“Rightsizing”—it used to be a sinister term, a euphemism rolled out by tycoons laying plans to throw hundreds of employees out of work. To us at Women’s Voices, though, “rightsizing” signifies making appropriate change—looking positively at the transitions we need to make as we head into the second half of life. Judie Rae’s article is the first in a series by writers who have made those transitions—both the easy ones, fueled by longing to be in a different place, mentally or physically, and the hard ones, made necessary because of fragile health or financial need. —Ed.
My husband’s role as executor to his cousin’s estate was a huge wake-up call for us to lighten our load. Unbeknownst to family, 90-year-old Jean was a hoarder. Going through her things after her death was a learning experience—one no one wants or needs. It took a good three months of visits every weekend—Jean lived three hours away—to clean out her home. We held three garage sales and ultimately called in estate liquidators to sell what my husband and Jean’s sister could not.
I took six carloads of kitchen things, as well as sheets, towels, and blankets, to our local homeless shelter, a nonprofit that makes every effort to find work and housing for its guests. We knew the bedding and such would be welcomed and used. Jean kept 18 pantsuits she had worn during her years of employment 40 years before. Bureaus overflowed with clothes that had not seen the light of day in years. She owned 12 sets of dishes. The garage was full of canned goods. Those that hadn’t expired also went to the homeless shelter, though most had to be tossed. In the basement we found 20 years’ worth of National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines. She had 15 empty photo albums; no doubt she meant to fill them but never got around to the task. A local theater group became the beneficiary of period clothes she still owned. We also found about 100 pocketbooks filled with the notes her father took while overseeing construction sites. Books and records and thousands of VCR tapes on which she had copied television programs were found in the basement; the tapes went into the garbage, while some of the books and records were sold at the garage sales. During one such sale a neighbor upended a candlestick to find $600 crammed in the bottom. Jean’s sister thanked her and gave the neighbor half the money.
Although Jean’s husband had died 15 years earlier, she still had a garage full of tools, many of which were given to neighbors. Closets still brimmed with her husband’s clothes. The task was Sisyphean; what initially seemed an adventure in reliving Jean’s life quickly became an exercise in frustration. How could one person own so much stuff? Worse, it was stuff she’d never use—or, for that matter, even look at.
Some studies suggest that hoarding has a genetic component. The fact that our own garage periodically fills with old mayonnaise jars and cardboard boxes does not thrill me, but in fact suggests that the studies are correct. Periodically we purge the garage, though I can tell the process distresses my husband. “There’s more where those came from,” I tell him, knowing that in six months he’ll have collected more. (Thank goodness for recycling!)
Professional home organizers suggest that if something is not used or worn in six months—sentimental items aside—then it’s time to toss. This is easier for some than for others. We are a nation of consumers, but what looked attractive or necessary a year ago might no longer live up to close scrutiny. Things wear out; why keep them? This is easy for me to say—someone fortunately not burdened with the hoarding gene, though I’ve noticed that it appears to be a law of nature that keepers are invariably matched with thrower-outers.