A Hostage to Sentiment


I’m being held captive, on memory lane. It’s a sweet captivity, in many ways, the bonds of fond reminiscences, but I’m shackled nonetheless.

Like so many of you, I am in spring-cleaning mode. I look around my house and I desperately want to simplify and streamline. I yearn for clean surfaces and for a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place.

But I am not temperamentally suited to it. So incredibly not suited . . .

This house is packed to the rafters with stuff. There’s the stuff for all the things my husband and I make—the weaving stuff, the lapidary stuff, the metalsmithing stuff, the quilting and cross stitch and candymaking stuff. Oh, and the vintage linen stuff. Let’s not forget that.

But at least those things have something of a purpose, good reasons to be here. They entertain us and allow us to be productive and make pretty things.

The other stuff is more problematic. It’s the stuff of sentimentality, of nostalgia, of family.

So much of what is here is laden with meaning for me and for my husband.

That table and chairs came from his grandparents. This table and chairs was my grandparents’, purchased when they first set up housekeeping 85 years ago.

The clock case my husband’s father made, the cases of specimens my grandfather collected as a rock hound, the sweaters my mother knit, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Some of the things we have have extrinsic value—I have my grandmother’s sterling silver flatware, a setting for twelve. Very nice, but we don’t use it, our lifestyle doesn’t call for it, so it sits and tarnishes and waits to be passed down.

Most of what we’re talking about here has only intrinsic value, it is special only because it’s special to us. A perfect example is a little wood and metal lantern we picked up in the middle of nowhere in Ireland on our honeymoon. Probably made by Travelers, just a piece of junk, but it’s our junk, from our honeymoon.

Lots of little things take up space, like a china rose bowl my grandmother loved, an aluminum measuring cup, full of dents, that came from the other grandmother’s kitchen. Three doll-size chests, made by one or another man in the family for one or another child. It goes on and on.

And it’s not all special because it’s old and handed down. I have a bust of Aristotle that serves no purpose except looking wise and collecting dust. But, see, it isn’t just a bust of Aristotle. It’s the bust of Aristotle that my sister carried back from Greece, on her lap so it wouldn’t break, to give me because I was finally completing my doctorate in . . . wait for it . . . rhetoric. See? It’s a special, special bust of Aristotle.

My grandparents’ bed is emblematic of the struggle I’m having. It’s an oak bed, carved wood, pretty ornate but nothing special; it was probably inexpensive when they bought it. I figure my father was conceived in this bed and I slept in it, with my grandmother, when I was a little girl staying overnight at the farmhouse.

I’ve always known this bed.

The bed moved with me from the farm to grad school in Pennsylvania and then to Buffalo.

In spite of being a three-quarter bed—only about 48 inches wide—my husband and I slept in this bed, with multiple cats, for the first 15 years we were married. It was cozy, to say the least. Eventually, it was moved to the guest room. When we retired and came here, back here near the farm where it originally stood, the bed came along.

It’s big. It’s awkward. It’s not comfortable for sleeping.

Like so many other things we own, it has got to go.

I look around me—Don gave me that decorative box when we were dating. We got that blanket on our honeymoon. My students gave me this desk plaque when I finished my Ph. D. Nice memories of wonderful times, but the things aren’t the memories and I’m drowning in things.

For heaven’s sake! Why do I keep this stuff?! What am I afraid of? That if I throw away the tag from my first cat’s collar, even though she died 15 years ago, that I’ll forget the cat?

Or that, if I sell my grandmother’s bed, I’m somehow betraying her and forgetting where I came from?

Intellectually, I know that’s ridiculous. If you came to me with a similar dilemma, I could coolly and calmly explain to you why you should divest yourself of the weight of the past. I’d say, “Take some photos of these sentimental things, keep the photos, sell the things, and use the money to go on a nice trip and make new memories.”

I’d say, “They’re only things.”

See how smart I can be when I’m being logical? If only logic ruled . . .

I am making progress—some sentimental possessions have been pressed into practical service so I can justify having them, because they’re earning their keep. One handmade doll’s chest holds spices in the kitchen, another holds office supplies and stamps. An antique knife box corrals dishtowels, and so on.

