Unstyled Life

William Morris, self portait. 1856

I’m sitting at my desk, alone in the family room, listening to the chorus of “A Spoonful of Sugar” on repeat. If I turn my head to the left I can see the Mary Poppins DVD menu on our TV screen. Mary and Bert and a handful of penguins are dancing what is meant to look like a waltz while they wait for me to press play. They are indefatigable with their constant swirling and waxy smiles. I’m not so easily influenced. I watched Mary Poppins once today with a sick Nicholas. I get up and turn off the TV. The silence is loud and welcome.

It’s time for me to write, but I don’t know what to say or how to say it.

I haven’t written much about my friend, Helena, since her parents died in June. There isn’t much to say other than they died; it sucks; she’s sad; we still can’t believe they’re gone. I could walk to her parents’ house, but I haven’t. During the months of July and August I was there almost daily feeding her father’s hummingbirds while Helena visited her mother’s family in Sweden for a memorial service. Later, she spread her parents’ ashes in Utah with her uncles from her father’s side.

Those days feeding the hummingbirds were both peaceful and unsettling in that double-edged way of an empty house. I would often stand at the sink and lose time watching 20 birds flit from feeder to feeder. I knew the skinny one would get pushed aside by the one with the ruby throat. The squat one didn’t like to feed with birds on either side. The rest dipped where they could, squabbling amongst themselves for a place in line. Eventually I turned and told the boys to gather their things when the hairs on my neck stood up for no reason.

Cartoon of William 'Topsy" Morris and Burne-Jones by Max Beerholm

Two weeks ago Helena trudged up the stairs of her childhood home carrying several designer handbags, a designer organizer, and a mink coat from the 80s. Her parents, especially her mother, had a flair for drama, for excess. Helena grew up to be the opposite in a classic reactionary measure. The irony that they are gone and she is left alone to handle a house bursting with, in her mind, unnecessary possessions hasn’t escaped her notice. Honestly, she’s rather pissed about the whole thing. Amused, disgusted, and exhausted, she later sent me a short email I haven’t stopped thinking about since.

Well my friend…I’ve spent the day looking at the petrie dish of my parents’ life, known as the boxes from Lake Arrowhead. The fact that everything has a musty smell just seems to add to the experience. I think everyone’s goal in life should be to not end up in a box for others to analyze.  But the good news is that a lot of progress is being made on the stuff front. Now if I could just sell some cars I would feel better. I still don’t sleep that well but I’m learning what I feel like when I’m getting overdone[...]. So I’m figuring out this new life of mine. I’m excited to have you and Becky over next Saturday evening…we should have fun. :)

You’ve heard time and again that you can’t take it with you, that in the end the stuff doesn’t matter. You know that, logically, because it’s an obvious truth. But until you pull every last thing from the recesses of an empty home and lay it out to catalog, you really have no idea.

Old tubes of mascaras. Eyeshadows. Almost empty bottles of aspirin. Expired lotions. Moth eaten sweaters. Uncomfortable sofas. Bills, paid and unpaid. Unread books. Shirts that don’t fit, are no longer in style, or you never really liked. Someone will one day run their hands over your possessions and make an assumption you won’t be there to refute.

I find it disconcerting that someone will find an empty Impressionist address book on my desk and wonder when I became a fan of Cézanne when, in truth, it was a gift from a friend I will never use. If they open my hall closet by the front door, what will they think of my piles of art and ill-fitting coats? Surely those who love me will realize I only wear the red one, even though it’s three sizes too big. And what does it say that I never took the time to alter a coat so that it fits my form in a flattering way, that I let the cuffs drag my knuckles and the waist swing wildly when I walk?

They will open my makeup drawer, pause, and then say, “I don’t remember her ever wearing green eyeshadow.”

William Morris' often quoted philosphy on interior design.

The most alarming thing about Helena’s parents is that they weren’t hoarders. They were positively average. The horror in visiting is knowing I am walking into a house of mirrors. Each duplicate kitchen utensil is my own. Each ill thought furniture purchase belongs to me. The library of unread books are inscribed with my name.

Perhaps this is why I acted like a self righteous twit during the Missoni for Target melee of last week. I wanted to tie people up with their Pakistani produced chevrons and drag them over to the house with the hummingbirds so they could witness what happens when you buy to fill a hole instead of feed a passion. I’m guilty of wanting the ridiculous, too, which made me all the more upset. Glass houses are woefully inconvenient.

Helena found dozens of cards from over the years where she offered to help her parents purge and organize. They were appreciated and acknowledged, but the offers never accepted. Now she is alone in that house and getting rid of everything they couldn’t take with them. “I finally get to help them purge, but it’s because they’re both dead. This isn’t the way I wanted it to happen.”

It isn’t the way I want it to happen, either. I suppose I can start by donating to Goodwill that address book.

