Minimalism and the Sentimental Mind

While on the evening commute yesterday, I listened to one of the latest podcasts from The Minimalists. If you’re unfamiliar with them, I encourage you to check out their podcasts as well as their documentary, Minimalism, on Netflix. It was their podcast, ‘Clutter’, that inspired me to write about my own experience with one of the aspects that they touched on; what to do with items you inherit or will inherit when you’re trying to minimize your own life.

I have lost both of my parents. My Mother when I was 26 and my Dad 7 years ago, so I am faced with items in my home that were theirs. When my Mom passed away at a young age, I felt the need to have as many items of hers as possible. One thought that kept racing through my mind was “I would be living my life from 26 years old without my Mother”, and I had to have something that was tangible to make me feel like she was there with me. I kept some sweaters, a coat she always wore, a long purple velvet dress I remember her wearing to any fancy event they were going to, a kilt she bought on holiday to Nova Scotia, and some jewelry. My Mom’s jewelry consisted of a couple of broaches, a few pairs of earrings, string of salt water pearls and her wedding rings. These items alone, were manageable, but once my Dad moved out of our family home and into assisted living, the need to possess as many items from my childhood was an unstoppable force. I was grasping. Grasping for something to remain the same in my world that had kids growing up at the speed of light, my Dad getting older to the point of not being able to care for himself, and the empty hole that was there since my Mom passed that I had lived with for so many years. Changes were fast and furious and maybe just having these items around would slow down time.

When my Dad moved out of his home, our home inherited more stuff. We ended up with a wall unit (admittedly I wanted this because my Mom had bought it just before she died), my Grandmother’s china and crystal, silver plated serving dishes, a coffee table, hall table, a few knick knacks, like Dalton figurines, and an old Singer sewing machine (you know the wooden type that fold down to resemble a desk). We also ended up with novels; lots of novels as my parents were avid readers (my Mom was a librarian). I also took a sweater that my Mother had knit my Dad that was way too big for him now and a couple of watercolour paintings that were hanging in his home that she had painted the last few years of her life.

The stuff that we brought (ok, I brought) into our home were carefully rationalized. The lack of time I had with my parents, especially my Mother, had to be filled somehow. She hadn’t seen my kids grow up and arguably my Dad wasn’t really present after she died either, so the day she died marks the day I lost them both to some degree. The idea of having their stuff surrounding me and my family somehow felt comforting and gave me the illusion of them actually being there. Their stuff made it easier for me to talk about them to my kids.

My husband and I had three kids. Our oldest was about 18 months old when I lost my Mom, so all three of them never knew their Grandmother. I wanted them to know her through her things. My Dad was never quite the same after she died. He tried for a few years to be engaged in our lives and his own, but depression and loneliness won out over the desire to go on. We (my siblings and I) tried to keep him interested in our what was going on with ourselves and our kids but his patience for living, or I guess I should say living without my Mother, was too much to deal with. The last few years of his life were probably the most engaged he was during that time in our lives. A short 10-15 minute visit was about all he would allow, but it was met with smiles and inquiring questions that seemed to be genuine. Our kids got to know him as much as he would allow and although they don’t have stereotypical ‘Grandpa’ memories, I think they knew he loved them in his own way.

My Dad has been gone now for 7 years, this year. It also marks the year our oldest child, turns 20. Although, as any parent would tell you, that fact doesn’t necessarily mean you are an empty nester. Our oldest is 26 and I think we can safely say he is on his own (well, living with the love of his life) and happy after a few back and forths. Our middle child is home for the moment while finishing his Masters degree. I am sure he is itching to get out again after living 6 hours away for four years during his undergraduate. Our baby, the near 20 year old, moved out last year for her second year of University with friends and will be doing the student house living probably for the next couple at least. In no way am I complaining that some of them still keep a bed here that they sleep in every now and again. Nor am I upset when they pop in for food or laundry facilities. They really are great kids to have around and have grown into adults that I like to sit down and have a coffee (or a beer) with. But again, as any parent would tell you, the visits will become fewer and further between as time goes on and they grow into a life of their own. Your mind can’t help but to go to a place where you look at your home and think, “Do I really need all this stuff?” The typical ‘downsizing’ predicament. You know that you don’t need that 2000 square foot, 4 bedroom house anymore, but you have this stuff. In order to downsize, some of the stuff must go.

Two years ago we decided to do a basement renovation. Not necessarily for the extra space but for the purpose of putting in another bathroom as we have to renovate our old one and it is the only bathroom. We also now that when the time comes to sell our home some day, having that second bathroom will only increase the value in our home. Prior to and during this year and a half long process (when you can do the work yourselves, it takes longer, but you save money), we had no choice but to face the boxes and get rid of some things. I thought I was ruthless in my purging efforts at the time as we ended up with 3 good trips to the dump, to deliver items to Value Village (our Goodwill) and giving away some items to our kids. Little did I know that there was still so much that I had kept that I would have to revisit.

This past year, after watching Minimalism, the documentary, I decided to revisit those boxes that I had closed up thinking that I had only kept the essentials. It is probably not a surprise that there was still so much stuff left we had held onto. Admittedly, it took a few passes through the boxes with the kids’ school work, art projects, old favourite t-shirts and toys for me to finally whittle them down to a few boxes per kid. I am sure there is still room to go but mentally I am not there yet to do it. I may leave some that up to them once they have to take possession of these boxes of memories. Going through the items that I felt held memories in them, specifically the memories of our children and their milestones, was a difficult task. I had to keep reminding myself that they may not care that they have their grade 3 creative writing journal. As hard as this task was to work through, it paled in comparison to the idea of ridding myself of my parents’ items we had been living with for at least the past 15 years, but it was good practice.

