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Posts Tagged ‘getting rid of stuff’

After 99 years, dismantling a life

In aging, antiques, art, beauty, behavior, culture, design, domestic life, family, life, seniors, urban life on June 15, 2013 at 12:50 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

An auctioneer and her assistants scan the crow...

An auctioneer and her assistants scan the crowd for bidders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She moved onto our top-floor apartment hallway five years ago, forking over a cool $500,000 for a three-bedroom home. She dressed well, had her hair done, and had a ferocious grande dame quality to her.

She was then merely 95, a former interior designer and survivor of two marriages. She had, as they say, “married well.”

I knew her name. We all did. We also knew her live-in nurses, forever scurrying to the laundry room.

While we were away recently for two weeks, she died.

This week the auctioneer came from the Bronx and his men started packing up the remnants of her life into boxes for sale to strangers: china, crystal, oil paintings, chairs, tables, rugs.

I knocked on the apartment door and asked if I could take a look, as it’s now up for sale and one of the building’s most coveted, large and light, with terrific Hudson river and Manhattan views.

Small world — her grand-daughter-in-law was there and turns out to be someone I see at my jazz dance class every week.

It was a sad, odd thing to watch someone’s belongings being carted away, to be sold at auction in — of all places — Atlanta. She had some lovely things, especially the paintings. There were early photos of her.

One of the many challenges of having no children and no nieces or nephews, is whom, if anyone, to leave our things to — or the proceeds from the sale of those things — when we die. I’m at an age when I still very much appreciate beautiful objects and acquiring them here and there.

But, having had to move my own mother into a nursing home directly from the hospital with only a week to ditch  all her lovely things, (or store them, or move a fraction of it into her small new room), I’ve lived the horror and sadness and snap decision-making of selecting/tossing/selling stuff it’s taken decades of taste, income and pleasure to acquire and enjoy.

The marble bust of her grand-mother? Kept. All her many textiles, collected across the world as she traveled alone for decades? In my garage now.

It meant chattering away to her local auctioneer picking through her stuff as if this was not exquisitely uncomfortable and painful. To him, it was just another day of work. To me, a situation unimaginable barely six months earlier on my last visit to her home, a six-hour flight away from mine.

It also meant going through things with my mother, one of the most private and uncommunicative people I know  — holding up for her decision everything from a black Merry Widow corset to her gorgeous red leather knee-high Cossack-style boots. Her Greek texts and travel souvenirs.

My garage now holds her collection of beautiful Peruvian and Bolivian mantas and Indian cottons and silks, her molas from the San Blas Islands.

A Kuna woman displays a selection of molas for...

A Kuna woman displays a selection of molas for sale at her home in the San Blas Islands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When her mother died, having simply ignored the tedious task of paying income tax on her significant wealth to any form of government for decades, there was very little left. I will not be inheriting anything from my grandmother’s estate. I can visit a museum in Toronto to see her former armoire.

Nor will I inherit from my mother, I suspect, for reasons too grim and arcane to discuss here.

I’ve told my father the few pieces of his art and furniture that I hope he’ll leave to me. But who knows?

It’s all stuff, in the end.

Unlike Egyptian kings, we’re not going to be buried with it.

Have you been through this process?

How do you plan to dispose of your stuff when that day comes?

How Our Stuff Defines Us

In antiques, art, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life on March 6, 2011 at 8:34 am
Tie dye dresses drying

Mom loves textiles, color, antiques....Image via Wikipedia

A few days ago, I sat in a room in a nursing home with my mother, sorting through boxes of her belongings, from books on theology to a black lace merry widow corset.

When you move into one room, you’re quickly forced to shed about 95% of the belongings that have defined you, and your taste, your memories and history. If, as many of us do, we acquire and keep objects and clothes and shoes and accessories, we choose and keep them for a reason, maybe several.

Often reasons quite unknown to anyone else.

Everything I pulled out for our mutual decision making made me wonder — who is this woman?

At least she’s still alive and we had a chance to make those decisions, however wrenching, together.

I learned more about my Mom in those four hours than in the past, very private, four decades as we went through it all:

Those impossibly soft red leather Cossack-style boots? (That didn’t — damn! — fit me.) Bought in London. She once tucked a pack of cigarettes into the the top of one.