Update: I ended doing something about all my stuff.

Update, II: I did something again.

 

Comments
107 Responses to “Unstyled Life”
  1. Gail says:

    My husband and I worry about this with his parents some day, especially. His dad IS a pack rat and for years we’ve tried to get him to clean the garage. We’re afraid the only way that’s going to happen is when he’s no longer with us. Sigh….great thoughts to be had here, for sure.

  2. Meghan says:

    your words are just what I needed to hear as I prepare to sell my household of stuff from people passed. they are just things. the things are not the memories.

  3. Monica says:

    Thanks for this post.

  4. WE had a flood in our closet earlier int he year, and it was a HELLO to how much crap I had. I continue to purge, and no longer buy things that I do not need, or will reuse. It is kind of refreshing!

  5. Nan says:

    I loved reading this post. Thoughts of purging unnecessary, unwanted, and unused things have been swirling in my head all month. I find I must do it in tiny little chunks though, or else I am totally overwhelmed and end up just clinging harder to the unnecessary, unwanted, and unused.

    And I loved the Missoni for Target bit. My hands were on the steering wheel on that Tuesday, trying to drive me in the direction of Target, but my brain won. I literally thought about what that zigzagged sweater would look like hanging in my closet six months from now, or how it would probably tear in a few months and end up in a Goodwill pile, and instead of driving to Target to buy completely needless things, I went home and took my dog for a long walk instead. Long walks with dogs beat trips to big stores to buy more cheap stuff any day of the week.

  6. Amy says:

    It’s true, isn’t it? A couple years ago, my friend and her sister were killed in a head-on collision while driving to their mother’s to help prepare for their father’s funeral. He had died that morning. Needless to say, we all pitched in to help clean out. The thing is, Dixi had been talking about how she needed to clean out and organize; I even had a dream, after she was gone. I was alone in her house, at night, when suddenly she appeared. She told me she was okay, “but this … no one should have to deal with this.” That’s exactly what she would have said. It’s true–there was so much stuff. One day, in the midst of it all, we opened one of her bottles of champagne and toasted, “To Dixi … and all her s**t!” Then we laughed through tears–because as crazy as it was, all those odd bits mirrored our friend. At the same time, we all vowed to go home and clear out. Two years later, I’ve still got a ways to go. But I guess that’s life … and it’s piles …

    • Jules says:

      I can’t believe that about your friend’s mom. That’s just awful. No mother should outlive their children.

    • Michele says:

      Amy, I am so sorry for the loss of your friend…thank you for sharing.

    • emily says:

      I don’t know you or your friend’s mother, but I’m finding myself in tears. That is one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.

    • Lindsay O. says:

      Just reading your comment for the first time, and I am crying for your friend’s mom. She must have gone through the worst kind of hell. I am sure that there are still tough days for her, even years later. Please let her know that even now, strangers are praying over her.

  7. Zakary says:

    This is exactly how I feel dealing with all my mother’s crap. I know she keeps it because of the “memories” associated with it, but she also loves to buy more stuff too. It has turned me into the complete opposite and I feel uncomfortable with too much around, you know?

    Great post, Jules.

  8. Witty Mermaid says:

    I’ll say, I completely empathize. You know the story of my grandparents and their deaths, 1 week apart in 2009. And there was nobody, NOBODY, who was a bigger pack rat than Peggy Norris, my grandmother. She used to buy dolls without heads at garage sales… thinking, at some point, she’d run across a dismembered head somewhere. Out of respect, because she practically raised me, and because I loved her more than my own life, I’ll stop there. When she was alive, I excused it by saying she was a child of the depression. They kept stuff, not knowing what would happen–being grateful just to own things. I’m not sure it was entirely that, but the excuse worked for me then.

    After her death, my aunt and I went through so much sh*t that the days seemed unbearable. Dust-covered plastic flower arrangements; ill-constructed sorority albums and scrapbooks full of people we didn’t know; so many glittery pairs of costume earrings that I thought I’d have a seizure; pairs of knee-highs and stockings full of runs; drawers full of tiny little screwdriver-looking-free-gift-fix-it-thingees that come in the mail–that even Goodwill doesn’t want; mismatched tea sets; fabric swatches (fabric swatches?! The woman didn’t even sew!); Stacks of articles clipped about the lives of people whom my grandmother admired–Dolly Pardon, Reba McIntyre, Troy Aikman, and Nancy Reagan; a lime-green dress with peacock feathers around the neck, and a hoop slip. A hoop slip? Really?

    And, I sat on my aunt’s living room floor, literally surrounded by photo albums (more than 50) containing photos of our lives, glued and taped to the insides–sometimes so many photos jammed in that they were falling out of the sides. Having to make decisions about who would want which photos, and does anybody that we know even know these people? I got really PISSED OFF. After about 2 hours sitting under these piles, I threw the photos off me, raced to the pool and swam laps for over an hour and a half. At about 45 minutes, I realized I was sobbing in my goggles. As much as I resented having to pick through all her “sh*t,” I realized, it wasn’t that. Sure, I had better things to do with my time. Sure, the world would be better off if each of us wasn’t so wasteful and entrenched in consumerism.

