With the author’s permission, the following article includes excerpts from “Clutter Free Revolution” by Evan Michael Zislis.
My aging parents hadn’t had the energy to manage their cluttered living space for a while. Overstuffed cupboards, extra-long extension cords, stacks of must-keep papers mixed with expired two-for-one coupons were all junk blocking the paths to things they wanted and needed. Cleaning up had become impossible without help.
Guilt, my constant companion, called to me from the depths of my subconscious. “Don’t be a lazy ingrate! Go on vacation next summer.” After consultation with a pro, calls to far-flung siblings and many deep, cleansing breaths, I practiced the impending dialogue with my parents.
My goal was to enable them to continue aging in the home they loved. I knew they were ready to simplify their lives, but really didn’t want to move. We needed creative problem-solving to make the place safer, easier for self-care, cozier for stay-at-home-days. I saw this as an opportunity to work together, share forgotten stories and reconcile our pasts with an unfamiliar future. We made a plan of action to address one room at a time. My folks were beside themselves with gratitude.
First bathroom, kitchen, bedroom. Working floor to ceiling, paced so they could manage, we considered every item, piece by piece. Keep? Donate? Sell? Trash? Shred? The labeled boxes filled up, ready to be carted away. We plowed through old documents, ditched trip-hazard throw rugs, installed grab bars, and improved lighting. Next, we organized and labeled everything so essentials were easy to find, easy to reach. One room at a time, floor to ceiling, piece by piece.
Feel-good accomplishment and shared lunch breaks made the work easier. However, anticipation brewed an ever-emerging undercurrent of dread for hard decisions coming up. We had been stacking cherished keepsakes on the table next to the crammed-full China cabinet.
Watching the steadily growing cringe-worthy pile, I found that deep, cleansing breaths were no longer helpful. I often screamed to myself, “FOCUS! Don’t lose momentum. You’re doing great. One room at a time…FOCUS!”
So far, so good. My proud parents shared details of the “Great Purge” with everyone they knew. I was sure, however, that Kumbayah would come to a screeching halt once they realized I had no intention of taking home their lifetime accumulation of intended “family heirlooms.”
The closer we got to THAT table, the more the subject seemed entirely unapproachable. Unlabeled photos, gaudy picture frames, cheesy trinkets, china tea sets, embroidered tablecloths, broaches… and there were drawers filled with carefully wrapped caches, apparently too “special” to use. I had no recollection of ever seeing those things.
My minimalist-wanna-be self whispered in my ear while I hyperventilated, “You can’t use any of it, don’t have room for it, don’t like it and no one else you know aspires to owning any of it.”
Independent, modern me, chimed in with a refreshing truth. “You don’t need to be encumbered by gifts you don’t want. You have an obligation to yourself, too.” I knew practicing this speech would not make the actual conversation any easier. Time to call for reinforcements. Reluctantly, the far-flung siblings came for the weekend.
With glasses of wine and stacks of brownies, we gathered by the bewildering amassed stuff. There was eye rolling, jaw clenching and uncomfortable silence. Then, my here-and-now self-proclaimed an epiphany: “It was the story behind each keepsake that was the treasure, not the item itself.” With a sigh of relief, the gathered family agreed wholeheartedly. I continued, “If backstories of memorabilia were indeed the treasure, we must document those intriguing tales to move on.”
We spent the rest of that weekend videoing mom and dad sharing memories recalled by each piece. They were joyful for the opportunity to share lifetime details through these possessions. This experience helped them feel content to part ways with many of those items, knowing that the stories were recorded and videos would be shared.
Once we siblings gained perspective of the meaning of each item, the assemblage was no longer just an annoying pile of junk. We could make informed decisions about accepting a few of these heritage pieces into our homes, even if they didn’t match our décor. After each story was told, the item was wrapped and put into an unmarked box. Mom and dad didn’t ask, and we never said, exactly what the destiny of those items was.
This process, physically and emotionally exhausting for everyone involved, turned out to be valuable and cathartic. It validated a lifetime of experiences and provided a safe setting to share, heal and move on. It was a precious time to reflect on what life has meant, what lessons have been learned and how we chose to define our family legacy by sharing stories, not things.
Mature Content is a monthly feature from the Carbondale AARP Age-Friendly Community Initiative (CAFCI).