aging in place, Caring for a parent, Mental health, Self-care

Putting My House in Order

I was stuck on I-5 on my way to Seattle Saturday. For a long time. Thank goodness for recorded books. I was listening to The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo; you know, that Japanese art of decluttering that’s all the rage. Or maybe that was last year. I put a library hold on it, knowing it was laughable. The first step is purging, and I live in 3400 square feet filled almost entirely of someone else’s stuff. Someone who has zero interest in my fervent wish to “simplify.” The author is definitely OCD, but it was an interesting listen.

I have moved twelve times since 1975, before that I lived in a dorm room. If it’s true what they say, that every move is like suffering a fire, you can appreciate that I don’t have much stuff. My mother hasn’t moved in 55 years. My father lived here for 35. I’m not sure they ever threw anything away. They certainly never did a fire-equivalent purging. My sister’s stuff that doesn’t fit in her apartment is here, too. And the stuff my mom saved because her daughters might want it someday—some of it stored with our handwritten notes saying we don’t want it, which she translated to “may not want.” If they want it, give it to them now.

photoHe saved because it might be useful someday—or not. She saved nostalgia. Really, though, how valuable is Santa’s crushed sleigh made c. 1965 out of an egg carton section with pipe cleaner traces. Thank it for the joy of making it and for its moment of decorative service and put it in the trash bag.

I remember the battered tin button box bringing me joy. But since my sister organized them by color into neatly labeled 1962 church offering envelopes, it no longer does. When was the last time anyone used one of the extra buttons that comes with a shirt, anyway? I will discard the boring buttons and fill it with my interesting collection—including the antique ones I found in a footlocker—for my grandchildren to love as I once did. The box itself still brings joy.

IMG_2170Kondo is clear that you can’t discard other people’s stuff; but I do still have excess stuff of my own, particularly all things paper: filed things and photographs; and I am not going to reread the yoga, gardening, and writing magazines. If you didn’t internalize and put into practice the learning when you read it, you aren’t going to. She doesn’t say anything about unneeded digital effluvia, but my computer keeps telling me I have too much of that, too.

What she instructs for deciding what to keep and what to discard, is to hold each item in your hands—the holding is important—and ask yourself if it gives you joy. If not, thank it for its service and discard it. And, she says, choose what to keep, not what to discard.

And what about a job that doesn’t bring you joy? A lifestyle? Food? Activities? (No, you can’t get rid of family members. Or stop cooking the food your nonagenarian mother will eat, even if choking it down yourself makes you a food hater.) And what are you not doing that would bring you joy? The theory is that if you put your literal house in order, your figurative house will follow. You will make room for happiness in your living if you aren’t surrounded by stuff that doesn’t spark joy. It makes sense to me.

I know my mother as largely a depressed person, happiest outdoors—where she has no problem discarding weeds. Sometimes the weight of all the stuff is like a mac truck parked on my shoulders. Does she feel trapped and heavy inside the house, even though she can no longer see the excess? Has the stuff she can’t get rid of robbed her of space for what would bring joy? It is well documented that she has, all of her life, settled for purchases, rather than getting what she wanted; and then kept it all. A recipe for unhappiness.


Kondo theorizes that the reason we keep stuff is either an attachment to the past or a fear of the future. My mother crisscrossed the country in her early adulthood presumably with only what could be packed in a footlocker. As a child of the depression, she keeps the table scraps from her dinner—fear of the future? Her children were her life’s work. Keeping our art work, the letters we wrote, our piano music with stars in the corner—desperately clinging to the past. Her solution for too much stuff: build more storage shelves, appropriate another closet, collect more boxes.IMG_2171.jpg

Every now and then she goes on a cleansing rampage, but very little gets thrown away. She hasn’t worn dresses since the last millennium—but she “might want to.” And then she buys more stuff. Before Christmas she bought a cheap florist’s vase at Goodwill, just like one in the laundry room cabinet. It was for part of a gift she never gave.

I think her recent urges to purge are an attempt to put her house in order before she dies, but she is incapable. She won’t let me to do it for her, and I haven’t the patience to move things from one place to another with her. She has no future. And she doesn’t have much of a present. So she clings to the past. I’m trying to understand. Trying. I think I was adopted.