    But, the bottom line was that she was dead. And everywhere I turned, her sh*t was staring at me. Keeping me from forgetting that she was gone. It would have been easier to deal with, were it not for all the sh*t. The photos were full of embraces and smiles and touches and laughter. The clothes smelled of her closets–musty as they were. An article snippet even had her handwriting on it. Wasteful as they may seem, these stacks were evidence that she was real; that she existed. That she touched my life. That she was there once, and that she loved me.

    I wasn’t angry because of the sh*t. It was grief. Pure and simple.
    And it passes.

    I even kept the hoop slip.

    • Jules says:

      I love this. A good reminder that our emotions have multiple layers.

    • Melissa says:

      I love this, too. So well put and so how I feel.

      I didn’t get the luxury/burden of going though all of my mother’s things. She was married to a total a** that is so horrible words cannot begin to describe him. We begged her for years to leave him, but that’s another story. August of 2009, mom had terrible hip pain. I thought, she’ll need a hip replacement. It was much worse. She had lung cancer that had spread to her hip. Spread to everything. She lived for 6 more weeks. She had this stuff – that she had collected over the years and it was very important to her. One day, while she was sleeping…about 3 weeks before her passing…I started to pack my car with whatever I wanted. An old rooster she had in her kitchen. Some china she had saved from when she was married to my father. Chintz dishes she had collected. Quilts, teacups, etc. I got as much as I wanted. I knew that he would never let me step foot in that house once she passed. I couldn’t get the cherry bedroom suite or the old antique secretary, but who cares?? I got those other things she loved. I love them now. I have no idea what happened to the rest of her things. I don’t care, either. He probably had an estate sale.

    • Letitia says:

      My mom has never been a pack rat (thank goodness). Once Dad died, she started going through all of the photo albums and getting rid of photos that no longer meant anything to any of us. She put aside photos and mementos into 4 small boxes photos for each of my sisters and me, making sure we knew who was in them. She made it perfectly clear that we could keep these things or discard them. She would be OK either way. I appreciate her doing to de-cluttering NOW so much more after reading some of your responses. I guess I’ll start going through my things. sigh. :-)

  9. Querencia says:

    This post hurt with empathy. My mother hoarded and died when I was in my 20s. I. My heart goes out to your friend. Even though situations are different each one leaves a mark.

  10. So hard. My parents are all savers (I won’t call them hoarders – I think they have a fairly standard level of attachment to their stuff) and I’m always offering to help them pare down. And I’m brutal – when my mom wavers on getting rid of her empty spaghetti jar collection (“they could be so useful for something!”) I will remind her that we can recycle them now or I will have to deal with it in the future and I’ll be having panic attacks the whole time.

    I fight with my own tendencies as well. I have both sides – I love beautiful things and I want to keep them around, but I hate clutter. Part of me wants a beautiful, mysterious house filled with interesting and thoughtful things and part of me wants an open space with white walls and nothing else. Moving sends me into fits because I HATE seeing how much stuff we have when it all gets boxed up together. And I think we’re pretty average.

    My heart goes out to your friend, truly. Loss upon loss and then the stress and anxiety of clearing up the detritus of life.

    Oh, and on a practical note. We keep a Goodwill box or bag going at all times. Gifts that we aren’t going to use (no matter how sweetly thoughtful they were) go straight in there. I finally told myself that I can hold onto something and feel guilty about throwing it out for several years before finally getting rid of it, or I can feel guilty about getting rid of it right away. At least one way leaves me with less clutter.

    • Jules says:

      Part of me wants a beautiful, mysterious house filled with interesting and thoughtful things and part of me wants an open space with white walls and nothing else.

      Once again, I’m surprised by our similarities.

      Great idea (and logic) behind the Goodwill box.

      • Kathy says:

        I have the same feelings I want to keep and decorate with a lot of things yet It doesn’t make sense to me to have to clean around all the collectibles. I always have a donation box going in my garage. I am going to do a big spring cleaning this year. Tired of having to move too much around trying to get organized.

  11. Querencia says:

    sorry for repeat commenting but the photos of unknown people reminded me of something that worked well.. as nice as it was to make lunch and invite all the older family crowd over to identify photos it was taking a very very long time and seemed like a losing battle. something that was very effective and got family and friends stories shared was to make an account on a photo hosting site, set it to private and then invited all friends and family members. the older generation wasn’t too adept at it so asking younger generations to go over and help, or cajole, them into going through the online photos helped.. and once people started looking at photos it can be hard to stop them. comment features allowed people to share stories about the people in the pics and the stories of those particular pics. being able to tag people so that everything is searchable helped as well.
    scanning everything.. mind numbing and sometimes it felt heart breaking as well but i got more information and had it recorded for not just myself but EVERYONE involved made it worthwhile. just something that has worked for me.. people can still gather for coffee and food while doing it. but it makes it more accessible including to those who live far away and might not otherwise have been able to be involved as well… not a solution for everyone but. shrug. for what it’s worth.

