The lessons I learned when it was time to downsize my life, and what you need to know

I dragged myself through what seemed like the 1,000th trip to the dumpster in the driveway that January day when reality hit: My kids don’t want my junk. And they didn’t want their old stuff either. No one does!

There it all was, piled high inside that huge 30-yard container-turned-coffin — 45 years of family memories and bad decisions that should have been thrown away long ago, including three kids’ worth of first drawings, report cards, class awards, birthday cards, first booties, honor roll news clippings, high school graduation cap tassels, dance costumes, recital programs, college graduation tickets, all carefully collected for decades in boxes that bore their names. Remnants of my “little ones’” past were mixed in with memories of mine and their dad’s, including boxes and bins of pictures, high school prom gowns, letter sweaters, three sets of vintage Samsonite luggage, old record albums, 22 boxes and totes of over-the-hill Christmas decorations, garbage bags of tired linens, broken furniture, odd lots of sheet music, vintage college texts and newspapers, outdated household accessories, knick-knacks, baby furniture, games, books, tools and everything else our family had accumulated in the full, third-floor attic and basement of our 90-year-old, 1,600-square-foot colonial in Plainville. You get the picture. It was a lot of stuff. But it was time for me to move and the clock was ticking. I had to empty the house and only had a few days to get it done.

“I told you we didn’t want this stuff,” my sensible social-worker daughter said to me, as I whined that the precious box I had handed her at the back door had been so unceremoniously tossed. “You don’t listen to us,” she said. “We told you we don’t want this stuff.” Adding insult to injury, she sternly reminded me that she had told me I should have started packing a year ago. “Everyone told you to get started on this and not wait until the last minute,” she reminded me for the 50th time. “We told you.”

Yes, they had. And so had my late husband, as well as assorted friends and co-workers who have already been through the hell of downsizing. So had a host of authors through dozens of books on creatively and concisely purging a household. I thought I had it all planned in my head when I made the decision to downsize a year ago. Somehow it all fell apart, and when the closing was three weeks away, I panicked, big time.

But I digress.

I write this for a couple of reasons: No. 1,

I was asked to; and, No. 2, as a favor to my fellow baby boomers who may be downsizing soon. Trust me, I am the last one to take advice from others, but on this topic, you simply must listen. There is no easy way to clean out the house. And, NO ONE WANTS YOUR STUFF!

Our family of five had a very traditional middle-class life in what, in 1972, was our dream house. It was a happy home with all the accoutrements of the day, including good china and crystal rarely used, spring and winter curtains, bedspreads and rugs, crowded rooms of generations of furniture, bookcases full of picture albums (photos that in many cases were duplicates or just plain bad) and decades of decorative whims that ended up being packed away in the aforementioned attic, a conglomerate of crap reflecting the second-hand phase, the pottery phase, the crystal phase, the terrarium and macramé phase, the dried-flowers phase, the brown-pine-furniture phase and the rustic phase. And then there were the old clothes and shoes that seemed to be stored everywhere. I can’t even write about that.

Getting rid of it all wasn’t easy. Since my new life is soon boiling down to 800 square feet of attic-less, cellar-less space, I was faced with few options when it came to jettisoning the junk. One thing I did right, thanks to the not-so-gentle kid, who last Mother’s Day gifted me with the first of the dumpsters I would need, was to (kind of) go through the attic when the house went on the market.

That first purge of the superfluous, of course, led to the perfunctory spring tag sale. My advice on this: be prepared! It doesn’t matter that the silverplate tea service that hasn’t seen the light of day since 1969 was expensive or that you scrimped like a crazy person on the grocery budget in 1978 so you could buy the overpriced leather coat you lusted for. You are not going to make your money back. So think of a tag sale as a way to get rid of stuff. And any money you do make? Donate it to a favorite charity or get yourself a massage and facial. You will be earning it.

That tag sale not only got the ball rolling — although I swear some of the things I sold I have seen in various area consignment shops — but also benefited a host of nonprofits. Those tired linens were donated to a local animal shelter. Clothes and household items went to Goodwill and the Salvation Army. Furniture went to a wonderful organization in Bristol called For Goodness Sake, which offers aid such as furniture and household goods to individuals and families transitioning to independent living. Unfortunately, the initial effort barely put a dent in my mountain of things.

Fast-forward to October when I knew the house was sold and the closing would be in January. I stockpiled more than 80 empty cardboard boxes in anticipation of having a carefully planned, organized, stress-free packing experience. It didn’t happen. Instead I kept telling myself that delaying the packing project until after the holidays would make more sense. It didn’t.

