13 Apr

I’m always interested in how other people, especially those in my age group, approach their downsizing. Have they blitzed it prior to a move, planned it out carefully over a period of time, or taken a hybrid approach? What, if anything, would they do differently? What was important to keep? Periodically I will feature interviews with other downsizers. Here is the first of this series.

A long-time friend, “Nancy,” moved three years ago to a life-care community, spurred on by her husband’s recurring and increasingly more serious medical problems. I asked her to recount her own downsizing processes and any lessons learned, and I am sharing her edited story with her permission. She says, “It’s difficult to put the steps of this process in any kind of order, because, frankly, there was little ‘order’ to this process.” She felt she might have made different decisions had she been less busy with her demanding job as a teacher (especially necessary as she became the main household earner) and noticed and accepted her husband’s deteriorating condition sooner. But isn’t that often the case that we don’t always see what’s gradually happening? In 2017, she was finally eligible to retire with her full pension. 

Nancy says that about four years before retirement, she made some minor renovations to her house and gardens in anticipation of selling it in the future. They also began to look at life care communities. Among the many positive attributes of the one they eventually chose was its proximity to their daughter and her family.

Nancy reckons that it took her three or four years overall to downsize. 

The stuff belonging to her adult children (the daughter and a son) was the first to go. Like many of their generation, the “kids” didn’t seem all that interested, put off going through their things, and often left empty-handed after visiting. Nancy decided “to hell with it” and donated most of their possessions (with their approval, in the beginning), except for memorabilia, to a variety of organizations and others she knew. But, she noted, “During the last two years, I found that so many organizations were very picky, refusing to take worn furniture. I did use Freecycle and Randolph’s virtual yard sale.” 

During the summer of 2016, Nancy spent one month unpacking and reorganizing into marked bins all of the crates and bins they had moved from her mother-in-law’s house, including beautiful pottery ware, silver, crystal, fine china and hundreds of antique collectibles. “Now here is where I went wrong,” Nancy says. “Several years prior, I SHOULD have hired someone to handle the sale of these truly priceless things, expecting the process to take a while – taking photos, posting them on the appropriate sites, arranging for delivery, managing the money transactions, etc. 

“Instead, in 2016, after I had organized everything in the basement, I paid a colleague (who apparently had heard about this well-established auction house) to take over truckloads of these antiques, steamer trunks, a four-poster maple bed (maybe 200 years old) – don’t get me started. They were sold in lots – we were robbed, but there is no way to prove that we were deceived. “The other thing we did in the summer of 2016 was to have a garage sale – took days to prepare, and we made diddly. However, I did enjoy meeting the people who came, so it wasn’t’ a total disaster. 

“One heartbreak for me was having to give away my beautiful tree plants (12 feet high) grown with tenderness and love over most of the thirty years we lived there. I ‘gifted’ them to our library. 

“Speaking of libraries, I probably donated over 1,000 books to ours. AND I had to clean out my classroom, inclusive of six file cabinets as well as the file cabinets at home and all of the instructional materials I had collected for years.”

Initially, Nancy and her husband had put their names on a waiting list for the largest apartment in the life care complex. Their own house was roomy (four bedrooms, 2 ½ baths, and several living spaces). But the unit they took was smaller than the one they’d wanted. Thinking they would move into the bigger one when it became available, they put their larger antique furniture as well as many oversize bins of possessions (framed needlework, Nancy’s writing and journals, what she thought was a valuable coin collection, etc). into a storage area nearby, paying dearly every month. 

However, because of all the additional work required (and all Nancy had had to do to prepare for the first move), she decided they would not relocate again even when it became possible. (Nancy wonders how she was able to do so much!) Fortunately, their daughter had by now moved into a bigger house, was able to accommodate their storage, and even took some of the antique furniture. 

Nancy says that she doesn’t miss the material things they had enjoyed for years but had to get rid of although she misses other things about her home, her garden, and her neighborhood. 

So, what did they end up keeping? 

Nancy’s parents had “little in the way of possessions.” But about a year after Nancy and her husband moved, her sister and husband came to visit bringing (in her sister’s words) “just a few small boxes of photos and letters from Mom’s and Dad’s apartment.” These amounted to 20 large boxes that had to go in a storage room that cost extra. The boxes contained thousands of photographs and letters from several generations of the family. Nancy says that over two years, “I tried to ID all of the photos, read the thousand or so letters, apportioning all into about 50 sturdy plastic, expandable folders, and delivered or posted these to each of my three brothers and my sister. This job was monumental, but essential.” 

Still remaining are bins of Nancy’s immediate family’s photos, drawings, letters, her journals (perhaps 20 notebooks), her weekly correspondence to her mother-in-law, and her correspondence to her own parents. Also, Nancy had, like me, many letters from friends. “Years ago, I bought lovely fabric covered boxes and returned letters sent to me by close friends, letting them know that I was thankful for all, but thought they might enjoy keeping them, remembering as they reread them.”  She also has binders of her own poetry and “stacks of framed pictures and needlework, hoping to hang most, if I could just get this place painted first, have bookshelves built in second, have hardwood floors installed….– you get the picture.” 

Nancy’s story wonderfully illustrates the complexity of downsizing to a much smaller space from a beloved, long-time residence shared with family. She made some careful, loving, and sometimes difficult decisions about what to keep or give away; used a variety of resources at her disposal (discovering the challenges of changing tastes in the marketplace); took some actions she regretted (like using the auction house), and dealt with her sense of loss. She admits that she still has work to do. But I both envy and admire how she managed to do so much without stripping away all that has meaning for her. Isn’t that the goal of downsizing—to find a balance between owning too much but keeping that which gives us joy?

(Images in the photo are courtesy of Pixabay. They don't represent Nancy's real abodes, before or after, just her move from a larger place to a smaller place!!)

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