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The (sometimes) painful art of letting go after decades

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We spend many years accumulating stuff, only to discover that we are not going to take one single item with us

In my 30s, just as I began acquiring (children, house, furniture for said house and so on), I noticed that my parents suddenly stopped acquiring and began divesting.

It seemed like an abrupt shift, as if a switch had been thrown. Almost 40 years later I find myself doing the same. At that time, my parents were moving out of their capacious, mid-century ranch-style home where they had raised children, added on rooms, renovated and landscaped several times.

They needed to get rid of things to make the move to more compact digs in a sunnier clime. I was focused on getting my children into the best school system, updating our ancient kitchen and purchasing dining room furniture – doing what we could with our modest financial resources.

We renovated each room of our drafty Victorian manse, bit by bit, spending all our spare time poring over wallpaper choices, paint chips, upgrading windows and window treatments, shopping at garage sales for toys, bikes and household appliances.

I think the desire to expand and acquire changes with age – driven in part by the need to downsize, but also as part of a reckoning with mortality. One begins to accept the truism: You can’t take it with you, so you might as well pass it on.

My husband and I moved to another area eight years ago not knowing what our new residence would look like. Would there be storage, a garage, a basement? Would the living area accommodate our furniture? Both my husband and I had offices in our old house. Would that be possible in our new spot? 

If your cupboard is full of stuff you have not worn for months, get rid of it all. Picture: Becca McHaffie

We spent months sorting through the accumulation of 30 years. We tossed, shredded, sold, donated, hosted garage sales. We gave away or sold garden tools. We tried foisting our possessions on our now-adult children.

Our outdated computers went to recycling centres. The oldest machine, practically an original, was now a collector’s item. That one we kept.

Electrical tools, electronic devices, old calculators were part of the collectibles of my engineer husband. There were crib accessories, toys, Lego bricks that had to be sorted through. All of that went. It was painful, all this divesting. Painful and interesting.

I spent hours shredding cancelled cheques and old income tax forms. For me, the most painful of all the divesting was getting rid of cabinets filled with files I had accumulated throughout my professional and academic life.

The contents of these battered garage-sale-quality metal cabinets contained my identity as a professional psychotherapist, teacher and writer.

There was both accomplishment and aspiration contained within. Here were courses I had taken as a student. Here were courses I had taught. Here were journal articles I had admired and from which I’d learned. Here were journal articles I had written. Ideas for books I had not written, projects never finished (but maybe someday), ideas never quite realised, all here. 

Many older people find that possessions and ‘treasured’ items are no longer important, but discarding them to downsize is an emotional and often difficult process. Picture: Supplied

The cabinets had to go. I went from cabinets to few drawers. Getting rid of books hurt. Winnowing my files was devastating. Somehow both the books and the files defined me.

When we finally landed in our new area in 2010 and we unpacked and I set up my office, I literally howled in pain at how little remained.

These divestments were not related to age but to relocation. However, now I am at a new stage. I am a bit older than my parents were when they started their divestment project. But like with my parents, the shift seems abrupt. I am not moving. I am not ailing or feeble.

A mere eight years after the emotional storms that occurred when I unpacked my files and saw how much was missing, I am voluntarily divesting. One daughter has her grandmother’s wedding ring now, no longer languishing in my jewellery drawer.

I have passed on my least loved costume jewellery to my youngest granddaughter. I have promised my daughters the china and silverware passed down from my mother. I am packing them up.

I am looking at those files and wondering why I saved so much, and tossing mounds of paper into recycling. Those are the same files I clung to eight years ago as we packed up our possessions. I know this doesn’t happen for everyone. Some of us are pack rats to the very end. I can identify with that, too.

We still miss that bowl we gave away. My husband longs for a cast iron Dutch oven we sold. And, indeed, now I still cling to useless things – my textbooks from college more than 50 years ago; earrings whose mates are long gone, hoping for the style of asymmetrical pairs to come into fashion one day.

But I sense a trend within myself. I am beginning to reckon with the truism that, indeed, I can’t take it with me.

The Washington Post


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