Closing Out Your Mother’s House Without Losing Your Own Mind

Editor’s Note: Having cranked out 4–count ’em!–chapter drafts for the book this past week while the kiddo was at day camp–and with another homeschool workshop on the horizon in August, I’m preparing to work my fanny off this August. Therefore, I’m going to do a bit of “recycling” this month, (re)sharing some old posts, peppering them with updates.

This first rehash comes from over at That’s a site that I used to turn to when I need to puzzle through “off-beat” topics, back before I reconsidered the core themes.

This charming photo is a self-portrait. I’m standing in front of my childhood home one last time. I worked hard to deliver a smile, but you can still tell it’s a bittersweet photograph.

Anyone who has navigated the waters of caregiving an elderly parent, especially one ravaged by disease, knows that the physical act of shutting down a home can be difficult on the caregiver both physically and emotionally.

Many of us–especially those of us who are only children of “collectors”–are faced with an added issue. We simply can’t keep every single item that our parents may have stashed away.

If I had one piece of advice for anyone going through this process, it’s this: Give yourself as much time as possible to separate memory from stuff and keep only what pleases you aesthetically or emotionally. 

I realize that’s not always easy. For many families, time is of the essence as they seek to come up with funds to cover long-term nursing care. Moreover, if you have to travel a great distance to empty a home, it can be hard to slow down and be methodical.

But do try to give yourself as much time as possible to prevent regret over lost items later. Even a solid hour alone jotting down priority items can help.

As the daughter of a talented woman with great taste, I went into this process recognizing that there would be a lot of beautiful items that I simply couldn’t keep. I just don’t have enough room.

So I prioritized items first by utility and aesthetic value followed by sentimental attachment. I also prioritized hand-made items over mass-produced goods. Consequently, my stash of family quilts is pretty large. [The background of RW&G now features a quilt made by my great grandmother.]

This photo shows only a portion of them:

For some items in my mother’s house, I decided that a photo of the item would be sufficient to bring back a treasured memory. Once captured on my camera and uploaded to my computer (and backed up!), I could let the “thing” go knowing that I had some record with which to summon the memory. There were, of course, a few items that were given to friends and family. Several charities benefitted, too.

My approach has given me peace of mind in this storm that we call “long-term caregiving”. Although I did wind up with a lot of boxes filled with stuff, I don’t feel overrun by it. This month I’m slowly going through it all again, sorting and storing things in some semblance of order. Eventually I may release more of it. [I’m still dealing with boxes and piles of paperwork, however, much of it containing sensitive information. That’s something that I wasn’t prepared for in the least.]

For now, I’m content to know that my house–the “new Mothership” as I think of it–reflects more than two generations of cherished items. Take for instance a corner of my office:

Once vacant, the nook now holds a collection of floral paintings, a piece of my maternal grandmother’s wedding gown framed in glass, and the china cabinet my grandmother purchased with her “butter and egg money.” All of it rests alongside a cabinet inherited years ago from my paternal grandparents and filled with stuff from both sides of my family and my husband’s family as well.

Because everything pictured was lovingly gleaned from the old house rather than hastily boxed away, I feel more connected to it all. I like to think it enriches our world rather than merely taking up space. Somehow–and to my surprise–the endeavor of sorting through one person’s collected material goods has yielded a deeper connection to people, not simply boxes of stuff.

And that, frankly, may be one of the secret rewards of caregiving in general: a chance to reconnect with one’s roots.

Explore More:

• Curious to know what happened with Mom after this post? Well, I promise to give you a more full update soon, but this post will give you some idea of what 2011 looked like ’round here, off-line.

• For anyone facing the deconstruction of a living, hardcore “collector’s” household, I highly recommend this book.

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  1. Yup, it’s heartbreaking. My mom was a collector too and I couldn’t keep every single little thing. I kept way too much as it is. Packing up my childhood home made me appreciate my simple, small home lifestyle. No matter how much that collection of mugs from every trip meant to mom & dad, that collection didn’t mean much to anyone else and I didn’t have the room to store it. That was a very sad chapter for me. Learning to let go. It’s been 6 years and I still think about that old house everyday.

    Acknowledge your grief for your home and don’t let the vultures help until the very last moment.

  2. As I write, I am sitting at my parents’ dining room table – 1,000 miles from the home I have created with my husband and our children. There is much work to be done….but since they are both still on this earth and with good (excellent!) minds, I’m working on being patient and talking rather than scurrying around de-cluttering and cleaning. Thanks so much for this post, it has made me think about my priorities and what I’ll want to remember when my folks are gone. I want to know that I was loving and engaged, even if the newspapers were piled high around us.

    • My heart goes out to Althea. It’s so important to put PEOPLE before things at every stage of life. It sounds that you are doing that with your parents in this transition, and that is as much a gift to them as it is to yourself.

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