Meanwhile, realizing that I can get my own house in order, I am taking steps. It’s about self-care. With so much that I have no control over—my mother’s stuff, my mother’s neediness, her decline and impending death—getting my inner house in order is essential care of the soul.

Someday my sisters and I will hold each of my mother’s keepsakes, thank them, and let most of them go. Those that give us joy will be taken out of boxes and footlockers and put on display or into use.

My children will find only the treasures when I am gone, which they might not consider as such. And that will be their decision. But I will save them, I hope, from this weight.

Of course, I am enjoying finding some of things my mother saved.





13 thoughts on “Putting My House in Order”

  1. “Button button, who’s got the button ? ”

    My grandmother had a jar of buttons . When we went over for a visit we would beg her to play ‘the button game’ with us.
    She would stand on the bottom of the stairs with both hands behind her back. In one hand she had a button. We would sit on that first step, waiting for her to produce two fists in front of her. It was up to us to guess which hand held the button. If you were right, you moved up a stair. It was a slow race to the top.
    I loved that button jar.
    In February I took a week off of work and spent the days with my folks ‘trying’ to get them to tidy up and get rid of crap. We did ok, although the reasons for keeping things were ridiculous. Marie Kondo is a bit “woo-woo” but I really tried to follow the logic. Personally I love the idea of joy being the threshold. It’s a hard concept to master, but I love the idea. To really boil it down, I ask the question : If your house was on fire, and people and pets were safe, what ‘things’ would you rush back in for ? Surprising how much I could live without. ( Well, if the house was on fire … ) 🙂


  2. Totally agree with the lightness we feel with less stuff. And keeping only the things that bring us joy or are useful (I’m with you on usefulness) does sound heavenly. You’ll probably fly straight up to the sky when the time comes to clean out decades of stuff that is not yours.

    You’re right, of course, about moving making it more likely that you’ll hang onto less. I do not like clutter and excess in my cupboards and closets – and have tried to keep my surroundings fairly lean over the years. Yet I do have more than I need or want… I’m facing a move in the near future, and I’m looking forward to the purge.


    1. I like your word “excess.” My mom’s house isn’t so much cluttered (well, a little); and I don’t consider her a hoarder in the pathological sense. But, yes, she has excess.

      I will tell you, that after several years of living by myself in a small space without a lot of excess, to move into someone else’s too much space filled with too much stuff, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.


  3. This entry really hit home for me. I am familiar with that book, and try not to get depressed about not being able to follow the advice since most of the clutter I deal with is not my own, and I also have the prospect of dealing with a houseful of my mom’s stuff in the not- to- distant future. I do have fantasies about simply emptying shelves and closets into a Dumpster. And every time we go on a “camping” trip in our 18 foot trailer, I see how little we need to have with us in order to enjoy ourselves.
    One thing I might do, when the time comes to cull beloved items, is to take photos of them so that I will have an image but not the entire object to store. (I loved the photos you put in your blog- I recently discarded some plastic flowers that had decorated wedding gifts from 1977!)


    1. It’s maddening to have to deal with someone else’s stuff. I have almost gotten to the point that I can overlook it. And I am realizing I still have some of my own unneeded detritus. In the past 24 hours I have gone through four photo storage boxes and kept only a handful of the photos—and most of those are probably near duplicates of some in an album. I will start on the next four boxes. I have long wanted to live in a “tiny house,” and maybe I still will. I want a Zen life.

      Photos of things are good. I bet, though, that you will never look at them or care about them. Still, a good weaning method. (I decorated the garden with those dried wedding flowers a couple of years ago. They outlasted the marriage by 20 years.)

      If anyone brings a gift to my mom’s birthday party, we will thank the giver and put it straight into the Goodwill box. Seriously. I guess that’s more gracious than sending it home with them.


  4. Oh what I wouldn’t give for the glorious chaos of my grandmother’s button jar. She was a dressmaker and a tailor – her button jar was very special. that would give me joy!


  5. There is another way to look at your mother’s clutter. Think of the joy you will get from discarding it some day in the future. So today’s unwanted junk may actually be future joy.

    I do suggest that you hang onto the pictures of your children. Someday when you are gone, your grand children and their children will enjoy those pictures. At least the physical pictures are more permanent than digital images. My mother’s pictures were purged after her death so I have almost no pictorial record of my childhood.


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