One daughter did thankfully want my china and crystal and some serving pieces from the pantry. Because she is an organizational freak, she made quick work of that by packing it all up on Dec. 26. My son, sons-in-law and construction business-owner daughter went through piles and piles of tools, taking those that had both utilitarian and sentimental value. One daughter went through most of the pictures, dividing them into piles for herself and her siblings. I thought we were rolling right along. We weren’t.

There is this thing called the heart. And sometimes you just can’t throw stuff away, no matter how useless it may seem. Emotions and sentiments take over. Case in point: when my mother-in-law passed away, she left behind two boxes full of high school memorabilia, including her dance cards from the 1932 and 1933 proms at Plainville High School: pretty little paper booklets with a pencil dangling by the side. And inside, a list of the boys she danced with, including the guy who would eventually become her husband, my father-in-law. There was her wedding corsage and old newsletters from Trumbull Electric, now General Electric, where she was employed for decades. There were sepia-tinged pictures of my father-in-law when he worked as a butcher at a now-defunct downtown meat market and another of my mother-in-law when she was a teenager in front of her then-residence above the old Burt’s Restaurant in Plainville. Those old pictures and cards, I don’t know. I just couldn’t throw them away. Just like I could not throw away the two dozen years of high school yearbooks that were housed on bookshelves at our house. Nor the spinning wheel, the hand-held garden plow from an ancestor’s farm that had been stored in the garage, or the family’s carefully catalogued World War II ration coupons that had never been used but were saved and still, somehow in my mind, had value.

I called our local historical society and felt like I had hit the lottery! They couldn’t wait for me to bring it all there. And now those bits and pieces of memories, which also include 1950s-era Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Little League uniforms, are on display for others. And somehow my heart found peace with that. I could let them go.

I turned to Craigslist to take care of some other purging matters. Vintage Roy Rogers ranch sets, mid-century soldier playsets, dolls, dress-up costumes and assorted other toys found new homes. I used eBay as a guide to pricing, and have to admit I was shocked when one set sold to a New York man, not for the contents, but for the 75-year-old box that had somehow stayed fairly pristine in a cabinet in the cellar.

Using Facebook, boxes and boxes of vintage costume jewelry were scooped up quickly by crafters who use the old paste, rhinestone, porcelain and pearl bobs to craft new pieces that are now very fashion forward. Hundreds and hundreds of books were donated to schools, libraries and nonprofits. Old CDs, 8-track tapes, DVDs and cassette tapes went to convalescent homes and hospitals. Walkers, wheelchairs and other medical equipment that we had needed once upon a time were also donated to a nearby facility that loans them to those who don’t have the means or insurance to purchase their own.

When it came to the kitchen and pantry, a kind neighbor and master of moving brought some tough love and coffee on one of my worst days of packing. As we looked at a cabinet shelf packed with 35 coffee mugs — even though I live alone — she simply commanded, “Choose 12.” I did and the rest became part of a pile of too many bowls, baking ware, dishes, glasses, silverware and kitchen items I had not used in years (including the George Foreman grill and the chocolate fountain.) Within a day, they were picked up from my front door by a nonprofit and on the road to a new life, hopefully by someone who could use them.

Gardening tools and lawn-care items were passed on to my son-in-law and daughter who are moving from a condo to their first home. I am pretty sure I am never going to need a 100-foot rubber hose again.

I attacked bins of too-small or too-dated clothes I could never wear again if my life depended on it, sending some to consignment and the rest to nonprofits for resale there. I did keep my wedding gown, but I have a pass-it-on plan for that. Slowly but surely, rooms emptied, and while the last 24 hours of packing wasn’t pretty, it got done.

The moral of the story is do it sooner rather than later, and if you are not looking at it, using it or wearing it more days than not, give it away, pass it on or throw it away. Had I been organized sooner, even more of my household could have found a new home far better than the landfill where it ended up. My new mantra is that when it comes to stuff, nothing new comes into my life without something old going out. Better still, stop buying, especially when you know you are on the downhill side of life and should be using up everything you have, including your energy and spirit and joie de vivre. Celebrate a lighter life. The things I kept for sentimental (my 1962 Beach Boys Surfin’ Safari album, even though I have no record player) or financial reasons (I paid a fortune for those Waterford candlesticks and plan to keep them even though I seldom entertain anymore) are the things I now know that I want. And the few things that the children and grandchildren did want, well, I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to see them enjoyed while I am here rather than after I am gone.

Nineteenth-century British artist and designer William Morris had a wonderful quote, and my plan is to someday embroider it on a pillowcase that, of course, will be used every day! “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

That’s my new plan.

And if I find myself slipping, this will be on the other pillowcase thanks to American novelist and poet Wendell Berry: “Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.”

A veteran writer with over 45 years of experience at the Hartford Courant, MaryEllen Fillo has covered business, politics, education and breaking news, as well as travel, food, home and entertainment.