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A Legacy of Burden

My grandmother loved history, especially our family history. As a genealogist in the time before computers, she painstakingly researched our family tree, taking trips to the birthplaces of our ancestors, collecting history, and compiling it in her library. She was well-known not only for her research on our family, but also on the first families that divided and occupied “My Lady’s Manor,” an area in northern Maryland given in 1713 as a gift from Lord Baltimore to his wife. I paint this picture of her to explain that over her 88 years on this earth, she collected thousands of books, rare antiques, and enough family heirlooms to fill a 16-foot-by-8-foot storage container (which will come up again later in my story).

When my grandmother’s health started to fail, she moved in with my mother, bringing with her all of her belongings and furniture. We moved the contents of a 2,600-square-foot home into a 1,600-square-foot home that was already furnished. At the time of my grandmother’s death, my mother was already retired. I urged and pleaded with my mother to “address the stuff.” She would tell me that she was working hard at it, and she was, in a way. She meticulously wrapped every item in paper and plastic bags, spent thousands of dollars on plastic boxes and labels to “organize” everything, and never sold, donated, gifted, or threw away ANYTHING.

A couple of years ago, as a result of her failing health, my mother required frequent hospital and rehabilitation stays. Managing her health and her house became too much for me, and with her enthusiastic support, we moved her to a local continuing care community. The transition was wonderful for her and her health: her quality of life skyrocketed as a result of the easy access to activities, thoughtfully designed facilities, and onsite healthcare. Unfortunately, she did not improve enough to be able to deal with the 2,600 square feet of stuff (already jammed into a 1,600-square-foot home) that somehow had to now fit into a 700-square foot apartment. That would be my job, and the point of this story.

The Process of Letting Go

I had a lot to handle: the transition of my mother to the continuing care community, the sale of her home, and the disposal of the 2,600 square feet of her stuff. The sad result was that after we selected the items that would be moved into her small apartment and let friends pick and choose what they wanted, the next round of the process required five 30-yard dumpsters into which we would eventually throw away her things. It pained me to do this, as much of what we threw away had some value, but to properly arrange for her belongings to be disposed of via charities, yard sales, or auctions would require time and a knowledge of the items that I did not possess. What we were able to save from the dumpsters was still a sizable amount and became the symbol for the burden that I felt I had inherited: a 16-foot-by-8-foot storage container filled with antique furniture, over 1,000 antique books, seven trunks of china sets, 12 boxes of family photos and albums, and another 30 boxes of “heirlooms” (also known as “old things from relatives that I do not know what to do with but feel obligated to preserve”).

Now, almost 2 years and more than $4,000 in storage fees later, this symbol of my burden is the “hot button” issue of my life. Just thinking about it and the time and resources that have gone into it can illicit all kinds of anger toward both my parents and grandparents, as well as toward myself. This week I completed the emptying of the storage container and the termination of the $216-per-month drain on my bank account. I gave away the books (which made up a large amount of the volume in the storage unit) to someone who appreciated them and donated some of the furniture. The rest has been shoved into my attic or placed in a pile in my basement for me to reduce over time (most likely on my weekend nights over the next couple of months). The burden has not yet disappeared.

Despite the love I have for my mother and grandmother, I cannot deny the emotions I feel. For at least seven of the 10 years since my grandmother’s passing, neither my mother nor my grandmother sold, donated, or otherwise did anything to reduce the overabundance of things that had accumulated over time. They left that legacy to me (their son/grandson), who has a busy job and family of his own, including a baby and a two-year-old child.

No one knows your belongings better than you do. In preparation for your own death, ask your children what items of yours they might wish to have for themselves, and then make a plan for the rest of your belongings. If you are no longer using a particular item, sell or donate it to a place or person who will treasure and value that item. The belongings that you retain can continue to be preserved, but if sold, the money earned can be used to benefit your family, not burden it. I am in my thirties and feel so strongly about this that, as I continue to rehome the remainder of my grandmother’s and mother’s items, I am revaluating my own items and disposing of them as necessary. The legacy of this burden stops with me—how about you?

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