  12. J.Mill says:

    I just found your blog via Young House Love’s blogroll. I love your writing style! Can’t wait to read more!

  13. Aimee says:

    I used to be annoyed by my mother’s purging. We were a military family, and she used the regular moves as reasons to GET RID of so much. I sometimes felt like I had to dig my claws into things, but I get it now. I totally get it. In fact, I think I’m ready to pass my wedding dress on. My sons will have no use for it, and it’s taking up too much room. That realization was a shock to me.

    We also keep a Goodwill box/bag going at all times – two, actually. One up in our bedroom, one down here in my space. Once I get things sorted and purged (we moved six months ago, and the amount of STUFF is overwhelming, embarrassing, and beyond unnecessary), we’ll just have one out in the garage.

  14. J. says:

    The more stuff you own, the more it owns you. I hope to always have what I need, but not much more. It’s part of why I like owning a small house, because it forces you to only keep what’s necessary. I don’t have a ton of room for junk. Honestly, if I could find a smaller house I would be even happier.

    My husband’s mother and aunts are all hoarders; it seems to be an psychological thing, and it weighs on them emotionally and financially. When you have to pay someone to store your excess crap, and you can’t even remember what’s in all those boxes, you have a serious problem. I cannot imagine what will happen if we ever have to sort through my MIL’s things. It would take weeks. My sister-in-law is very much like your friend in that, in response to her mother’s chaotic hoarding, is fastidious in keeping everything clean and organized, to the point of sometimes being overly zealous in tossing out things, though I think she is still somewhat materialistic in the sense that she feels pressured to have certain things because she thinks she needs them.

    There are a few useless things I have that I still can’t bring myself to get rid of, and I have some boxes of ‘stuff’ I haven’t quite figured out what to do with in the two years since we moved in, but I find purging things no longer needed or bought impulsively is therapeutic. Organizing is also therapeutic. Coming home to an organized house and knowing where everything is makes me feel secure and unburdened.

  15. Jennifer says:

    I loved this… a sad reminder. Reminds me of the short story “Contents of a Dead Man’s Pockets.” I also go back and forth between wanting a collection of neat odds and ends and wanting to be a complete minimalist. I feel like I almost have to be a minimalist to make room for all of my kid’s stuff. It’s truly amazing what a little person can collect.
    I did not buy one thing from the Missoni collection either. I did buy a reusable shopping bag during the Liberty phase, but I just knew I would tire of everything so quickly and I didn’t really need it.
    Thanks for this!

  16. Bobbi Jo says:

    We’re a military family. We’ve lived anywhere from 7 months to 10 years in one place. But usually it’s around 3 years. When that 2.5 year mark comes, there’s a switch that turns inside me and, like a machine, I start purging. Toys, blankets, coats, purses, whatever. On a constant loop in my head is some variation of: “Do you really want to be stuck unpacking all these coffee cups in Germany?” We’re getting to the end of my husband’s military career and the thought of staying in one place is claustrophobic. No just because we won’t be traveling any more, but because I worry what will happen if I don’t have that wake up call to purge my junk drawers every few years.

    • Erin says:

      Bobbi Jo- I grew up military and then went into the Air Force when I was 17. We moved every 4 years or so and thankfully I didn’t deal with the moves, my parents did. As an adult I just kept moving my stuff. Once I went to civilian life and quit moving every 6 months or so (new tech school, new apartment, new husband), I rearranged the furniture every few months, then every few years. We’ve been in our current house for almost 10 years now and the furniture hasn’t been rearranged once. I can say we are on the third paint color though. :)

  17. rebecca says:

    Your belongings really do begin to own you. My mother died three years ago and my father refused to deal with the house, he literally just took off in his motor home and left it.
    None of my siblings want anything to do with it and my Dad is overwhelmed. I’m trying to figure out how I can take care of all of it but I live 7 hours away and work 6 days a week. I haven’t stepped foot in my childhood home since the day my mother died and now I’m facing endless days of sorting through their 70 plus years of belongings.

    I completely get why estate sale companies can charge a fortune. I would max out our credit cards to not have to deal with this if I could.

  18. Jules,
    It’s back! I can see all of your pretty blog again!

    Thanks for this post. I have a major closet purge to do. This was a kinder and more thoughtful motivator than watching a marathon of Hoarders. :)

    We have tried over the past year to get help for my MIL, who is a hoarder. It hasn’t worked yet, but I don’t think she has given up. So we’re trying to stay positive and hopeful about the situation. I know your friend’s parents weren’t that bad, but talking about the accumulation of stuff always sends me to thinking of hoarders, now that I know one personally.