But, as of two days ago, the bed is in the garage. A yard sale looms and there’s always Craigslist. Maybe some young couple will see the value in a cozy bed with history on its side. My husband and I are being pretty ruthless and are getting rid of things we couldn’t’ve 5 years ago.

We’ll still have plenty of things left to sustain our memories of people and places, but we won’t have ALL of the things.

We’ve allowed ourselves to be hostages to sentimentality for a long time, and we’re ready to pay the ransom. The ransom will have its cost—some pangs, a tear or two, maybe even some regret down the road—but freedom always has its cost.

63 thoughts on “A Hostage to Sentiment

  1. Oh, I hear you! My grandmother kept everything. Her grandmother and I share a name, so she started giving me those things which came down from that grandmother, many years ago. So. I have a lovely silver tea set from the 1830’2 or 40’2. It’s wrapped carefully away, hasn’t been out in years. I have a huge Edwardian sideboard, stuffed to the gills with dishes we couldn’t use in a year if we tried. I have the old bed my grandmother got when she was ten or twelve and they moved to a new house. It, like yours, is in the guest room and not horribly comfortable.

    Now and then I think about getting rid of many of these things, and then I think “people in my family have saved and hung on to these things for hundreds of years, in some cases, and how can I be the one to let them go out of the family?” But boy, you are right, I sure could do other things with the money I could get for some of them. but it is difficult to let them go.

    • I’m trying to tell myself that my grandmothers were practical women and would not, themselves, be as sentimental as I am being. I think I’ve reached a place where I can let go of some of the stuff–it’s not as if it’s ALL going, of course!

  2. This probably won’t be helpful, but could you keep just the headboard of the bed and use it as a background to something interesting? Build it into a bunch seat?

  3. Funnily enough, I’m the ruthless, pitch it, person in my house. But I do have my foibles – the autograph book from eighth grade, a dress my grandmother made me, the old steamer trunk I took to college. I’ve found that moving every 3 to 4 years helps winnow one’s possessions. Now that we’ve been in the same house going on 13 years the stuff is starting to accumulate. I, too, am working my way up to a yard sale. There’s nothing valuable enough to make it worth bringing in appraisers, and we didn’t win the Road Show ticket lottery for Cleveland, so I guess our hidden treasurers will remain just that.

    • Oh, my, Joanna! I could have written this myself. Thirteen years in this house, short stints in every other. We are good at getting rid of things. And yet, I look around and think how little I’d miss if it disappeared.

      Having worked with a bank trust department, I too often saw the trust officers head out to clients’ homes. The client may have died or moved to a nursing home, and the household goods were ours to distribute (according to the client’s wishes/needs). Estate sales are notorious for bringing a very small reward — better to sell or give things on your own terms while you can.

      I figure I have another 35-45 years in me, so I don’t feel a big need to hurry. But in truth, we don’t know the timeline…

    • Our locale is sort of out of the way but has a VERY busy neighborhood-wide sale in early August–that’s what I’m targeting. I know that, even if I sell off lots of things, there will still be mementos that I can’t part with, though . . .

  4. Oh dearie me!! I know those feelings. Only I had to get rid of some of my “junk” for Hubby and I moved to a smaller home when most of the children left home. So there was no room… It is nice not to have to move the stuff around to clean up.

    • When my husband and I were working, we actually had two homes and now have just one. You should’ve seen the purging we had to do then! We need to take it all one step further . . . .

  5. I know what you mean about logic vs. sentimentality! I have to be in the right mood/frame of mind to clean out things with such meaning.
    Right now I’m in the process of fixing up my old car. I have a 1963 Rambler Wagon which belonged to my great-grandmother and was my first car when I turned 16. Value-wise, it’s only worth maybe $4,000. And I’m considering putting a $5,000 paint job on it. Logic tells me that it’s a crazy amount of money to spend on a car that’s not “worth it”. But my heart tells me to do it. I still drive the car and I love the car. So it’s “worth it” to me 🙂

