My Dad has simplified his life to fit into a two-bedroom apartment. At age 81 and a widower this all for the best. Even so, his two-bedroom apartment is more than he needs. The spare bedroom is great for guests, but he does not get many of them. Since my mother passed away three years ago, he has been reducing his life even more. Her clothes were donated shortly after she died. Her plants proved too burdensome for him to care for, so they are gone. Also gone are any sign of holiday decorations, except for the smattering of Christmas cards that he places in a basket.
I hope long before I turn 81, assuming I make it to that ripe age, I have simplified my life too. My wife and I make periodic attempts. When they succeed, they amount to de-cluttering us to where we were a few years ago.
There is a burden to possessions, but its burden was not clear to me until this weekend. I helped my friend Renee sort through the property that her mother had left. Renee’s mother died unexpectedly last month at age 68. Both Renee and her mother could be forgiven for thinking that her mother would live longer than she did. I am sure though that if Renee’s mother had any inkling that she would not have survived to age seventy, she would have dramatically simplified her life. For in dying unexpectedly she left Renee with both a staggering amount of grief and a staggering amount of possessions. I did not realize just how much stuff this was until this weekend when a host of her friends and I went through the arduous process of helping her try to sort it all out.
Somehow, in spite of her grief, she and her son James managed to have a memorial service for her mother in South Carolina, empty her condominium and move her possessions to two storage units at a new ezStorage in nearby Reston, Virginia, all within the space of less than two weeks. We spent today simply trying to inventory their contents in order to identify any damaged items. There were close to ten of us going at it all afternoon, and we only made a modest dent in the pile. Her mother apparently was not afraid of living large, and seemed to have plenty of money. Her career took her to over eighty countries. Seemingly, in each, she found some exquisite piece of furniture or artwork to send home. I never met her mother, but clearly, she was no K-Mart shopper. I was just stunned by both the volume and the quality of her furnishings. She had a vase that was made in 600 A.D. She kept exquisite hardwood furniture handed down for generations that looked nearly new. Her art collection included dozens of truly stunning paintings from all over the world.
Nor was she afraid of the 21st century. She had a large high definition television, computers and all sorts of electronic gizmos. She also had many books. She also owned lots of other amazing stuff I cannot mention because my mind could not embrace its vastness. Her mother’s belongings filled up one of their biggest storage units, floor to ceiling, packed tight, as well as a smaller unit that was similarly packed so tightly it was hard to imagine where they could add a deck of cards.
No wonder Renee looked frazzled. It is not easy being the only surviving child when your last parent dies. The challenge becomes particularly large when your parent is also well moneyed and likes to buy things. Simply sorting through all of her stuff will take years. There are literally thousands of items, all of which need to be categorized and appraised. Most of it will end up sold at an estate sale. Once the estate sale is complete, Renee will never have to worry about money in her retirement.
Also left behind: a year old purebred Rag Doll feline, a sort of final living link to her mother. The cat is now living in Renee’s house, which is also full of birds. The cat needs a new home but the birds need to be protected from the cat’s predatory instincts. For now, the cat lives in her bedroom while she tries to find it a home. She would prefer to give it to someone she knows, so she can check up on it from time to time.
I do not expect to meet my maker at age 68 like Renee’s mother, but I do hope that by age 68 I will have gotten rid of most of my junk. Since that is only 17 years away, I had better start soon. We have walls full of books that we will never read again. We have dozens of cans of paint we will never reopen. I have warranties going back to the Reagan administration. We have three bikes, only one of which is ever used. We have three DVD players, all in perfectly good condition. We have seven computers but only three people actually living in the house.
All these possessions should feel liberating but increasingly they feel like a ball and chain, making my life overly crowded and confusing. Judging from my neighbors, my life is relatively de-cluttered. At least my garage actually has a car in it. Many of my neighbors leave their cars in their driveways and use their garage for storage.
Ideally I would leave this life about the way I entered it: naked and without a possession to my name. That seems unlikely, but what I can do is give my daughter (who like my friend Renee will someday be sifting through my effects) more time to grieve for my parting, and less time having to deal with my possessions. I think my father understands this, and I now realize that by simplifying his life, he is actually showing us great love.