I decided to begin with my closet. There were a couple of things that had been hanging in my closet that I knew I would never wear that were my Mothers. I allowed myself 3 to keep. Three was a completely arbitrary number, so there is not science behind this, but I had to have a limit, a guideline. I kept her velvet dress, her Peacoat and her kilt. The sweaters and other jackets went to Value Village for donation (but I can guess they were bought by a vintage shop and then resold because they were surprisingly back in style). The act of letting these items go that I felt held me closer to my Mother that I hadn’t seen since 1992 was not easy, but it was not as difficult as I had imagined. The three items I let myself keep now hold more meaning because they are now the only items I have.

Next up on the docket was the china cabinet. The china I have is actually my paternal Grandmothers. Let’s face it, people don’t use china like they used to. I kept the china but use it for whenever we have a family dinner. We don’t save it for ‘special occasions.’ We use it because isn’t that the whole point of having it in the first place? Also in the china cabinet were plates that my Mother had displayed on a plate rack in her kitchen. She was a sucker for any kind of blue plate. They were pretty but I don’t have a plate rail in my kitchen, nor do I want to hang them up on my walls. The stack of plates were stored in my china cabinet still wrapped in tissue from one of our many moves and never looked at again. I got them all out. Unwrapped them all and started sorting. I stopped about halfway through when the thought occurred to me to just use them, like the china but for everyday dishes. I washed them and put them in my dish cupboard for us to use on a daily basis. They are all mismatched but I kind of like that about them. I was able to rid myself of some items from the china cabinet though. I had carried around a set of dishes from my Mother’s step-mother. Yeh. I know. Why? They have been donated. The silver plated serving dishes (screaming 1970’s) were next. I will never use silver plated serving dishes. Ever. If I don’t use them, chances are, my kids are not going to spontaneously have a need for silver plated serving dishes. They have been donated. The items I chose to give up out the china cabinet were easier than the clothing. They were definitely items I didn’t use anyhow, nor would my kids ever use them. The dishes I kept, I make sure they get used to create more good memories for our family and friends. Maybe my kids will want them when I am gone, maybe they won’t, but the memories will be there regardless if the dishes are not.

The novels my parents had have been released from their boxes they were housed in for many years and are now on a bookshelf for us to see and to read. The books were also sorted into ones that I would actually want to read and books that there was no way I would ever find readable. The unreadable books were given away and the books we kept are now being read. I am making my way through the collection my parents curated and enjoying them more because I feel like they were picked just for me.

There are still some things that I have yet to part with that belonged to my parents. There is a certain pang of guilt when the thought crosses my mind. My Mother had a couple of Royal Dalton figurines that were given to her and I have two of them. She also had a box of broaches, earrings and some necklaces. I have given a few broaches to our daughter and she wears them since she is lover of vintage clothes and accessories. The engagement ring is packed away and her wedding band I wear and have since she died. The humongous wall unit is in our bedroom and is currently used to house our sweaters but if I was to be honest, I hate it. So why do I keep it?

The process of giving away, giving up or releasing ourselves from not only our own stuff but stuff that was inherited or given to us is ongoing. We of the Generation X (I know the Boomers have already started this process) will be faced more and more with the angst and joy of ridding ourselves of things we no longer need in our lives. Traditionally, the generations before us would just hand everything down to their children, hence the predicament we find ourselves in now. As the Millennials age, we are faced with the fact that they just don’t want the stuff. To be honest, we didn’t want our parents’ stuff either but I would argue we were guilted more into taking it. The way most Millennials want to live is very much in line with Minimalism. They have seen the life of excess and they don’t want any part of it. Millennials have made the connection between wanting or ‘needing’ stuff and paying for it in one way or another. This is not to say they don’t want to work but know that there is way more to life than working to pay for or collect things. They want to experience life, not just get glimpses of it along the way.

So the duty now falls on us as parents of Millennials to do a few things.

First, keep only the few items you inherited from your parents that hold real meaning to you and share them with your kids. Tell them about the items and put them on display or use them daily to get the absolute most out them. Second, don’t burden your kids with the expectation that they are to keep all these items once you can no longer house them or when you are gone. This generation is onto a good thing, as far as I am concerned. They are looking at life in a way I wish I had at their age. They are not caught up in the consumerism of previous generations and if we have any chance as a society, we would allow them to be able to say no the excess of stuff and use their lives to create, serve others and work to make the world even more beautiful. Lastly; they don’t want your magazine collection, but they may want your records. My meaning by this is that the stuff we may have gotten joy out of in our lives, may not be what they find meaningful. So ask. Once they are old enough and if you are in the process of downsizing or even pre-downsizing, ask them what they may want for their own. It may surprise you to know what they want and equally surprising to know what they don’t want. Things are only sentimental to those who have the memories behind them.

We are only at the beginning of our Minimalism journey; and I use the word journey as I think it is just that. We will be constantly reevaluating what we have in boxes or in drawers or on shelves. We may find joy in things today but not tomorrow. Our kids will be left with things to go through our stuff some day but let’s hope we have left them more good memories than stuff they feel they need to keep.

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