My mother died suddenly earlier this year. She and my father lived in a kinda remote area, 600 miles from my current residence. Pops is now getting ready to maybe think about moving to a zip code that has more humans than cows.
Here’s the problem: Mama and Pops spent most of their 45 years together collecting. We’re talking decorative spoons, commemorative display plates, a pewter powder horn engraved with scenes from the Battle of Valley Forge… Most of it was admired when it arrived and then put away for safekeeping. I have probably laid eyes on only 10% of the tchotchkie iceberg in my lifetime. The majority of the collection is currently tightly packed (Pops loves Tetris) in a 40 foot shipping container parked out back of Pop’s house, the kind more commonly seen on trucks or trains.
Whenever we talk lately he reels off a list of dozens of items, and he starts getting overwhelmed with emotion and memories of Mama. He then demands my siblings and I come and take what we want as soon as possible. I’ve told him the first step is that he has to choose what he wants to hold on to, but he is adamant my siblings and I get first pick because this stuff is ‘valuable’ and they bought it for us to have ‘eventually’. This evening I went on eBay looking for comparable items to the ones I knew were in the shipping container– they have not appreciated in value.
I try to keep collectibles in my own home to functional and useful items since I have a distinct lack of storage, and I have original and commissioned comic art covering most of the walls. Even if I picked out a huge pile of things I wanted, even if I somehow got them 600 miles to my home, I have nowhere to put them.
How do I tell my Pops that I don’t want any of his treasures? Are there scripts? And do you have any suggestions on the best way to support him as he starts downsizing, particularly as I’m so far away?
What Do You Do With An Engraved Pewter Powder Horn
Dear Engraved Pewter Powder Horn,
I am so sorry for the loss of your mom. All sympathies to you and yours.
I think there are some ways to deal with the Storage Container of Precious Things with maximum compassion and efficiency and in a way that does not involve you renting a second wing of your home to spare your dad’s feelings. None of these ways are easy, and all require at least some money and some degree of united front with your siblings (which may be the hardest part for some people).
Strategy #1: Bite the (Antique) Bullet
Get together with your siblings and schedule a long-weekend to go see your dad and clean out the trailer with him. Your dad wants you to come and go through the stuff, and you’re panicking at the amount of stuff and the pressure to take the stuff, but what if you focused on the first part of the sentence: Your dad wants you all to come and help him.
You’ll need: a digital still camera, a camera with video capabilities, the makings of some childhood favorite recipes, and a list of ground rules that you and your siblings agree to ahead of time. You may also want the services of a professional who can value stuff and auction or sell it off in exchange for a cut of whatever proceeds are to be had. (I don’t know about this from a consumer perspective so am linking resources that might help you in your research, not necessarily endorsements of any specific organization or method).
Plan for the weekend:
- Together with Dad, you will all go through the trailer.
- You will photograph at least some of the things and listen to his stories about purchasing them with your mom.
- Maybe you will videotape some of the stories about the things.
- You will take turns being “the child who truly gets it” and “the mean child who doesn’t value memories or gifts and only sees them as stuff” and tap out/spell each other as needed.
- You will be very nice to your dad, each other, and yourselves. You will eat favorite childhood foods and tell stories about your mom.
- If this sounds like having a second funeral for your mom, it kinda is. Your dad has a fuckload of feelings about your mom, leaving his home, the trailer, and the decades of accumulated stuff. That’s not a Pewter Horn that he spent too much money on, that’s one bright day with your mom that he wants to hold onto.
- You will need the following scripts. “Thank you Dad, but no.” “I don’t need any more things to help me remember Mom.” “This one chosen thing will be very special to me, but since I can’t take it all, let’s get the rest into the hands of people who will value it like Mom did.” “Dad, I’m glad we could be here to help you go through all this. I know this is really hard.” Repeat as necessary.
- Remember that this is hard. My grandmother was a compulsive saver of “useful” things, which stood her in good stead when she survived the Depression and life as a military wife during and after WWII and Korea, so I and my aunts & uncles & parents are very familiar with “But this might be useful someday!” and having to say “Grandma, it’s amazing that you were so resourceful/thoughtful/thrifty/organized as to save it all this time! But it’s not useful to me right now, so let’s make sure we give it to someone who can really use it!” 1100 times in a row. There is a very real and crushing anxiety, a sense-memory of desperation and the terror of wolf at the door that makes letting certain things go so hard for elderly and grieving people. The more you can see and honor the love and the history, the more you can navigate around the anxiety. Just remember, it really is panic-inducing for them to think about letting certain things go, and you can’t talk someone out of panic, you can just validate the feelings. “This must feel awful, like losing her all over again. We really want to honor her memory by putting her lovely things where they can be used and appreciated. Can you help us do that? It would make me so sad to think of this Civil War Chess Set hanging out in my basement for another 40 years instead of being loved by someone.“
- If you start to feel guilty, remember that your dad didn’t use all this stuff or look at it daily. It was waaaaay too much for him and he shoved it in a trailer so it wouldn’t clutter up his house, and the whole “it was for you kids” thing is kind of bullshit. It was for your mom’s love of acquisition/his accommodating of her. I wouldn’t necessarily make this point out loud to him, just, store it in your brain for if things get contentious.
- You can put the videos and photos online to make it easy for your Dad to look at the things any time he wants to remember them.
- Bonus: Each sibling could select one small object, and one object only, that you each will make much of as your very favorite thing that your parents could have picked out for you. You will keep this thing and display it somewhere next to photos of your parents in your house (or keep it in the cabinet or box where you keep photos of your parents and other mementos).
- Don’t bring young nieces and nephews if at all possible. “Look, Grampa gave me this terrifying nutcracker and 9 cuckoo clocks and all of Grandma’s spoons!“
Nothing about that weekend will be easy, but it might be what your dad needs to move onto the next stage in his life and it might be the fastest and best way to do this in one fell swoop.
Strategy #2: Divide and Conquer
You’ll still need a united front with siblings, a professional “stuff manager,” & a camera or two. One of you can host Dad for a weekend visit while the others go clean out the trailer. The clearing out will go much faster if it’s just people who see everything as stuff and not a trip through your dad’s feelingsvault.
Your dad might not give permission for this, and he might panic at the thought of losing everything without seeing it one last time, or he might be extremely grateful and relieved. I think he wants the first scenario, but run this second one by him if that’s what’s best for you.
Strategy #3: Throw Money At The Problem
Team up with your siblings to send a professional stuff disposer-of-er to your dad and let them handle it all. “We hired this person….FOR YOU!!!!” and don’t go near the problem yourselves until the trailer has been dealt with.
Strategy #4: Postpone and Avoid
“Sorry, Dad, we just can’t do that. Let us know when you’ve made a decision about what you want to do with it all.”
#3 and #4 are perfectly legitimate self-care and Dad-care strategies, btw, don’t let the lack of text fool you. Though #4 might mean that he stays where he is forever and you just postpone the problem of the trailer until after his death.
I wish this weren’t on your shoulders. Best of luck figuring out a way to take care of yourself and help your dad and each other.
The Civil War Chess Set is yours to keep and enjoy. ❤