell the roses and coffee and be reminded of the sacred among the mundane which has its own beauty …
A while back I had a breakfast party and did not have enough bowls for the starter. But I did in fact; beautiful bowls that were my mother’s mother’s and maybe even my great grandmother’s … all who were here were full of admiration for them – I’m so pleased I kept them.
Well done to you and your sisters and all helpers.
Your breakfast party reminded me of the reason we pass cherished items on – to enjoy through the generations.
I accept your compliments, Susan. We have received a rich heritage far beyond property and artifacts, but caring for what they have left behind is one way to honor their memory. I think you have similar sentiments. Thank you!
What a difficult job – not just physically, but emotionally. Glad you all remained friends and could treasure some of the history you found.
It’s quite a balancing act, as you may know by experience too. I seem to remember a trip back to England. Family matters, we can both attest.
Ohhhh, Marian. I’ve been following your love of Aunt Ruthie, her amazing grace and fortitude, and then your grace and strength when she died. But taking care of all of her belongings? That is an immense task that I hope to never burden my family with. I have friends who have had to take months out of their life to ‘clean up’ after their parents’ passing (much as you and sisters have done, with lots of help from family and cute hunks :-). It’s a sad, difficult task anyway, and sadder too when one is mourning.
My take on all this? I’ll never do it to my kids/relatives. I’m still relatively young, but I’ve released many of my piles of journals and old photos and kids’ clay pots, etc. because no, they won’t want them. I’ve talked to them both about what each will want when my guy and I are gone, and for the most part, it’s not our furniture or our glassware or our business and personal files. It’s a ring, a watch, a necklace that we wear often, and that will touch them when we are gone.
Tangible mementos that touch, the best kind. A ring, watch or necklace will do admirably. I wear a gold bracelet from Grandma, one she wore before she turned fancy.
Like you, we have pared down, because we must: our kids don’t want much of the stuff anyway, and we don’t want to burden them with our baggage in the end. Thanks, Pam!
What a mighty labour of love over many months. x
I am glad we sorted and downsized to a degree when we moved to this house . There is more that can be done but at a little by little.
As an PS…my emails from you go to my Spam folder …but only since your new blog set up.
Ah, Alexa. I haven’t been getting email notifications from you either, so I subscribed OR re-subscribed to your blog just now – and left a comment on your latest post. I love roses too!
I’m sorry about my website notifications going into your SPAM folder. As you may have noticed, I have had tons of trouble with the new set-up. Even now, I have had to asked my web guy to re-install the SHARE buttons for Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIN because they have gone missing. As they say, you get one end up, and the other end falls down – ha!
Thank you so much for reaching out to re-connect here, Alexa.
Amazing stories. It’s so true that a lot of the stuff our parents or grandparents passed on to us are no longer valued by younger generations. We might as well ask once, then bite the bullet and let it go. But…I have these two large framed pictures of my maternal Norwegian great-grandparents. It’s tough to throw things like that in a dumpster. I’m going to try another branch of the family first…
Thank you for taking the time to read and reply. As a busy, prolific author, you have many irons in the fire. But you are also at a point of transition I understand very well. For me, it started in our own home we sold last year, when my husband and I viewed all of the stuff we had accumulated in 37 years at the same address. I wrote about it here: https://marianbeaman.com/2016/06/08/tidying-up-paring-down/
Best wishes as you curate your own things. Two large framed pictures of Norwegian great-grandparents deserve to spark joy – but perhaps in someone else’s house. 🙂