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The Life-Changing Magic of Getting Rid of Your Late Aunt’s Stuff

I’d been reading with real fascination about the Japanese writer Marie Kondo and her worldwide bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, when I received word that my 93-year-old aunt was at Death’s Door. I flew to Florida and must say she had as peaceful an end as anyone could hope for, in a hospice that looked like an upscale Caribbean resort. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the jazz station, the priest there for last rites (Hildy was a Catholic convert), and a few minutes later she slipped away.

I was told by the managers of her apartment that it needed to be cleared out within a couple of weeks. When I started going through her things, my mind returned to Kondo and her suggestion that we get rid of the superfluous before our lives end to avoid being remembered as hoarders.

Getting rid of seems popular these days. Self-help guru James Altucher reduced his total belongings to just 15 items.

I’m sharing the process of going through Hildy’s things as a cautionary tale. If you’ve ever squeezed one last shirt into your closet, bought yet another pair of shoes you didn’t need, or filed away photos you suspect you’ll never look at again, read on…

Two truckloads of Hildy’s life
Disposing of 93 years over about ten hours began as so many of these efforts do: by opening a box of pictures of Hildy’s family, her parents Lutheran German immigrants and her father a genuine Swiss-German candy maker. There were pictures of his first candy store on Fullerton Avenue, an actual box of the metal candy molds he’d used to make chocolate elves and Easter rabbits, photos from Hildy’s childhood, her high school yearbook (Pearl Harbor would occur six months later), a box of sheet music for songs she liked to sing as she planned a career as a professional singer (she toured B-grade nightclubs in the Midwest), and photos from her short-lived marriage (her husband died three months into it at 35).

Still more material related to her abandoning the singing career, her life as a secretary for Channel 11, a retirement party, and her move to Florida. Plus folder after folder of Medicare paperwork and a hundred medicine bottles.

As she moved from apartment to apartment in Chicago and then Florida, Aunt Hildy did not throw anything away. Anything. But she did know how to use space efficiently, squirreling away her life in folders, baggies, and boxes of all sizes. By the end of my day, I’d carted off about 20 garbage bags of junk mail from businesses closed decades ago and delivery menus from non-existent restaurants. Also greeting cards by the hundreds, name and address labels, and thousands more photos.

I had the help of her part-time caregiver Annie and two strapping men with a huge truck sent from an immense thrift store that relishes this kind of whole-house donation. A few hours later at the thrift store itself, several volunteers would sort the two truckloads of Hildy’s life.

One of the guys remarked on how well organized she was as she accumulated things she clearly thought she’d be able to use “someday.” A dresser drawer contained 30 to 40 plastic bags, each sealed with a twist and containing everything from a dozen replacement flashlight bulbs and several hundred paper clips to multiple keys for small purses, hundreds of pennies, and five dozen long-desiccated ballpoint pens.

Another drawer was packed with every income tax return since the ‘60s, wedged in with a riot of ancient paperwork, including the employee manual from when she was hired at WTTW and the operating instructions of every appliance she’d ever owned.

Aunt Hildy kept each greeting card she’d ever received and had photo albums of my kids and my mother’s world travels (she was a travel agent and had been everywhere), the once-colored pictures sadly faded to a blurry yellow-orange. Album after album of cousins I’d never met, travels Hildy herself had taken, albums of relatives, and other photos ranging from a formal black-and-white of her in a photographer’s studio many decades ago to a leisurely backyard barbecue, all the picnickers long dead and buried.

Six albums were marked “Erna’s albums.” Whoever Erna might be, she gave Hildy about 500 photos of her family.

Welcome to heaven, we hope you traveled light
She packed into her closets dozens of shoes, handbags, and gloves, pounds of costume jewelry, and nearly 100 bottles of various vitamins and herbs. The junk mail had insinuated itself everywhere. Just when I thought I’d cleared the last circular promising a health secret “Your doctor won’t tell you about,” I’d open a drawer with another wad of them tightly wedged in with a box of a dozen eyelash curlers.

There were boxes of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science books, Hildy’s childhood religion  before her transition to Catholicism. There were health-oriented books plus pamphlets on the end-of-life transition and a lot of  “What happens after you die?” folders showing Jesus and Mary in poses of warm welcome to heaven.

Several dozen cookbooks, a metal box containing hundreds of handwritten recipes on index cards, and two notebooks in which she’d glued countless recipes she’d clipped from newspapers, most using variations on the limited food items available during the ‘40s and ‘50s (beans, eggs, and pork chops).