    Best wishes to your friend Helena. I’m praying for her.

  19. Jane says:

    I stumbled on your post through a link on Making It Lovely. I think about these things all the time — just yesterday, I completely emptied my closet & only put those things back that I love & wear. Two huge bags waiting to be dropped off at Goodwill now. My husband’s parents are hoarders, through & through. Their health now does not permit them to take care of their house, so a move to an assisted living facility is looming. Yet, they cannot bear to part even with one tschotcke, one figurine or one plate they haven’t used in 20 years. I’m not sure how my husband and his brother will facilitate this move, but it’s got to happen, and soon.

  20. Jackee says:

    Having had to place my mother into assisted living back in May, I feel your friend’s pain. I’m still going through my mother’s prized possessions which make me sad, as they are mostly just “old junk”. She is sad for missing her house and belongings, and yep, you are right, those very belongings somehow defined her. I recentlly told her that she thinks more of the old belongings than she does of us children. I quickly wanted to recant that statement, but it has a ring of truth to it. She is acutely if not suddenly aware of the fact that she has lost her independence, and cannot take proper care of herself nor her belongings.

    So, I’ve come up with a mantra that I say very frequently – “Everyday, throw away”. I mean, toss away the address book that you will never use and the old towels that you save in the garage for when you wash the car and so on. Everyday, I toss away!

  21. Sheila says:

    I read this post and the all the comments earlier today, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. I feel pretty conflicted about it all. On the one hand I am a staunch environmentalist, and believe that we should all, as a group, be consuming FAR less than we currently do. But I’m also a designer who can’t help but collect beautiful objects. After all, there are two parts to what William Morris says in that quote, and I don’t really think he was making a case for OCD minimalism. When I’m organizing my space I often refer to those lines as a mantra to keep myself on track, but I can usually justify something by putting it into one of the two categories!

    My guess is that the tchotchkes and figurines and plates ARE beautiful to the person collecting them (at least, I hope they are), and that’s why they have them. Who are we to judge what someone else finds beautiful? And while I share your concern that if I died tomorrow my family would be left with a serious disaster to clean up (I’ve been putting off tackling my garage for months), and worry that they would get the wrong idea about me, I think that the truth is quite the reverse. If they were really paying attention I think, I HOPE, they would see the REAL real me. The one which I try to pretend doesn’t exist. The me who is always biting off more than I can chew, and has so many ideas swirling around in my head that I start lots and finish little. The me who is inspired by a twig chewed by termites (yep…I actually have that one sitting on my bookshelf). I clean up for company, but perhaps the real me lives in the space between.

    I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother this past summer, helping her settle into a smaller home and make decisions about what to keep and what to let go. Some things were easy, some things were frustrating (why an 84-year-old woman who rarely travels needs 10 suitcases I’ll never know), and some things were heartbreaking. She can’t throw away anything that was my grandfather’s, however trivial. She feels as though she’s throwing HIM away. And I understand that.

    My paternal grandmother is the complete opposite. She was diagnosed with cancer this spring, has spent the last few months taking everything in her home to the benefit shop. The war left her more damaged than I can describe, and so for her NOTHING holds emotional significance. Priceless family heirlooms went to the thrift without a second thought, or a phone call to us to see if we would like it. She doesn’t want us to have to clean up after her, and I appreciate that, but she’s also denying us those small touchstones that remind us that she was here.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think that given the choice between a house full of the trappings of a life lived, or a house that could be a developer’s model home, I choose the former.

    (Apologies for the crazy long comment…I really did try to edit it down. :) )

    • Jules says:

      Sheila, I understand why you feel conflicted. I’m addressing both sides of the William Morris quote next month because I’m not a terribly cluttered person but I am guilty of buying something I don’t absolutely love just to have a project done and over with. Everything in my dining room speaks to that, as does the current paint on my walls.

      The last thing I want is a developer’s home. I want a home that thoughtfully reflects us as a family and, sadly, I don’t think there are many people who can say they have that. Part of that is because it requires a designer’s skill and eye to translate what is in your head into reality–at least in my case! Since I’m not a designer, I’ve made many missteps.

      I definitely don’t want a minimalist’s home, so no worries there.

      p.s. I wouldn’t have put away the chewed up twig. I have rocks and branches I’ve found on rocks proudly on display. When they started to get out of hand, I culled the ones I no longer found intriguing. I think it’s possible to have both worlds, and that’s what I am shooting for in October.