That black and white Marimekko print gown? Worn to the open house when she moved into her Toronto home 20 years ago.

The tie-dyed Indian cotton dress? She designed it while traveling there.

That corset? My mom was one confident hottie! I wish I had the nerve, and the figure, to rock a black lace Merry Widow…

The battered paperback book by Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian liberation theologist? Autographed to her. Good thing I hadn’t tossed it in our purging.

Not to mention love letters, recent ones, from Australia, New York and beyond. Good work, Mom!

I fly home to New York in two days, with a new, painful and acute sense of how much stuff I own, and how much if it I have to get rid of, now! I cannot imagine my sweetie having to go through it, box by box, trunk by trunk, and make any sense of it without me there: photos, letters, books.

Why am I clinging to it?

Am I still me without it?

Then what?

Have you ever had to sort, purge and toss out a lot of your stuff? Or someone else’s?

What was it like?

Ditch The Junk — aka De-Accessioning

In antiques, art, behavior, business, culture, design, domestic life, family, life, Money, Style on February 15, 2011 at 10:25 pm
Usen Castle, an iconic building on campus

Time to clear out the castle! Image via Wikipedia

I love this odd, elegant phrase — de-accessioning — used by curators of museums, to describe the formal and sometimes fraught process of culling their collections in order to upgrade and acquire new pieces.

Sort of a garage sale, but with 17th. century tapestries and 19th.century portraits.

Here’s an interesting New York Times piece on it:

Cultural institutions like the National Academy Museum and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University have generated controversy by selling or even considering selling items to cover operating costs, a practice forbidden by the professional association for art museum directors.

So even though all of the sales — with the exception of the historical society’s — are to be used to generate funds for future acquisitions, institutions that deaccession these days find themselves on the defensive. “Part of the normal biological clock of museums is to examine their collections,” said David Franklin, the director of the Cleveland Museum, which hopes to gain about $1 million from its sale. “We should be constantly refining and upgrading. I’ve given the message to all the curators that I regard deaccessioning as a normal act, and I encourage them to reassess the collections constantly.”

I think about this because I have some nice belongings I now want to dispose of, get some cash for, and acquire something better: a Lartigue photo, a kilim rug, a Japanese silk kimono, a raccoon boa. It’s much easier to bring something into your life or your home than find the right buyer for it when you need that cash.

Here’s a fairly astonishing/depressing look at what happens when your husband is a scam artist and the Feds swoop in to auction off everything you thought you owned.

This week I’m in Canada, to face the not unusual but fairly horrible task of sorting through my mother’s possessions and deciding — with her help — what will be sold, donated or kept. She is moving tomorrow into a nursing home, and it’s all been pretty sudden, so we’re having to make quick yet major decisions about some valuable objects and art. Let alone books, photos and personal papers.

I’ve bought and sold at auction before, and have written enough on art and antiques that I have a good idea what’s potentially valuable and is not, but for many people — and this is only a one-bedroom apartment, not a huge house full of stuff — it’s overwhelming physically, emotionally and financially. I admit, I’m dreading it.

When we’re at our most vulnerable, blindsided by grief and haste and confusion and loss, whether of life, home, vehicle, job or all of these at once, we have to detach from all these objects and dispose of them.

However Buddhist we wish to be(c0me) through practicing non-attachment, our possessions so often define us and encapsulate our memories.

Not easy!

What are you trying to get rid of?

How will you go about doing it?

The Storage Locker's Revenge (i.e. The Price Of Laziness And Ambivalence?) About $20,000

In behavior on April 4, 2010 at 1:41 pm
School lockers found in National University of...

Image via Wikipedia

Storage locker clean-up, scene two. Another six non-stop hours of going through boxes stacked to the ceiling. We’re almost done!

Next week we’ll have the remainders — which we have promised ourselves we will go through again soon and purge even further — into a space 5 by 7 by 10, at $100 a month, not the $250 a month we have been paying for a decade for a large room full of…

Stuff.

That means we’ve blown about $20,000, a sum that makes me embarrassed to even write it publicly, over the past decade on storing a bunch of things, none of which is worth even $2,000 apiece.

