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Downsizing (Part 2) - Let the Voices of Experience Guide You

Downsizing (Part 2) - Let the Voices of Experience Guide You

In my last article on Downsizing (Part 1) - Getting the Process Rolling, I discussed what we, as family historians, face as we consider the monumental task of downsizing. Once I considered all the years of my accumulated stuff, the genealogy I inherited, and the stuff my kids left behind that I seem to have a very emotional attachment to, it was time to get real and get to work.

After asking professional organizer Janine Adams her tips, I went to Facebook and asked my fellow genealogists what suggestions they had and how they had dealt with this issue. It's a topic that many genealogists have written about and experienced, from the death of a parent or spouse to moving several states away. Their answers can benefit all of us faced with downsizing. [1]

Downsizing Steps

Some of my friends shared with me their criteria for downsizing. Lisa Marker shared these steps:

"When my mother moved to assisted living a few years ago, 40 boxes of her stuff came to my basement. I had to get rid of most of it in a short time. As I went through the boxes, my criteria became:

1) Would she miss it? This was my most challenging decision for each item.

2) Was there any intrinsic value in any of the items? If I was willing to part with something, was it truly valuable financially? Those items were set aside to be appraised.

3) Were there items she had a sentimental attachment to, and seeing them would make her happy? I kept those.

4) Were there items I wanted to keep for myself, for sentimental reasons, or just because I liked them, or I could not yet let something go?

I am mostly left with her art and with photos. Also, the dishes that she loved - I just have to find the right recipient. A total of about 7 boxes. I try to make decisions to get rid of stuff using the criteria "Is it taking up space and I haven't touched it or used it forever?" or "Is it burdening me with its presence in some way?"


Kathy Behling suggested: "After cleaning out 3 different houses for parents and in-laws and aunts and uncles, I'm much less sentimental than I used to be. For all the things that I've been entrusted with: Do I like it? If yes, where will I keep it? If I can't answer that, I can't keep it. Would it mean something to someone else? If I don't want it, it's yours. I'll tell you everything I know about the object and entrust you with the stories. Is it worth a lot of money? That only matters if someone is planning to sell it. Am I willing to store the object for someone else? Nope.

Next question I asked myself: is anyone going to want this when they go thru my things? The books? Probably no one. The journals that are over 100 years old? Sadly, they won't. But I'm scanning them. The bajillions of old photos from my grandparents and parents? Yes, they're getting scanned, too.

My space is limited, and I don't have room for someone else's memories. So my grandmother's hats from the 30s are on display! The pictures are coming out of boxes and are going on my walls. I want to enjoy what I've saved. And maybe that's what it really comes down to."

Many of my friends have moved many more times than I, so that experience has given them insight like Pamela Groth: "I have moved twice in the last six years. Packing and choosing were painful both times. I downsized both times. However, one incident that made me think differently was when there was a fire close to our house. It completely changed my perspective on what really matters, and if I had to act quickly, what would I take?"

Personal Tips

SDownsizing-2-writingue Hawes had this to say about downsizing: "My best tip for downsizing is, with special things you must part with, take a picture and write what is known. Donate the item if you can't find someone to take it. Then focus on the next family that will enjoy the item, the income it will generate for a good cause, and walk away with a smile. I know, easier said than done, but it can be done." 

Anthony Ray made a good point in his analogy with a shirt: "I went to grab a shirt out of my closet today and put it on. Didn't care for it. Then I realized it's been hanging in my closet for months now, not ever having been worn. I'm going to donate it. That same process happened a few more times before I grabbed a tried-and-true shirt. Go through some type of process like that. Also, you don't have to make a decision immediately. Dwell on it for a day or two. I'm sure your question has to relate more to items of sentimentality. But I'm sure you'll also be going through the more mundane as well. There's a fine line between practicality and sentimentality."

I know it's hard to give away items that someone I cared about gave me. I liked what my friend Dina had to say on this because I think this issue causes many of us to feel ambivalent: "My father told me once, "Don't keep things you don't like because they were given to you by someone you love."

Extreme Downsizing

I have a few friends that downsized out of a home and into an RV. So they really know how to downsize. Their advice included:

K.B. Barcomb just spent almost a year living in an RV which meant downsizing and storing most of her belongings: "Having moved dozens of times, I thought it would be an easy question to answer. But then it wasn't: We have been living full-time for the past ten months in an RV. The result, I've discovered, has been a major change in mindset. While we've been RV-ing for 10 years, we always had a 'real' house as well. All our stuff is in storage this time while we build a new home.

So what things do I actually miss? Not that much: my reference library, pieces of wall art that remind me of previous journeys (both literal and figurative), and some cherished family items. More importantly, I miss spaces: a quiet room for research and thought, a hidden corner for curling up with a book, a guest room to joyously welcome friends and family, and a large kitchen in which to celebrate the people we care about. So maybe downsizing is really about creating spaces that feed the soul and only keeping the things that help us do that."

Kelly Kirby Fisher also has downsized  to an RV: "We downsized in a major way last year! It was so hard. Most of my genealogy books are in storage back home (especially the ones that are rare or irreplaceable). I had an antique piano that was over 120 years old (that I loved). We gave it to a great friend who put it in his office (which matches his furniture perfectly). Our RV is 45' long, but there was just no place for that piano. Now, hubby had a more challenging time because not only did we have a 4-car garage - it was 2 stories tall, and the second story extended over the covered area."

Professional Genealogists Respond

Amy Johnson Crow has covered this issue on her podcast from her own personal experience. "I did a two-part series on my podcast, spurred by downsizing my parents' from their house of 35 years (and a marriage, at that point, of 60 years). So. Much. Stuff. I talked with Janine Adams, who is both a genealogist and a certified professional organizer. My biggest takeaways from my experience: 1) getting rid of stuff is not the same as getting rid of the person; 2) it will take *much* longer than you expect; and 3) it is all kinds of exhausting." (Listen to Amy's podcast at Generations Cafe Podcast.

Finally, Peggy Clemens Lauritzen's  experience is one we should consider. Sharing what we have is one way to preserve it, especially when we can't keep everything: "The things that mean a lot to me likely won't have the same sentimental value to my children. It's just stuff. But I know that posterity in future generations may wish they could rub their hands across bedsteads my grandparents slept in, feel the stitches on old quilts, or view the scriptures an 1860s pioneer used on his mission. Those things will likely end up in an estate sale or at Goodwill.

So, out comes the camera. I have done closeup photography on quilts, bonnets, a shoeshine box from the Navy, military uniforms from WWII, lots of scriptures showing their embossed names and certain pages highlighting favorite verses, medals and awards, jewelry, my dad's watch, and penknife, and recipe cards.


They are in my folders, but more importantly, they are in the "Memories" section of FamilySearch, so they will be preserved for the ages by people around the world. Each is on the page of the person who owned them and tagged to those who may be attached to the object."

Downsizing is Hard, but You're in Good Company

One thing I learned from talking to genealogists about this topic is that paring down what you have and remembering that it's just stuff is vital beyond just organizing. I know my kids aren't going to care as much for some of the items I'm sentimental over. They have their memories and precious things. I'm tackling the downsizing by being clear about what is essential. My mantra for this project is "downsize, organize, preserve, and share."

[1] Comments have been edited for space. I received over 60 suggestions but wasn't able to use them all here. Thanks to everyone who shared their experience with me.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.




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