STYLE

Cold-blooded purger or weepy sentimentalist? Packing up my childhood home made me both

04/29/2015 10:24 EDT | Updated 08/04/2015 02:59 EDT
When it came time to pack up my childhood home, it was my mother's wedding dress that put me over the edge.

Mellowed to a uniform shade of custard, it sat in the box it had been stored in for over six decades. Dislodged from its attic perch, it was shuttled around from room to room as my brothers and I chipped away at belongings our parents had collected over a lifetime.

We mostly managed to rise above the sibling tension that often accompanies the liquidation of an estate. But as the only daughter, I tacitly became the one to decide what to do with the wedding dress. And I put off that decision until the rooms held nothing but exposed picture hooks on bare walls.

"The most challenging is the thought of letting go. For some people, it is more difficult than for others," says Marlene Stocks, founder of Senior Transition Services in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, who offers help to people like me — adult children trying to cope with dismantling and selling the first place they called home.

After my mother passed away, my father stuck it out in the house for as long as he could. But his move to assisted living required the next generation to step up and empty the family home as quickly as possible.

We divided heirlooms; collected papers; identified items to be sold, stored, donated. We took so many trips to the dump that they asked us not to come back.

The process was not without its high points. My mother was a sentimental collector, and the house was full of clutter. You never knew what might be lurking in a drawer or closet. In one dresser, I found a Ziploc baggie full of baby teeth, The New York Times from the day President Kennedy was assassinated, and my grandmother's Armenian Bible, dated 1906.

The sheer volume of letters and memorabilia was both staggering and heartwarming. That haiku I wrote in third grade, the parent-teacher conference report that revealed my trouble with homonyms, the Valentine's Day puzzle I cut out by hand.

Over the course of a few months, we thinned out the contents of the house. Throughout the process, I fell into one of two modes: cold-blooded purger or weepy sentimentalist. With ice running through my veins, I discarded Jose, the monkey head carved out of a coconut that I got as a Christmas present in 1968. My mother's complete collection of Gourmet magazines — gone. I made the executive decision not to save my grandfather's crumbling medical diploma.

But my icy efficiency could melt suddenly and unexpectedly. Something as insignificant as a torn envelope with a note scribbled in my mother's hand might instigate the shift. Or trying to figure out what to do with her wedding dress.

TAKING INVENTORY

With new clients, Stocks begins with a conversation, "almost like therapy, over a nice cup of tea. We take it slow in the beginning. We talk about the things they'd like to keep; the things we may be able to give to family members. The things that could be sold or donated. Only then, at the end of the process, do we talk about throwing anything away."

"That is one of biggest concerns of my clients," she adds. "They are worried that some (other) family member will come in and throw things away."

SIBLING STRESS

Professionals who assist in downsizing and relocations warn that family dynamics can be volatile. There may be one sibling who wants to throw everything away, while another may drag out the process indefinitely, finding nostalgic value in every tchotchke. And, of course, there are always those who want the biggest slice of the pie.

Parents can make things simpler by divvying up the valuables in advance. But for families without a plan, a personal property appraiser can help.

"Children have a tendency to believe the majority of what mom and dad have is far more valuable than it actually is. People often think because it is old it is valuable," says Julie Hall of Charlotte, North Carolina, who has been an estate liquidator and personal property appraiser for 25 years.

At the same time, Hall warns, you don't want to act until you know what things are worth.

CALLING IN THE PROFESSIONALS

Once heirlooms are appraised, family members can divide them more equitably or know the value of items they wish to sell. Then they can call a second professional: the estate liquidator, who helps sell items of value, and donate or discard the rest.

Hall, author of "The Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents' Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff" (Thomas Nelson, 2008), has seen her share of Wedgewood china, painted porcelain and figurines. Emptying closets and crawling through attics, she has also uncovered some memorable finds. Once, in a shopping bag full of wrapping paper and ribbon, she discovered a stash of platinum and sapphire jewelry. In another home, she found loose diamonds hidden in used Kleenex.

Her find reminded me of the gold-and-opal pin I happened to notice in an empty dresser drawer that was heading toward the auction house. I retrieved it at the last minute, slipping it into my pocket.

As for the wedding dress, I still haven't found a solution. Perhaps I'll leave it in my attic, and let my children deal with it in the decades to come.

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