Some of it we have been very happy to re-discover, from the camo-colored Kevlar vest my partner wore while covering the aftermath of the Bosnian war as a photographer and my vintage paisley shawls and quilts to his kindergarten graduation certificate, signed by by mom, his teacher, who died in the 1980s.

I know now why so many of us put off going through our accumulated stuff. It’s tiring, boring, demands snap decisions and can be emotionally a little painful. I found dozens of photos of myself, younger, thinner, in jobs I loved, long-gone. My wedding invitation and album (divorced in 1994.) Photos of five ex’es, including the husband.

Although it was fun to see I’d kept a picture of Nigel, the impossibly blue-eyed Welsh engineer from Khartoum I met on a flight from Dublin to Bristol on Christmas Eve. We were both heading home to see our mothers — but sneaked away for a brief tour of Wales, covered in thick fog. It was one of those flings where you realize there’s a lot more there than you’d thought — and you have large continents and oceans between you. There was no Internet then or Skype, so I still have some of his postcards.

I am delighted to have re-discovered some childhood images, and to find several work-related items just at the moment I most need them.

It also feels good to lighten up. We’ll save $150 a month by renting a smaller space.

Too many recent obituaries, like that of screenwriter David Mills, working on the new HBO series Treme in New Orleans, who died last week on-set of a brain aneurysm — at the age of 48 — remind us death can claim us anytime, anywhere, whether or not you’ve written (or re-written) your will or  cleaned out your basement, attic and/or storage locker(s.)

Too many friends of mine have found themselves overwhelmed physically and emotionally trying to clean out the accumulated detritus of a parent’s life and home. What matters? What’s important and to whom? What’s of any financial value — and then what? (My father, recently, finally asked me which of his artworks I really hope to inherit. Fingers crossed.)

A few tips to help you get started and stay the course:

1) take lots of packing tape 2) fresh, clean, new boxes into which to repack; small enough you can easily lift them 3) lots of blank paper and tape and a Sharpie to label every box with its specific contents and the date you closed it 4) tape measure 4) ladder 5) folding chair — it’s a long day and sitting really helps! 6) a camera to photograph anything of value you may want to sell on Ebay or craigslist or send to auction 7) food, water, a thermos of coffee — no leaving! 8) a radio 9) bandaids — paper cuts were common as we shoved tons of old paperwork into garbage bags 10) a box-cutter or small, sharp knife for opening boxes and cutting tape 11) bubble wrap to cushion delicate or breakable items you decide to keep — we encountered a lot of broken glass from several framed pictures, one of which cut my finger 12) Kleenex and paper towel; my allergy to dust and mold kicked in a little after going through so much stuff.

Then, a really good lunch or dinner out — some motivating treat or reward that doesn’t need to be stored!

There may be, as there was for us, some sharp words over why that battered frying pan or framed print are must-keepers as you jockey for every inch of remaining space. Teachable moment!

We have no kids or close younger relatives, so no one will want our memorabilia. To them — as it really is to us if we admit it — it’s just stuff.

Get The Flame-Thrower! Two People Need Six Hours to Clear Out Ten Years' Worth Of Crap?

In Uncategorized on March 27, 2010 at 4:06 pm
Storage Unit

Image by Penningtron via Flickr

Exhausted!

We started this morning at 9:30 and simply gave up in weary surrender at 2:30, running to KFC for a little disgusting junk-food solace.

So much crap. Two career journos who like to read: photos, negatives, framed artwork, furniture and cookware he kept when he moved into my small apartment 10 years ago.

I did find some very dear treasures, from the cat hand puppet of my childhood to a photo of me in January 1994 on Ko Phi Phi, a remote island off of Southern Thailand to my sketchbook from 1998 with my watercolors of Melbourne and New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula. Then there were the engagement photos of me and my ex-husband and even the seating chart for our wedding dinner.  Former beaux cropped up in numerous photos.