Hildy rarely cooked a meal.

She had a large cedar chest crammed with linens, a chest of silverware of the sort salesmen would sell to single working girls back in the day, several cases of books I knew had belonged to a Polish-speaking boyfriend whose goal was improving his reading skills rather than careful selection of subject matter, inspirational books by Billy Graham, autobiographies of forgotten movie stars, and even some car repair manuals.

Hildy kept a folder from every vacation she ever took, these slim volumes variably containing menus, photos, and travel agency itineraries. She’d crossed the Atlantic on the maiden voyage of the SS United States, then the largest ship in the world. A menu was autographed by the ship’s captain in 1953.

As anyone knows who’s tackled the mountain of someone else’s keepsakes, the key is to not become drawn in while looking at items of genuine interest or historical note.

Blessed be the thrift store worker
As the men from the thrift store began to feel overwhelmed, they called for reinforcements and two more helpers arrived, packing and carrying away, packing and carrying away, until slowly the apartment emptied. Piece by piece, her big clunky furniture was wedged through the front door, placed on a dolly, wheeled down a corridor to the elevator, and then down yet another corridor. If the furniture could talk, it might have expressed shock at leaving its lifetime of air-conditioned bliss and moving into the 100-degree Florida sunlight before being packed unceremoniously into a scathingly hot truck.

When I asked about the fate of everything, from the box of paperclips to the bedroom suite, I was told it would all be sold in a matter of weeks.

“Thrift shopping is a way of life in Florida. There’s not much else to do in these retirement cities.”

I asked what sells first.

“Those vinyl records will be gone this afternoon. Collectors wait for our truck to pull into the loading dock.”

Hildy had promised caregiver Annie she could take whatever she wanted for herself. To keep stuff away from the thrift shop men, Annie piled her selections into each of the two bathtubs, but these quickly filled and by the time I left both bathrooms looked like cornucopias spilling Hildy stuff. Annie, 71, and her boyfriend would return to the apartment with a borrowed van. I guessed they’d take two or three back-and-forth trips to the nearby town where they live. Annie admitted she was “a bit of a hoarder herself.”

A Comcast send-off
When the apartment was completely empty, the only object left behind was an old TV set, which the thrift store guys told me they couldn’t even give away. The man who’d spent his life picking up furniture told me he was so happy when the thrift store announced it would no longer accept the massively heavy box TVs that he felt like crying in gratitude.

I took some cable TV boxes to Comcast, the awful company that over the phone informed me it wouldn’t close Hildy’s account until I presented them with a death certificate or a letter from her doctor. In person, I was smarter. Standing in a building reminiscent of an Eastern European post office, with stone-faced personnel, I told them Hildy had already moved to Chicago and I was the messenger from the nursing home. The clerk looked at my four or five pieces of dusty equipment, scowled at me and said “You didn’t bring the adapter” (there had been no adapter).

I was prepared for what came next.

The clerk said “We’ll have to send a bill to her address in Chicago.”

That’s fine, I told her, carefully dictating the address of a cemetery I’d looked up earlier online.

I stopped her newspapers, her landline, and her cell phone (which she never once used).  Then I took Annie to lunch and gave her a sizable check in the amount Hildy had directed as a gift. Annie was genuinely taken aback and told me that in 40 years of caregiving for the elderly this was the first time she’d received anything like an inheritance, even when she’d worked for someone for more than 20 years.

The last truck pulled off into the sunset. Later, I’d turn over the keys to the administrator.

And that’s it.

One life, seven years shy of a century, dispersed in less than a day.

When I got back to Chicago, I revisited the article on the Marie Kondo book, determined to begin clearing the detritus of my own life.

Rest in peace, Hildy. Comcast will never find you.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

PS–To save you the clutter of yet another book, here are Kondo’s secrets for decluttering:

  1. Keep only what gives you immediate benefit and joy. The word “immediate” is important. Anything you own that you’re enjoying now (your comfortable shoes, your current book, your smartphone, a reliable dressy dress) is worth keeping.
  1. Clear out whatever gave you joy that is unlikely to be recaptured (many of your clothes, all those books, most of your countertop appliances). Give others the opportunity to experience your joy by giving things away or reselling them in a consignment shop.
  1. Clear out what you bought in anticipation of joy that hasn’t lived up to expectations: the must-have book you’ve started but can’t finish, those shoes that cost a fortune and now look all wrong, your spiralizer. Again, give away so that others have the opportunity of experiencing joy with these items.
  1. Clear out anything you haven’t used for two years (some people trim this to a year). All those vinyl records and you don’t even have a turntable. Your pasta maker, useless now that you’ve gone paleo.
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18 comments on “The Life-Changing Magic of Getting Rid of Your Late Aunt’s Stuff
  1. Katharine says:

    I love the “stick it” to Comcast and plan to put a codicil in my will with similar instructions.

