I spent the last few weeks cleaning out my mom’s house while she was recovering from open heart surgery. She’d been meaning to do it for years: clean it out, sell it, and move on to a smaller place, with less room and cheaper taxes.
Just a couple of months ago I had resigned myself to the understanding that in order for her to ever leave, I was going to have to help her clean out her house, packed with 35 years of trash and treasures. To that, add the cat hair, dust and pollen that had accumulated, with piles of “important” papers and books stacked everywhere.
In plowing through my childhood home, I couldn’t help but take note of what I found that really mattered to me as an adult child.
She’s not a hoarder, but definitely a sentimental saver. I like to think that there’s a difference between the two, though when I saw her bedroom, I wasn’t so sure. Her bed was barely visible among the piles of clothes, books and papers.
But cleaning out her house would involve her leaving the house and taking a leave of absence from work, a task that was just as overwhelming as the de-cluttering itself.
So I couldn’t help but acknowledge the irony of her health issues. Not a “blessing in disguise” or “an act of providence” but rather an opportunity for me to do what she would never be able to do. It was something I know she wanted to do but just couldn’t—physically and emotionally.
Two 20-yard dumpsters later, my brother and I had unearthed our childhood home, ransacked the cabinets and bookshelves of 30-year-old books and bills, baskets and baby dolls. Some saved, most tossed.
And in plowing through my childhood home, turning over boxes, and charging through drawers, I couldn’t help but take note of what I found that really mattered to me as an adult child—what I could learn from my own experience that I could share with my children. Not only so they’d never have to do this for me, ever, but also so that they’d be able to enjoy the important stuff in their old age and mine—the memories.
Streamline your saving. As much as you think you’ll want to look through those old Christmas and birthday cards, even all that prized preschool artwork, you probably won’t. And your kids won’t either. Be selective and grab only a couple of favorites from each year and pop them in a well-labeled box. If you fill the box before they hit college, then you know you probably saved too much. I tend to save items that have hand and foot prints, or ones that will embarrass them if they ever become famous.
Find special items. Instead of boxes full of random tchotchkes and shelves of books, what your kids will appreciate is a curated collection of items, like postcards sent from around the world and dolls brought back from business trips (thanks dad!). Perhaps they'd like a new charm every year added to a special charm bracelet. I have started collections for each of my kids, like vintage firetruck toys for my son, and old pretzel tins from a company that shares my oldest’s first name. They’ll appreciate the thought you put into collecting the items as much as the items themselves.
The most vivid memories I experienced while cleaning out my mom’s house were when I found her signature items.
Prune your pictures. These days, there’s just no excuse to have hard drives and flash drives full of photos without any sense of order. And don’t even get me started about boxes overflowing with photos. Make a point to get your photos off your camera or your phone on a regular basis (seriously, make an appointment on your calendar), organized by event and date (as well as by kid’s name), then save the best to a flash drive or a CD for each child every year. Pop that in their well-labeled box so they have all their photos in one place, not sitting on your computer for them to sift through.
Look for signature pieces. The most vivid memories I experienced while cleaning out my mom’s house, other than through the photos, were when I found her signature items, like that beautiful jade necklace passed down to her from her grandmother that she always wore, or the emerald ring that was always on her right ring finger. Whether it’s jewelry, a timepiece, or that amazing Givenchy scarf that you eventually had framed, have something that’s a constant in your wardrobe. I can almost guarantee that when your kids find it, the memories will magically flood right out.
Collect writing. My mom started writing before there were blogs, and perhaps the biggest treasure I discovered in her house were years and years of daily journals she kept. She’d never claim to be an amazing writer, but I loved hearing about her mothering experience from her own perspective. While it was fun to see what we had done on June 9, 1986, I appreciated the entries that showed her emotions and feelings. Even if you don’t think you’re a writer, write something. Say, letters to your kids, even if it’s just on their birthdays. Create an email address for them and drop them notes every now and then when they do something funny or make you proud. They’ll appreciate them later, grammar errors and spelling mistakes aside.