  22. Diane says:

    I discovered your website tonight and really appreciate it. I’m in the middle of purging 33 years of marriage due to a divorce. It is amazing all the stuff one can accumulate over the years especially when you come from packrats. I’m going to have to move, but I have no idea where yet, but I’m sure it’s not going to be as room as my little house. I have gone through a lot of stuff and there’s more especially all the files/papers I’ve saved. I’ve already given my two granddaughters a few items I wanted them to inherit…figured I do it while I was alive!

    When my uncle passed away years ago, we were shocked to see the condition of his double-wide mobile home. There were things piled EVERYWHERE and I do mean everywhere! The only room to move in the place was a little path from the front door to the bedrooms and bathroom. It was unbelievable and so sad.

    I used to work on estates and had to keep track of every asset. What always amazed me was siblings who would argue over who got what (as if they needed more stuff) and a couple of sisters even argued over a penny!

    I’m going to get my things pared down so my family doesn’t have the overwhelming task of dealing with it all when I’m gone. Getting rid of stuff has been liberating!!

  23. SillySimple says:

    So many descriptions of heart wrenching moments :-( Thanks for sharing.

    In my family the women write notes in the important family heirlooms. The notes are carefully handwritten explaining where the item came from, why it is important, who is pictured in the albums or how the previous owners of the item are related. So that after their gone the family will still know why it is important.

    I think I like the notes almost as much as the family heirlooms.

  24. trinity says:

    I can’t be too hard on the hoarders. There is really something wrong in their brain. I ended a 4 year relationship that was supposed to end in marriage. He’s a stellar person of integrity, and humor, a dear friend and we loved each other. He couldn’t understand when I would tell him “there’s no room for me in your life”. The financial problems and number of storage units were mounting. Most of the time, he thinks his family will be glad to get all his treasures. He had glimpses of understanding but only glimpses. It’s been 3 years and I have moved on but I still miss him.

  25. Dawn says:

    I am so glad you posted this! I am in the process of reorganizing our newly empty nest. It’s both exciting and daunting. I thought I was a person that didn’t hang on to stuff – but, boy-howdy – for such a person I have a ton of stuff! I will keep your post in the back of my mind as I am contemplating how many books, puzzles, games, cds, dvds, brick-a-brack, etc. to hang on to. I am very organized but whew. Just. Too. Much. I am also doomed to live the fate of your friend, Helena. My brother still lives with my mother and is a hoarder. She now will not get rid of anything. It’s a huge mess that keeps me from going to see her very often. I don’t want to do this to my family – time to let go! Thanks…

  26. Wow! This is a great story. My 31 Days is about simplifying too. My Mom passed away two years ago and I wrote about a similar subject back then.

    Death does put things in perspective.

    New to your blog by the way!

    -Jennifer

  27. Maria says:

    Love your post…..I read it after finishing cleaning out a closet! So tired of keeping things that are not used, loved or bring true memories! Called my son and told him that as I was cleaning out the things the things I wanted to keep where his GI Joes and small “dinky” cars because when I look at them they are what remind me of him. While the baseball cards which he gathered for a short time didn’t so if he didn’t want them I would give them away or sell……he understood exactly the difference between how one brought cherished memories while the other was just taking up space! Reading your blog will make it even easier as I go through the house and surround myself with those things I truly love and reflect who I am. Now will just need to get my husband on board…..

  28. So much to think about. Thank you.

  29. Jeannie says:

    This reminds me of something I heard in church this weekend about leaving a legacy… not through your wallet or becuase of your reputation, but through your character. I want my faith (in Jesus) to be my legacy. Hopefully, when they look through my junk years from now, they will smile… becuase they knew my heart and where I’ve gone.

  30. Betsy says:

    Wow, this is so inspiring! Thank you.

  31. Becky says:

    Wow! The comments were as inspiring as your post! Lots to think about as I prepare to pack up and move – for the 3rd time in two years. I am NOT going to take all this junk with me.

  32. Sara says:

    Wonderful, wonderful post, thank you so much for reminding and remotivating me to purge myself of anything and everything that I can stand to lose and to also remind me why even though that item in the store is cute and i really want it, I dont need it and what would my home look like if i bought all those things I wanted? It would not bring happiness, just clutter. Feed a passion, not fill a hole. There is wisdom in that. We feel a “hole” inside of us and we do everything we can to fill it, but what most don’t realize is that that “hole” cannot be filled with stuff. Only Jesus can fill us. Not just fill our holes, but fill US. So don’t try to fill the holes in your life, instead feed a passion, a passion for Jesus Christ.

  33. Heidi says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I have felt led to simplify my life for sometime now. Your words have encouraged me to begin the process today.

  34. Ruth Baumgartner says:

    Jules, I found this post through “Chatting at the Sky.” Beautiful. I love the candor. We are making life decisions for our aged parents right now and this struck a chord. I will be back to your blog. You resonate with me. Thank you.

  35. just found this via the link up from chatting at the sky…so glad I did. what a great reminder.