Some of it was sad and painful — lots of cards from and photos of the woman who was my closest friend for a decade, who dropped me forever after she married. I found tons of art supplies: pastels, sketchbooks, my colored pencils and watercolors. I loved seeing my paintings from Mexico — where I took an afternoon art class in Spanish in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. Serendipity turned up some materials that exactly fit my current needs, from a book on handling arthritis pain to a labor study from a week-long journalism fellowship in September 2001; I was on a suburban Maryland college campus on 9/11.

We also, eerily, found a color postcard of the World Trade Center — the day my partner was to move from his Brooklyn apartment into mine was 9/11. Instead, he edited photos for his newspaper job from his apartment and I spent the day in Maryland wondering if he was alive or dead.

My sweetie found a ton of memorabilia — like the color photo of him with Larry Hagman dressed as Santa Claus with Nancy Reagan, in a typically red suit, laughing behind the three of them. Or him posing with George H.W. Bush and Barbara. (White House annual holiday party, open to all members of the White House Press Corps.) A deeply mushy note from an ex? Torn to bits. Ouch!

He’s a Buddhist, but boy do we have a lot of crap. We barely got through half of it today so next Saturday is devoted to finishing the job. Out forever will go the four-foot high stereo speakers as we try to compress everything left into a much smaller, cheaper space. It makes me crazy to spend good money to store…junk. It’s not junk, but what is it? Memories. Stuff, for now, we’re not ready to toss entirely.

I’d flame it all, but I treasure my mother’s typewritten letters, photos and negatives and slides dating back decades and, yes, my bloody clips. His life, like mine, has been filled with adventure, sports, travel and some historic news photos, by him and by others. I adore the 1959 black and white photo he found of his Dad — a Baptist minister long-dead who I never met — complete with those wavy 1950s photo edges. In it, he’s wearing three pairs of eye-glasses at once.

I’d never pictured his Dad being goofy and playful so this is a new image, and one worth framing.

Next week…who knows?

All Your Stuff Sold Without Your Consent? Ouch!

In business on March 24, 2010 at 8:30 am
ray and my stuff, storage locker, dufferin

Image by PinkMoose via Flickr

It’s rare I identify completely with a celebrity who’s made the top of the Post’s Page Six, but this item did it for me:

Anthony Haden-Guest — the legendary British journalist and bon vivant who inspired the cynical Peter Fallow character in Tom Wolfe‘s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” — has been cleaned out.

The writer is distraught over the loss of a lifetime’s worth of valuables he put into storage when he moved back to London a couple of years ago.

In January, when he returned to New York, Haden-Guest learned that Public Storage, an international chain with facilities in Long Island City, Queens, had sold everything he owned to a single buyer. “Papers, books, art, furniture, clothes, 30 years of everything,” he told Page Six.

His art collection of more than 100 works — including pieces by David Salle, Ashley Bickerton and Donald Baechler — was said to be worth more than $1 million.

“I owed them $1,350 dollars. A couple of months before, my lawyer had asked them to give me details so I could wire them monthly payments. They refused. I called them to say I would settle when I got back to New York,” said Haden-Guest, the son of an English baron and the brother-in-law of Jamie Lee Curtis.

This happened to me, and to a close friend in Manhattan — where only the wealthiest (or most ascetic) don’t have a few storage lockers thanks to tight living quarters — a few years ago. I used to get monthly statements which, of course, I paid on time. They stopped coming….I got a notice giving me…days?…to deal with it, or maybe telling me they sold my stuff. I was so in shock I still don’t remember it.

I know, I know….How important can your things really be if they are in storage for years? Very, actually. We don’t all live in 4,000 square foot houses with tons and tons and tons of room to keep your stuff close at hand. I live and work in a shared one-bedroom apartment. We have several lockers, a few small ones and one very large one: it’s filled with out of season clothing, negatives and photos dating back decades for my partner, a professional photographer, sports gear, suitcases, furniture (sigh) we haven’t been able to sell or agree to donate, books, papers.

But also…artwork by my Dad, the Kevlar vest my sweetie wore while on assignment for six weeks in Bosnia, childhood artifacts.

We’re spending all day Saturday going through it — my goal to get rid of at least half so we can put it into a smaller space and pay half as much.

They sell your stuff before you can get to it and take the %#@!@#$## hours you need to sort through it all thoughtfully?

Yeah, that hurts.

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