  6. Good for you Kerry!! Let it go if it weighs you down, the memory itself is important!! Things do not deserve to collect dust either, let someone else enjoy it again and in full glory. We have moved so many times, we could not afford to cling onto too much stuff. And then we discovered that the house we lived longer in, became full of ‘stuff’. It felt afwul!!! So we decluttered, it felt great and ever since we have a rule…” if something comes in…something goes out.” It works very well…now we think twice before we buy too;0) Good luck my dear friend, you are very concious of the history and deeper value of your possessions, xo Johanna

  7. I think this is not a logic thing, as you say. It’s temperament. I have a brother who has a storage unit because things are memories for him. It took me a while to understand that–I’ve had to be pretty ruthless about what I collect and keep–but it sounds as though you’re making your own decisions at your own pace. The test will be whether you feel lightness or regret. Good luck.

    • I’m too cheap to rent a storage unit for my stuff–frugality would trump sentiment, I guess! When I have gotten rid of some things in the past, I’ve found that, after the initial angst, I’ve been glad I let them go. I expect that’s what will happen this time, too.

  8. I’ve been like you all of my life. I even have some things that I know have a story attached, but I no longer remember the story. When we left France a year ago, we took a grip. We finally let go of some of the things we’d lugged over there – indeed lugged with us on every move we’ve made over goodness-knows-how-many-years, whe longer mourn the things we decided had to go . But I haven’t learnt my lesson. The whole process is beginning all over again. I am a congeniital hoarder. But I don’t want treatment. I’ve learnt that eventaully, I can sort the wheat from the chaff. It’s just it might take 50 years.

    • I don’t want the full treatment either! I am not at all talking about getting rid of everything I have, just winnowing. I’m the only one in my generation who seems to care much about these old things so I ended up with all of them. Even if I get rid of 90%, I’ll still have lots of memories surrounding me!

  9. It once made sense to hand down your possessions. An oak bed would have carried a hefty price. China was often the only prized posession of a family with six to eight children. But as generations multiply and we acquire our own possesions along with generations past, the accumulation is daunting.

    I’m a firm believer in letting things go, sending them out into the world to find a new home, but I see first hand how challenging it can be for people. Perhaps you can come up with a ritual as you pass on each item. You’ve lived with it and loved it and now its someone else’s turn. Imagine the new possesor of that bed or trunk or cup and think how excited they are to bring it home. Write a little love letter to each item, and send it along.

    Our grandmother’s generation didn’t let anything go to waste. She would be honored to see you sharing these gifts with others in need. Good luck!

    • Thanks for taking the time to write such a carefully-considered response–this is great! And I know you’re right–neither of my grandmothers was especially sentimental and I think, in some cases, they’d say, “why are you keeping that old thing!?”

      • Thanks, Kerry!

        And there you go! Letting go is a bit like anything else that needs practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. Then you’ll start reaping the other benefits too: more storage, less dusting, less maintenance, and open space. Open space alone is rewarding. I helped a client clean out a cluttered, dark kitchen. We removed a large, plastic cabinet after consolidating her food and another low desk. Her kitchen looks huge, now and more light flows in the window. Less made more: more space, more light, more energy.

  10. It is so hard letting go of things that have sentimental value! I don’t blame you at all for holding on to things that were give as gifts or that have been passed down from your family. Maybe there are friends that could use these things so you don’t feel like you are letting going of them to strangers? I’m awful for hoarding stuff so I know how it feels. Good luck de-cluttering! xx

    • You’re right–I do have friends whose children are settling into new homes, etc., so I could ask if they needed furniture. Do yourself a favor and tell your older relatives to give their things aways, or sell them, while they’re alive so you don’t end up with all of their stuff! 😉

  11. You nailed the dilemma with this post Kerry! I have been increasingly ruthless with myself over the past few years as I down-sized and down-sized and down-sized. Every move saw me dispose of more stuff. The rule became ‘if it hasn’t been used, admired, worn etc for two years, it isn’t necessary’. Letting stuff go doesn’t mean disloyalty to the person or event that it came from – it was a gift of the moment and the moment lives on in the accumulation of memories and the substance of who we have become. I always talk to myself about giving to someone else who needs it, would appreciate it and give it new life and let new memories develop. This is an issue for the modern day of our western life isn’t it! Stuff! None of which can be taken with us when we go!

