Sometimes as we age there is a need to get rid of stuff. Not everyone accumulates stuff in life. For example, my father was a great non-accumulator. One of his ways of living light was to move often between counties — so less was better. That said, if you have spent the last chapter or chunk of your life in the same place, it's easier to accumulate.
For me, the way accumulation happens is that when someone I love and care for gives me something, I keep it because of their love and the memory it represents. I think it could take years of "separation" (things being boxed up and put away) and an unbiased loved one to help separate my from beloved stuff.
I started thinking about this because of the gratitude that one of my elders and mentors has shown to me for a small act of service I was able to do. Several years ago, when Barbara decided she was ready to pare down and move into senior housing, she knew her accumulation would need to be sorted and dispersed. As a person who often volunteers in areas of manual labor or when a friend needs two extra hands, I jumped in by offering four hours of service a month. My offer was made without her request. Barbara knew she had some time to sort and purge, so she took me up on my offer. Also, we found less was more with this overwhelming task and four hours was plenty of time.
Here how it went: I would come over and we would venture into her basement and look through her things. Some of the things would bring to mind a story, some a discussion of where they came from. If she was ready to let go of the treasured item, we would consider who might like it or be a worthy recipient. If no one came to mind, it would go in a "holding" box for review on my next visit. If we discovered a possible receiver, we would mark the item with his or her name for a later phone call. And if she felt this item should go out into the world at large (the Goodwill, consignment shop, or historical center) we had a box for that as well. Each time I left her house, I would take those boxes to their appointed "recycle" center.
Letting go and sorting through a lifetime of things is a large physical task that takes emotional strength as well physical stamina. I believe that as a non-family member, I was able to help from a detached place, which was a plus. Barbara has said that the gift I gave her was one of willingness, energy, patience, non-judgement, and action. For me, the gift I received was that of sorting through treasures that were visual aids to fill out the story of her life. I also loved hearing her connect some of these dots.
There was a steamer trunk with some of the women's clothing that had taken the journey with a past generation, first addition books that had been beloved through generations, and collections like the oil lamps that had made her living room so cozy.
As we sorted and resorted, Barbara was able to peel back each layer and find which treasure needed to move forward with her. In the end, she moved into a place that accommodated many of her most precious pieces, and at her new place, I can still tell that I am in her home by enjoying the sight of her lovely collections. I am so honored that I was able to help with this intimate task.
How will you help your elders sort through their treasures? Is there a task that needs your gift of time and attention? Can you offer your time and help without being asked?
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