by Natasha Chiam
We are officially the sandwich generation.
Nearing our mid-40s, we're raising our own kids, and realizing our Baby Boomer parents are now in their 70s, and will soon need our help transitioning to a new phase in their lives — leaving their large homes and some 50-odd years of collecting, keeping, and never getting rid off anything. EVER! Between our two sets of parents, the sheer amount of furniture they have is enough to accommodate at least four households. In 1987.
A few weeks ago my mom asked us to come over and help move some of the aforementioned furniture around, and get their house staged before the realtors came to see it. As I walked through the house, assessing how to best arrange the rooms, I counted eight, yes EIGHT, dressers. Not to mention, three couches (on the main floor), three large barcalounger-type chairs, two rocking chairs, various dining chairs spread out throughout the house (I stopped counting at 11) and one 60+-year-old area rug.
To my parents, everything in their house has some kind of value. What they fail to see is that most of that value is sentimental. Like my mother's first stereo system. Two solid wood cube-shaped speaker and turntable units that are so big and such a pain to move, I suspect this is part of the reason it is still around. Or my stepfather's 40-year-old sofa, which he bought with his first wife (yeah, I don't get that one either). The harsh reality they are facing in keeping these unused yet not quite antique old items simply amounts to room after room of stuff no one wants, or is willing to buy.
The whole experience of that weekend left me with two clear thoughts:
One, there is still SO MUCH to do to get my parent's house ready to sell, and I see many more weekends in my future spent sifting through years of my parents stuff.
And two, there is much to be said about the minimalist lifestyle that is all the rage these days.
There is a reason that Marie Kondo's book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has sold more than four million copies worldwide. Her simple techniques (the t-shirt folding trick was revolutionary in our house), and the message of keeping only the things that "spark joy" is igniting a wildfire of decluttering everywhere it goes. Admittedly, I only read half the book, but there really is something to all the Konmari-ing and simplifying of one's life and one's possessions that is truly freeing and life changing. In our highly consumer-driven, must-have-all-the-things world, this is a lesson we all could learn.
If, in your future, near or far, you don't want to hear your own kids and grandkids lamenting "WHY dear GAWD is there so much STUFF??!", then heed the following list of my unsolicited advice:
1. All the keepsakes and trinkets and chachkas and "action figures" you have collected and dusted (or not), that line every square inch of shelving in your house? Please know this — your kids are NOT going to want them. Yes, I know Mom. We gave you a Precious Moments figurine every year for Mother's Day/your Birthday/Christmas, but they are definitely not coming to our house to be dust-neglected for another 25 years! The cycle of gift-giving has ended. You do not get to give back items that were given to you as gifts.
2. The mismatched Tupperware and the drawer full of lids you've kept hoping that their mates would somehow one day come back to you from whomever you sent them home with full of leftovers back in 2003? NOT GONNA HAPPEN. Throw it all out!
3. Those boxes in the basement storage room that you've moved approximately six times since your first apartment together and NEVER OPENED. It is time to open them up and deal with your past. Your sports career dreams that never came true, the terrible feeling that you've wasted your life (you haven't), those love letters from high school crushes, they all have to go. You need to know that whatever is in those boxes, you haven't needed for the past 20 years, you don't need now, and it is time to bid it all a fond yet FINAL adieu.
4. If you have three bedrooms in your house and more than three dressers, well.... do I really need to spell this all out for you? If in fact you DO have more than three dressers, and these are actually filled with clothes, I will kindly refer you BACK to the Konmari book to deal with your wardrobe. Please. Figure out what sparks your joy and stick to it! (And yes, this means those "one day I'll fit into them again" jeans.)
5. If it is ripped, if it is missing a button, if it is broken, if it needs a part and you keep saying you'll get to it one day, if it has a hole/dent/ding/burn/Sharpie marker on it... Trust me, you will not fix it, sew it, or go get that part, and it will sit in a neat little pile or junk drawer for all eternity. Either make it a habit to fix things right away, or admit that you are just not going to do it and toss the darn things. KNOW THY LIMITS PEOPLE!
I am sure as this downsizing project progresses, I'll have amassed even more nuggets of advice to for my fellow sandwich gen-ers. In truth, I am excited for my parents, and I want them to truly enjoy this season of their lives without the worry of caring for and maintaining a large house. It's time for them to par-TAY! And like the good Gen X daughter I am, I will help them as much as I can during this process. I'll even bring the garbage bags, and haul away everything that doesn't make the "joy list."
As we get nearer to the listing date for their house, my mom keeps asking me if I want [insert old thing that I have no use or space for here] before she "gets rid of it." I have realized it is not so much the stuff of their lives that I want as it is the stories. These are the memorabilia I want to "inherit" from my parents. I want my mom to tell me about the first record she listened to on that ginormous record player. Who was she with? How did it make her feel? (I remember the first one I heard on it as a kid. It was ABBA's Dancing Queen. Twirling around the teleposts in our unfinished basement, memorizing the whole album, — that's a memory I cherish to this day.)
I know that certain pieces will always spark joy for them and these they should keep as long as they want. But joy doesn't live in our material things, it lives in our hearts and our minds, and in the stories we share with each other. This is what I want from my parents, and one day hope to give to my own children.
Stories... not stuff.
Natasha Chiam is a writer and serial school field trip tribute/volunteer. She lives in Canada, live tweets the details of her impending foray into menopause, and has finally figured out that there is a freedom that comes with age and the giving of no more f***s!