  36. Scooper says:

    I came over from Emily’s. This post…it is beautiful and haunting and just perfectly said. After just returning from Christmas at a home with enough stuff to furnish a small town {and feeling quite nauseated over the whole thing,} this hits home.

    I love your writing and your blog name. I’ve been phenomenally indecisive since 1973 so you’re just a year ahead of me. : )

  37. Fawn says:

    Beautifully, wonderfully written. I’m so blessed I found you on Emily’s blog (Chatting at the Sky) as one of the Top 10 reads for the year. I’ve never thought about what people will think when rummaging through out things after we pass away from this life. What it says about us? What a wonderful message. Thank you.

  38. Ann Kosa says:

    I’ve actually mourned many of the things I culled from my possession the last time I moved. However, my father’s death and the subsequent cleanup taught me just how inconsiderate the practice of hanging on to the flotsam and jetsom is in the final analysis.

    I regret to say that we, his family, were so overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of his possessions that we ended up giving, selling, or tossing a LOT of really great things, simply because we could not bear to choose from it all. My dad would have been heartbroken. In retrospect I am, but everything loses value when there is just too much of it.

  39. PJ says:

    Deeply touched, thank you all for sharing!

    I’m really wrestling with the idea of letting go, it’s just ‘stuff’… ‘things’… why is it so difficult? I hate this feeling, but somehow know that it’s best. Best for me, for my sanity, my well being & for my family. I MUST DO THIS! Even if I begin with baby steps. Thank you Jules, and thank you to everyone for your insight.

    This is a real eye-opener.

  40. Kelly says:

    I would like to thank you for a lovely post that re-affirmed my motivation to sort & purge the items that I don’t love/ need/ use prior to our move. Also for the wonderful comments – particularly Jennifer’s comment of “Contents of a Dead Man’s Pockets” as that led me to the author of “Time and Again” which is a book I’ve been searching for, for over 10 years. This definitely falls under the “something I love” category. Thanks! :)

  41. Danielle says:

    Ok, now I understand the basis of the project. Well written and completely on board.

  42. Sam says:

    as i read this i think “how can you send your parents stuff to goodwill?” My mom recently passed and I now have everything she owned. I cant even get rid of her magazines. I guess I am just not there yet. Im sure someday it will happen. thanks for the article I am glad i read it.

    • Autumn says:

      I’m sorry to hear of your loss. Having lost my father a number of years ago, I would definitely say things come in stages. If you’re not ready to get rid of something don’t feel obligated. Everyone grieves and heals differently so don’t let someone tell you when you’re ready to let go. Just remember what your mother would have wanted for you, and hang in there.

  43. Carol says:

    I feel a little different on this subject.
    My mom was a great pack rat,but this made her happy. Yes it was hard and painful at times cleaning and sorting after she was gone .If it gave her a feeling of being in charge and control of her life it was worth it.

  44. Autumn says:

    A very poignant post. My grandmother was a “collector” but when she died my grandfather got rid of almost everything she left. As a teenager I used to get upset over this, but I have come to see that it wasn’t the worst thing. Especially since she died in unnatural circumstances, it was probably for the better. Those things couldn’t bring her back or explain why she was gone or tell me who she was. The imprints left by the things we leave often raise more questions then they answer.

  45. Lori says:

    We are in this process with my in-loves house. We have found some really cool things but mostly junk. There are news papers from the early 30′s and we even found her Brest pump from the 40′s. it has been one of the hardest jobs ever. I think they kept everything because they were from the depression era. I have begun to purge my home so that my kids won’t have to experience this. Thanks for sharing.

  46. Jane says:

    I don’t know how we got on the subject, but awhile ago my mother started mentioning all the things she wanted me to have when she died. She is in good health, so again I have no idea how we got on the subject, but as she started listing all the items she wanted me to have I became overwhelmed with a sense of dread. Where would I put all this crap? Not to be disrespectful to my mother, but none of these things are my style, and have no personal meaning to me. As people in my family have passed, people I never met, she has kept every belonging of theirs she could get her hands on. I would understand if she took a few items from each person that had great personal meaning, but 10 sets of cheap flatware? To her, everything has sentimetal value. Just the fact that these people owned these things, even though they are not attached to any personal memories, are enough of a reason to keep them. Most of them are in boxes stacked 10 feet high that she has kept unopened in the basement for 20 or more years. As politely as I could, I told her that I didn’t want these things, and that I wouldn’t be keeping them. These are her memories, not mine. All I would want is the photos from my childhood, but that other people in the family might want those things. Her reaction was not a good one. She was deeply offended, but I stood my ground. I dread the day when she passes, and I have to clear all of this crap out, contact distant family members to see if any of them want it, not to mention go through the myriad of crap she has collected over the years of her own. The rabbit fur coat that looks like it has mange and she hasn’t worn since the 70′s? She refuses to get rid of that because it was expensive 40 years ago. The boxes of salt and pepper shakers that she started collecting for a brief time 20 years ago, and that have been also relegated to the basement since? Again, she won’t get rid of any of it. And lord knows no one else is going to volunteer to go through all this junk. It will all fall on me, at the same time I will be making her final arrangements and organizing the sale of her house. I refuse to do that to my children. I don’t need an object to remember my mother. Keeping the belonings of those I have never even met does not give their life more meaning, nor does not having those items negate the fact that they ever existed. You want to pass something on, then tell their stories. I would much rather my mother have told me anything about my grandmother so I could know what kind of a person she was, (something she never did). I can hold her old sugar bowl as long as I want, but it won’t tell me anything about her.