    • This is lovely — thank you: “Letting stuff go doesn’t mean disloyalty to the person or event that it came from – it was a gift of the moment and the moment lives on in the accumulation of memories and the substance of who we have become. “

    • You’re so right, Pauline–thank you! I need to remind myself that it’s not as if I’m taking these things to the dump or burning them! And we’ve had yard sales in the past where people have come and been so thrilled with something they’ve gotten here–I need to focus on that, the pleasure others might get from something that is just weighing me down. Thanks for taking the time to help me feel better!

  12. Oh Kerry, you are speaking my language! And I can so sympathise with you! I have collected, appreciated and felt the resonance of so many items from my own family and those previously belonging to total strangers from around the age of 15. I spent several days in my attic this week feeling totally overwhelmed by each piece of memorabilia from so many years ago. Like you, I am drowning in ‘stuff’. Not that I see these possessions as having no value, on the contrary, I see them as the glue which holds my life together. But perhaps that is not true, perhaps I can let them go and still be ‘me’. Well, yes, I am sure I can. What if there was a fire and I lost it all anyway? Except that happened to a friend, another lady like you and I and afterwards she lost her identity. Because this precious items tell our story, don’t they? And they matter more than money. Perhaps we could do what another friend has done which is to buy another house and keep everything there. It may be the only way to achieving clear worksurfaces. I have tried, many times and failed 😦

    • Yikes–if I had an attic on this house, I’d never get rid of anything! We don’t have a lot of storage space and that’s the only thing that saves me. Maybe if I use your example and thought, “what if I lost this in a fire? How would I feel?”–maybe that would be a good test to see whether I can let something go without regret. Because I am definitely not talking about sweeping everything out, just getting some sense of control over the stuff.

  13. You are more than your things, no matter their impact on you. You are NOT LESS without those things.

    One of the things that helps me (though I am by nature one to get rid of stuff) is thinking about my kids. I am determined NOT to leave messes for them to clean up. Not financial or paperwork messes, not messes of stuff. And I’m inspired by my dad. Before he died (he had lymphoma and had gone through various treatments and remissions for a few years,) he moved to another state. When he did, he took ONLY the stuff that was actually important to him, and he defined that as useful or beautiful. When he was in the hospital, I found what that actually meant. His home was pretty spartan, as expected. And on his bed was the teddy bear Son and I had sent him a few years before… We have the bear now. It is not something I could get rid of…

    • Oh, that’s such a great story! Your father should be my inspiration! My mother is actually very much like your father was–she has been diligent in taking care of her affairs so we won’t be burdened down the road. But she still has a lot of stuff!

  14. I see I’m not the only one who feels your post mirrors my own life. Some things do feel like pieces of the person with whom you associate them. Can I encourage you to use the silver for everyday? I do that with my grandmothers silverware, right next to the everyday plates and glasses. It doesn’t fit out lifestyle either, but it makes me happy.

  15. You have to be in the right mood to throw things out. I’m usually pretty good at getting rid of stuff as my children and husband well know. Yet, I had a wooden cottage chair that my mother bought 40 years ago at a garage sale. It’s been repurposed and painted many times. Just couldn’t bring myself to throw it out. It’s on my front steps now with a big pot of pink impatiens. Looks lovely.

    If you’re still feeling like you need to thin out, then focus on one room at a time, one drawer at a time. Carry that bag to the curb, Goodwill or the thrift shop.

  16. I can relate, believe me! My basement and attic are full. To make matters worse, I have a barn and much of that is packed, too! And what is crazy is that I still go out and look for “stuff”. There was an old guy who lived around thd corner who had multiple barns all packed to the rafters with things he had acquired. On weekends he’d have barn sales and of course I had to go…and buy. It was the hunt that was the fun part. Finding that little treasure tucked away in a dark corner behind something else. He’s since passed and now his daughter has barns sales. And I still go.

    • Oh, my–if I had a full attic and a finished basement and a barn, I’d be in deeeeeeep trouble! But I think you and I are alike, in that we do this vintage thing on Etsy so, when we see a hidden treasure at an auction or yard sale, we know we should buy it and find it the perfect home. The stuff I intend to offer on Etsy is a huge part of my problem . . .