    Sorry for your loss Dr E. Her memory will live on with this blog which is heartwarming. I wonder though, if her early photos and narratives of Chicago might have found a home at the Historical society. Hard to manage that in a day, I suppose. After reading the Sixth Extinction, only the monster rats will be left anyway. Have a great week.

  2. Teresa says:

    I found this retort in the Atlantic that pretty much sums up my relationship with my stuff. On top of it, I have a deep sense of responsibility towards my stuff in the world. I know there is no “away.” I know that everything I throw out could somehow harm the Earth if not done properly. So I make sure that I dispose of things in a way that they get recycled. I never buy new things. I shop thrift stores. That way, if something needs to go, I don’t have the internal argument about how many hours of my life I spent paying for that thing. I live a recycled life out of respect for the Earth and for the people who spent hours of their lives making those things we do thoughtlessly toss out. There should be no shame in being thoughtful and frugal. And wanting to hold onto your history is a good thing. The masses are not represented in the museums that house only the belongings of the rich. You throw out representations of your heritage, you throw out your voice. You don’t need to throw it ALL out. Just be choosey.

    I’m glad you gave to the thrift store.

  3. ML Carroll says:

    Best health tip ever. Thank you Dr. David. Rest in peace, Aunt Hildy.

  4. Summer says:

    Throw out the pasta maker AND THE SPIRALIZER?! What kind of monster are you? Whatever will we eat? 🙂
    Sorry for your loss Dr E. It’s good you were prepped with the teachings of the book. My grandmother was acutely aware of this and had several major purges in her life as she got older – it was so traumatic to her children to watch their childhood be dumped in the trash or donated to the thrift store that they then became horders themselves.
    So scarred by the emotion of parting with things against their will they lost their ability to discern what they actually wanted, needed or truly care about. I thought one of the most interesting points Kondo makes in her book is that tidying and organization is a skill at the core of a healthy life and yet it’s not often taught within the family structure – we’re each on a journey to figure it out by ourselves.

  5. Denise says:

    Sorry for your loss, Dr E. Your Aunt sounds like she was a very interesting woman.

    We went thru my partner’s parents stuff a few years ago after they both passed. They lived on a farm for almost 70 years, in the same house that was always meticulously well-cared for. Fortunately, there was a farm auction when his Father retired so most of the large equipment was gone. It is a couple of hours south of Chicago and it took us 3 weekends to find appropriate places to dispose of stuff.
    We brought their clothing to a State-run-nursing home that is in their very small town. That was a real awakening as it was a pretty desperate place. I highly encourage people to consider homes like this when they want to dispose of clothing. There were people of all ages there.
    We found a place to auction the household/farm/tools/items of value which meant we had to pack these items very carefully.
    There was a lot of costume jewelry that we sold to a resale shop in Wicker Park.
    Since it was a farm, we had plenty of space for dumpster which we filled.
    We found a lot of money, some of it was so old that we brought it to a dealer.
    Like Dr Edleberg’s experience, we discovered that his Mom saved photos, jewelry(both fine and costume), bride’s gowns, linens, and mementos from other family members. If we spent more time on the project, we could have made a fair amount of money by selling items to Chicago resale shops but we were burnt out.

  6. Colleen says:

    Great piece of writing and good advice for us all. I hack away at it but still have far too much stuff, due to having more space than we now need and living in the same place for 45 years. I donate art supplies twice a year to the art department at my granddaughter’s school and have been giving kitchen items to organizations which
    assist refugees in setting up apartments. And the Salvation Army receives a visit from me with a car load of stuff once a year.

    That you were able to empty her apartment in one day is truly amazing.

  7. Teresa says:

    My advice is to be disciplined about doing this for an hour or two once a week/month in your own life. I have had times where I’d do a whole day of this kind of re-organizing, and ended up getting rid of things I really shouldn’t have and then not doing it again because it was such a burn out. I like finding things I forgot I had in a leisurely way.