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  48. Mander says:

    I know this post is old but I just came across it tonight. I wish that my aunt would read it. She is on the borderline between being a collector and being a hoarder, and it has only become worse since my uncle died. They did not have any children, and while they had plenty of friends that might be interested in some of the things they collected over the years I still think that one day my sister and I will have to clear out her house. I am not looking forward to it. Much of it is nice stuff, and she doesn’t collect actual garbage, but it is still going to be overwhelming.

    On the bright side, though, my uncle was a professional photographer and the living room is full of some of his better photos in nice frames. So at least if we are not able to distribute those to others, I won’t mind having them in my house.

    I am a bit scared by these tendencies in myself, and while I don’t believe in minimalism for it’s own sake I do want to start purging more of the random odds and ends I have accumulated. At least as I get older I am finally developing a healthier sense of what can be purged without guilt. I still struggle with “things that might be useful” or “things that could be re-used”.

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  1. [...] Some thoughts on what’s left behind. [...]

  2. [...] wanted to first thank everyone for the thoughtful response to my post on Friday. I have much more to say about the subject, and have even committed myself to a large project [...]

  3. [...] for in and around the house. Most of them remain incomplete, naturally. Last week I wrote about what was left behind when my friend’s parents suddenly passed away in June. (Cliffnotes: a lot.) I wrote about my [...]

  4. [...] from Pancakes and French Fries wrote a post last week called “Unstyled Life.” She shared her thoughts on “what happens when you buy to fill a hole instead of feed [...]

  5. [...] after everyone left, my friend started clearing out her family home. The clean up process has been sobering. This month is about making sure that everything in my home abides by the famous William Morris [...]

  6. [...] stumbled upon this post that so resonated with me.  i appreciate how the author* described our relentless pursuit of stuff [...]

  7. [...] But this. This is one reason why I clean out my junk–so other people won’t have to do it for me. [...]

  8. [...] Pancakes and French Fries has a really interesting commentary on the things we keep, what we choose to throw away, and how that affects our legacy after we are gone. As I have commented on in the past, I find the subject of simple living, clutter, and deciding what is kept and what thrown away both fascinating and utterly confounding. [...]

  9. [...] found a job right away–with Helena’s dad, actually–but it took him a long time to regroup. For many of us, our value and self worth is [...]

  10. [...] while back I came accross two posts (read it here and here) that spoke directly into my borderline hoarder heart. I grew up with a mom that cleaned [...]

  11. [...] Someone will one day run their hands over your possessions and make an assumption you won’t be there to refute. Unstyled Life [...]

  12. [...] Unstyled Life from Pancakes and French Fries [...]

  13. [...] at Making it Lovely. Her link brought me here, and that led me here, which led me here and finally here. I know that’s a lot of links, but if you are really interested in this project, they are all [...]

  14. [...] to keep me from tossing them out, small enough to make me put off returning them. Before this summer, before October, and before the estate sale, I might have kept them just in case. Or, I might have [...]

  15. [...] Unstyled Life – about your “stuff,” from the perspective of after you’re gone. [...]

  16. [...] This post was part of The William Morris Project, a weekly series that details the steps I am taking to create an intentional home. You can see more of my goals and completed projects here. To learn more about this project, start here. [...]

  17. [...] more about how the project started here. Share this:TwitterMoreStumbleUponFacebookDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  18. [...] This post was part of The William Morris Project, a weekly series that details the steps I am taking to create an intentional home. You can see more of my goals and completed projects here. To learn more about this project, start here. [...]

  19. [...] March 1, 2012 by whosleilani Once again, I am linking up with Pancake and French Fries’ weekly William Morris project.  To learn more about the project click here! [...]

  20. [...] is the mantra behind the William Morris project, something you should totally read more about over at Pancakes & French [...]



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Hi! I’m Jules.

I used to be an attorney, but it made me grumpy. Now I write about life, sweet and savory, as a wife and mother to two small boys. My knowledge of dinosaurs knows no bounds.

You can read more, including the meaning behind the name Pancakes and French Fries here. And, yes, I really am phenomenally indecisive.