  17. If only it was easy to get rid of things. Although getting rid of things doesn’s sound very respectful. I read an article last week on the subject, that one needs to get rid of postcards, and you could get some of them scanned, and save those on you’re computer. I really disliked the idea. I keep them in a big box (the ones with a nice story on the back, or with a pretty image on the front) and every once in a while I take a couple of them out, get a cup of tea, and reread them, and they always give me lots of pleasure! I can not imagine getting ‘rid’ of them. Good luck with the whole decluttering-thing!

    • You should never get rid of anything that gives you that much pleasure! And I’m not going to get rid of anything that brings me real joy either–the stuff I need to part with is weighing me down.

  18. I have nothing to offer by way of sensible advice here, Kerry. I am in much the same state you are. I think about my own mother who has divested many objects to her three daughters and gets to still see them being used and loved. Her wedding china I used for a garden club luncheon, my grandmother’s silverware is used all the time, and so forth. I think it wasn’t such a wrench for her to declutter because she just moved her items one limb down on the family tree. It will be harder for me.

    • I’m glad your mom’s things are being well-used and loved, at least for now. All the stuff in my family seems to have been funneled to me–sister and cousins don’t care much about it. And, since I don’t have children, anything I keep around is going to end up burdening my one niece. I somehow don’t think she’ll thank me for that . . . .

  19. Okay, we’re all in the same boat except Johanna! I’m taking all this good advise to heart and slowly letting go and not accumulating! Lighten the load will be my mantra!

    • Good luck, Cathe! I think slow and steady is the way to do it–and I will never divest myself of the items I truly love, only the stuff that is feeling burdensome.

  20. Wow – a 3/4 bed! My sister had one and mine was a bit bigger than a twin. They had belonged to some relative long ago and originally were rope beds! My mother got them and had custom mattresses made. All of her trousseau bed linens fit since there were no fitted sheets in those days. I did not want my almost twin as we had no room in our apartment. And about that silver, I would say use it! You don’t need a “lifestyle” to use silver. At some point in my childhood I remember my mother using the silver for every dinner and the lovely patina it gets when it’s used. I love using mine, and the feel of it, though I wish my grandmother had chosen a less ornate style… ;-D We have no kids so there’s even less reason to keep all the stuff, but I love it too. I am inordinately fond of the things we bough when we lived in Asia; I have such happy thoughts when I look at it. My blue and white china collection and one Chinese cupboard (that Peter dislikes!) are very dear to me. It’s a process…

    • I do think some things trigger such happy memories and i worry that, if the item was no longer in my house, would I cease to think about those happy times? That having been said, I don’t need 20 items from my honeymoon in Ireland–one would do nicely, so I should pick my favorite! We don’t have kids either (my husband has one daughter) so there’s no point in keeping much with the idea of handing it down.

  21. Hi Kerry, I see your decluttering project is even bigger than mine… Decluttering and logic do not always go together, sadly. I once read that if you can not part with certain things, the best way is to take pictures of them, and place them in a small – so small it doesn’t look like clutter 🙂 – box. That way if you feel you miss an item, take out the box and look at the pictures.

    I totally share you yearning for clean surfaces and for a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place, and I haven’t achieved that status yet.

    I find that once you have managed to part with things, it feels like a load has been taken off your shoulders.

    I, too, have silver flatware, two sets of 6, inherited by each of my grandmothers. And whereas I know neither of them have ever been used by the family because they were too precious, I make a point of using them regularly, even for everyday dining. Which is why I’ve come to the conclusion that for me personally anything that has nostalgic value and is in use today can stay; unused stuff has to go.

    Happy decluttering!

    • Thanks for the visit, Kiki, and for the helpful ideas–I really do agree that I should be using the silver. I need to remember where I stored it and put it to use. It’s all a matter of attitude adjustment, and I’m making progress!

  22. Kerry, the title grabbed me and the message, too.
    We all need to do what you are doing and I wish you the strength to carry on with the purging!

  23. Pingback: Garage Sale Post-Mortem: By the Numbers | Love Those "Hands at Home"

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