How do you downsize or declutter and yet keep those things that are important to your family history? It’s an issue that many of us are facing. Professional organizer and genealogist Janine Adams shares how to approach it.
Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 35
Downsizing and Family History
Downsizing can be easy. Just rent a dumpster and toss everything out. However, I don’t think that’s what we want to do, especially when it comes to our family history. So how do we get rid of things and not destroy our own history in the process?
Why You Can’t Save Everything
Not only is it a matter of space, but it’s also a matter of preservation. It seems counter-intuitive, but the more you have of any one thing, the less special any of it is.
Janine gave the example of having Grandma’s collection of 24 teacups and saucers. Most of us don’t have room to display all of them, so what happens? We box them up and put them in the closet to keep them “safe.” Then when the next generations comes along, they open up the box but they have no connection to the teacups. They don’t necessarily know that they were your Grandma’s. Even if they do, they don’t have any special memories around them… so the teacups likely end up being disposed of.
A better solution would be to give some of the teacups to other family members (including cousins) and displaying —and even using — one of the teacups. That way, it’s visible. Not only can you enjoy it (and the memories it brings back), but younger family members can see it and start to form their own connection to it. (Making connections with these items is a vital part of preservation with younger generations. Check out the interview I did with my daughter on how millennials feel about family history.)Keeping everything isn't a good long-term preservation strategy for your family history.
What Do You Keep?
Since you can’t keep everything, you’ll have to make decisions. My mom saved what seems like every painting that my sisters and I brought home from school. Do we need all of them? No. A few will do.
There is no clear-cut rule for what to save. The first cut would be anything that isn’t safe to preserve, such as macaroni art. (Please tell me I’m not the only one whose mother saved the pasta necklaces we brought home from school!)
What are the items that you have a connection to? What items truly give you a connection to the past? Only you can decide that.
Whether you are downsizing to a smaller residence or “just” decluttering your own house, downsizing is exhausting work. As Janine points out, making so many decisions leads to fatigue, even if you aren’t physically moving things. It isn’t unusual to only be able to do this work for a couple of hours at a time.
This is emotional work, especially if you’re helping a family member. (Downsizing your own possessions is one thing. Working on a family member’s possessions also brings along the dynamic of that relationship.)
Make it an enjoyable process. If you’re able to start early, allow time for reminiscing.
If you’re in a situation where time is not on your side, consider having a “to go through later” pile. Of course, the trick is to not put everything in that pile!
Downsizing Doesn’t Have to Mean Throwing Away
Janine recommends reaching out to other family members to find homes for family history items. She was on the receiving end of such a family history gift. Janine hadn’t been given any of the landscapes that her grandmother painted. However, two of her cousins had some of the paintings in their closets and gave two to her. Janine hung the paintings and enjoys them everyday. Her cousins gained some space in their closet — a win for everyone.
In her downsizing and organizing work, Janine has noticed that many people feel better about getting rid of things if they know someone else will get use out of them. Finding a charity that will put the items to good use can be a way to approach it.
Keys to Successful Downsizing:
- Don’t wait to start. This isn’t something you’re going to do in a weekend.
- If you’re helping a family member, put yourself in their shoes and have empathy for what they’re going through.
- Be patient.
- If possible, make it an enjoyable process rather than a chore.
- Get rid of the guilt of getting rid of things. Remember: you cannot save everything.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
- Peace of Mind Organizing (Janine’s organizing business)
- Organize Your Family History (Janine’s blog dedicated to genealogy)
- Getting to Good Enough (the podcast Janine co-hosts about overcoming perfectionism)
- The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson
- Downsizing with Family History in Mind by Devon Noel Lee and Andrew Lee
(Disclaimer: the links to the two books are Amazon affiliate links, meaning that I might be paid a small commission when you purchase using those links.)
What has been your experience with downsizing?