Emotional Cleaning

We all keep "stuff."  We keep it for sentimental reasons.  We keep it because we might need it some day.  We keep it just because.  It's the "stuff" that fills our junk drawers, our closets, our attics, etc.  Most of us intend to clean or declutter it some day.  Some of us do...and of course then it gets filled again.  This is the case with my basement which was cleaned out by my husband several years ago.  Now it's a mess again...although NOT as bad as it once was.  Can I say that it's mostly an organized mess?  That is a thing, right?

My husband and I are formulating a plan to declutter our house.  We both have areas that we want to work on and we both want to come up with strategies to make the process as painless as possible.  We both realize that there will be lots of emotion when it comes to tossing, donating or keeping.  Cleaning/decluttering is an emotional process.  I think that's something we need to recognize and if not honor, at least respect.  The process is not one that should be taken lightly or rushed through; it's a long term project/commitment.

This has become obvious to me when my parents decided that it was time to move permanently to their "summer" home.  It makes sense; a newer house it is more "user friendly" with less stairs and more bathrooms.  (Something we could all use.)  But before they put the house on the market, it needs to be decluttered.  Some things would go to the summer house, but not much since it was already fully furnished and supplied.  Which means it is up to me (since I am now an only child) to go through and clean out spaces that might not have been touched in a decade or more.

To make things more challenging, I wasn't just cleaning out my parents' "stuff" from the past 40+ years (they have lived in the same house since I was six years old), but also coming to terms with items I had stored there (from before 1996), that my late brother had stored there and items that had been stored/saved by my grandmother (my mother's mother).  So this is not just "stuff" but memories and emotions that come at me at the most unlikely of moments.

The good thing is that time is on my side.  I realized early on that this was going to be a long term project.  You don't (or shouldn't) just rush through cleaning out a home, especially when there are decades of memories associated with it.  I undertook this project towards the end of April; as of now, I'd like to think I'm about 65-70% of the way through the process. So while I've accomplished a great deal, there is still more to go.  

Having undertaken this task, I'd like to think that I have some insight and advice to share.  Take it or not, but here's what I have found and think:
  • If you've read thus far you've probably gotten this tidbit already, but give yourself TIME.  Decluttering/cleaning your home/space or a family space is a LONG term commitment.  It's not a job that should be rushed.  DON’T RUSH.
  • Don't try to do it all at once.  I've been trying to dedicate an hour or so a day.  You're probably thinking, well that's why it's taking so long and you'd be right.  But we all have lives and this is just part of mine.  I try to tackle some decluttering after work, but know when I have reached my limit and give myself permission to stop.
  • Know when to stop.  For me this has been very emotional and even with the support of my husband and son, I often say out loud:  "I just can't do any more right now."  And that is fine.  They say Rome wasn't built in a day; a house wasn't filled in a day nor can it be completely decluttered in a day, a week, or maybe even a month.  I also give myself permission NOT to go work on the house when I'm emotionally drained.  
  • Know your town/city/county garbage/recycling schedule and plan accordingly.  I specifically work on certain areas/items depending on what day it is.  Every other Tuesday is paper pick up.  That includes cardboard boxes.  Monday night, the family goes in and grabs all the paper items we can and get them to the curb for pick up. (Also know what items are recyclable and what are not.)  The same is true for our bi-weekly "bulky" item/white goods pick up.  Yes, the front of the house looks like a mess but it's extremely satisfying to see it all go.
  • With that said, a friend has helped me (and if you can get help, TAKE IT) by posting photos of what we've put out to the curb.  If someone wants to pick through and take something; I'm all for it.  And while I realize that I could sell some items instead of just putting them out, for me this is the way to go.  
  • Be thoughtful.  My mother had several sets of china.  She has a friend/helper who is newly married and he and his wife do like to entertain.  She was happy to give him one of the sets with the knowledge that it would be used.  My son and I are Civil War reenactors and my mother had several pairs of white gloves; several pairs of which I will use during our living histories.  (No, they are not completely period accurate, but they will do.)  I donated the others to the organization that we belong to where they can be used by others.  If you stumble across something that someone you know (even if it isn't family) might enjoy, give it away with love.
  • Donate gently used items to your local thrift shop, Goodwill, etc.  If you've been reading this blog, you know that I volunteer at my church's thrift shop.  So as not to overwhelm the volunteers or myself, I make weekly donations.  Sometimes my SUV is full and sometimes it's not.  I only donate items that I think will sell.  (As a volunteer I've seen plenty of junk...if you're donating remember it's a DONATION site, NOT a junkyard.)
  • It's okay to cry.  It's not easy.  Ask for help.  Don't be afraid to accept help.  Most of us will be in this boat at some time; and a support system is essential.  My husband has been the greatest help to me, not when he's carrying, lifting or moving, but when he's just there for me. (That's not to say that I'm not grateful for all the physical work that he's done!)
  • Take care of "treasured" items and store them safely.  My grandmother very obviously took great care when storing memories.  She carefully wrapped items in newspaper, tied them with string and put them in cardboard boxes.  Unfortunately, some of those boxes ended up in the basement which can get damp.  Many items couldn't be salvaged.  Items that were stored in the attic in the same way fared better.  (Although the packaging was filthy.)  I've found that storing items in the basement requires quality storage bins that can be sealed so that moisture is kept out.  When storing in a non-insulated attic, know that plastic and paper can break down and disintegrate.  (This includes garment bags which turned out to be a nightmare.)  Those old fashioned trunks just might be your best bet.
  • If you are going to be storing items for the long term, be sure to keep a record and make that record accessible to others.  My grandmother did label things, but my mother didn't know that some of these items even existed!  In this digital age, I'm thinking of keeping a record of my own items online that my family can access.  If I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday, how am I going to remember where I put my son's wooden trains in 10 years?  (Storage bin in the basement with label!)
As emotionally draining and physically exhausting as this has been for me (and my immediate family), it has also inspired me to keep my own house in order.  More importantly, it's given me insight into my family's past and made me wish I'd paid more attention to the stories my grandparents' told me.  (I did make a cassette recording of my grandfather.  I had good intentions, but didn't use high quality tape or ever take the time to transcribe it.  I'm kicking myself now.)  It's made me realize how important family history is and I'm going to make an effort to reach out to cousins and other relations to hear their stories and histories.

So this is MY story.  What is yours?  Have you had a similar experience that you’d be willing to share with me?  Advice that I could take as I continue this journey?  I’m all ears!


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