  8. Christine says:

    My 100 year old dad died last year and my brother and I had to cart out 8 truckloads of similar stuff. Shortly after that, I saw Arthur Miller’s play “The Price” at Timeline Theater–about 2 estranged brothers together sorting and disposing of their parents’ lifetime of possessions. Wonderful play, highly recommended reading material for anyone going through a similar experience.

  9. Jennifer Baron says:

    What a fitting story at the perfect time as I am in the process of cleaning out my own mothers home who passed from this earth just 2 weeks ago today. This is an exhausting task and one that is teaching me an abundance of lessons. Once I am done with my mother’s estate, its time to start working on my own. I don’t want to do to anyone else what I am having to go through. Thank you for sharing your story, and I am so sorry for your loss. May your Aunt RIP. Clearly, she had a wonderful life and I am sure she is dancing in Heaven.

  10. calle says:

    We each view this journey in a different manner.

    As I cleaned out my mom and dad’s house I took a stroll down memory lane.
    My father kept things, mom did not.
    Over the years she got rid of stuff we would have loved.
    He created a very special museum, the tragedy is that we lost it in a fire.
    Memories and mementos mean different things to different people.
    I treasure the things I get from people, ask the name of the lady, and thus I have Ida B my 1800’s dress form, a sewing machine that had all of the paper work in the drawers.
    I feel at peace owning something that another woman bought treasured and loved.
    As my mom bought stuff to use in her new house, and stored away. I said mom, “please use these towels, the cookie jar”, I don’t want to be sad when you are gone, and they were not used. So she used them, and they moved into her new house, and w were both blessed.
    We are all unique human beings.
    I would have loved to meet sweet Hildy.
    She lived a life of honor, adventure and real.
    Those who lived through the depression were frugal, bags, paper clips and paper were important.
    Things can bring joy and peace to many. Why would I dishonor their memory, by rather making fun of them?
    These hard working dear souls were the hard working fabric of today’s world.
    Believe me they worked hard for very little money.
    Many started out making less than a $1 a day.
    My mother had one dress! Yes one, she washed it every night. And one pair of dungeries,and many times had no shoes.
    Blessings to all who have gone before me.

  11. Laura says:

    Sorry for your loss, Dr. E. What a great read. I agree and always feel…cluttered house, cluttered mind. That really rings true for me.

  12. cliffmaurer says:

    Hi Jennifer – I shared this information with others who know you and we’re all thinking of you.
    Our best wishes to you and your family.
    -Dr M

  13. Jude M. says:

    Great story, wonderful comments from everyone!
    I wish I were one of those people who could dispense with “stuff” with detachment. Sadly, I nearly always become embroiled in the details of deciding on each item. Worse yet, I was the point person for a lifetime of my parents’ clutter/art/treasures.
    Anyway, if there is anyone out there who wants help in the form of a 12-step program, I highly recommend Clutterers Anonymous, which has very supportive meetings. Really helps!

  14. Eileen Dudich says:

    Dr. E, Thank you for thoughtfully honoring your Aunt Hildy and putting “things” into perspective for the rest of us! We spent four months sorting through items in my in-law’s home. This experience taught us to hold things loosely and more importantly to give them to someone who can really use them – now.

  15. Mary says:

    I am sorry about your aunt’s passing. My husband and I had to clean out his sister’s tiny apartment when she died suddenly. We never knew her secret till we stepped into her apartment… Piles and piles and piles of “stuff”” everywhere . There was no place to sit or even cook . The floor wasn’t even visible. She was a hoarder. It was a nightmare to deal with !
    I tend to be organized and declutter often, but that experience has made me even more diligent about being in control of my possessions so they don’t end up controlling me.

  16. Christel says:

    A very well-written article and timely reading for many of us. As a friend of my husband said, “It is later than you think.” This statement isn’t meant to be morbid, but rather a reminder that we frequently have too much ‘stuff’ that weighs us down and will eventually encumber those left to sort (or pitch!) the belongings that only have deep meaning to us!

  17. Andreas Mannal says:

    🙂 Being, Doing, and Having is the prescription to be human. Too much of any of it imbalances us: we need to have a lot of stuff to be, or do a lot in the hope to be and have something, or try to be, so we do not need to do anything, or have anything…Great piece David. I opt for reducing material stuff in this balance of Being, Doing, and Having. It tends to get in the way…

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