Starting smallPublished on May 7, 2016

Kate Brandeis Photo by: Mark Holleron

I started raising the issue with my mom years ago. At first, it was more insinuation than anything with jokes about her “collection issues” and the epic tag sale I would hold after she was gone. But, as she approached eighty, the conversation began to change . . .

My mom is a stuff person. I am not. Yet, the accumulation of five lifetimes of saving and collecting (great-grandmother, grandmother, mom, me and now my kids) was confronting both of us each time I visited. 

“What am I going to do with all of this?” she would ask, “You won’t want any of it.”

I assured her that I understood that her things held great meaning for her, and they would for us as well. Tapping into this, I started suggesting that she write peoples’ names on the bottoms of things. She has three grand-kids, a much-beloved niece (who, unlike me, did inherit the collecting gene), and tons of friends. I would make sure things went where she wanted them to go. Even with that reassurance, the thought of divestiture was still hard for her, but I continued to press gently.

Then last summer, I began noticing names or detailed histories on little pieces of masking tape, written in her tiny, impeccable hand. Progress!  Even my kids began turning things over to see if there was a story taped beneath. This led to a number of conversations we never would have had otherwise with my kids peering through the keyhole at what life was like for their grandmother, and even her mother.

Over the holidays this year, it was my mom who brought it up:  Maybe if she started with the cedar closet . . . maybe if I could help. So, we started small, planning to tackle just the wardrobe first. And, with the possible exception of her (and her mother’s) baby clothes and shoes, mom’s wedding dress and remaining parts of her wedding trousseau, the decluttering of clothes would perhaps not be so difficult.

When we were finished with the closets we had 12 bags for charity, another for the vintage clothing store, and a fairly small bag of keepers.  I don’t think I have ever seen mom so tired, but she got through it and agreed that it actually felt good. That night, her pre-dinner glass of wine was replaced with a well-earned Martini!

Over the course of four weekends, we applied the standard wardrobe pare-down formula to tackling the treasures: More than a year since she’d used it? Had she forgotten it existed? We also made boxes for friends and family and curated a fab wedding gift of crystal, silver, and vintage linens.  We also compiled an awesome box of dress-up clothes for two little girls up the street.

Having my antiques-dealing bestie as a trusted Etsy and eBay consultant increased my mom’s comfort level with offering her things for sale. With her first couple of sales, she was hooked and actually having some fun. While there is certainly an element of melancholy to this process, it has been gratifying for her to know that the stuff of her past will have a future, and she has some mad money for that European river cruise she is planning!  Being so much a part of the process gives her control; something that can be elusive as we age. 

If I had to offer some advice for others staring up those attic stairs, it would be this: start early and start small; getting buy-in from parents and siblings can take a while and you can’t expect to finish in a week or even months; it’s thirsty work; honour and enjoy the memories, and realize that this will be harder on them than on you.

However, if you wait and must do this without their input, you may make bad decisions and the guilt will be a killer. Do your research – the internet is a great tool for getting an idea of what things are worth. And try to have a little fun – you probably haven’t had so much undivided attention from your mother in a long time!

Kate Brandeis

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