One year ago, when my husband and I became official empty nesters, we began emptying our nest. On a hot August Sunday we took our youngest daughter to college, then drove home to finish packing up our house, in preparation for our move to a condo later that week. Because we’re over-achievers/naïve/stupid (choose the adjective), we chose to make such radical life changes all in under 5 days. It was quite the week but only possible because months earlier we had started to purge.
Moving from an almost 4,000 square foot house into an 1,800 square foot condo meant that not everything could go. Our packing became an intentional contemplation of the inventory in our house. As we worked through different rooms and closets, we would pause now and then to hold up an item, assessing its sentimentality or necessity. If we couldn’t argue for the item’s emotional or practical weight, it was added to the growing piles for our moving sale or Goodwill. Our three day sale netted almost $2,000 which is especially significant given that most items were priced at $5 or less. That’s a lot of stuff.
At times during the weekend, especially when traffic was slow, I would wander through the house, trilling my fingers across items and remembering so vividly their history: the plate rack that had once hung in my grandmother’s dining room, the tablecloth that my mother would laboriously iron on Thanksgiving eve, the throw pillows I had purchased proudly as a young bride. Once you attempt to empty all your drawers and closets, it’s overwhelming to see what you’ve amassed. It was all the more so for me, as I was the repository for items from two grandmothers, a slew of great aunts and, of course my mother.
The day before the sale, late at night, I was ironing hundreds of old linen napkins. My husband sat on the other end of the sofa, trying to match them into sets. The sight of Gabe’s thick fingers holding lace up to the light—trying to discern the subtle differences in flora and scrolls—was quite comical. At one point, having fastened together a set of 6 napkins with the monogram S, he paused my ironing to ask: “Whose name starts with S?” I was flummoxed. Not ours, not my parents, not my grandparents or great aunts. Not my mother’s maiden name. Finally it occurred to me that those must have belonged to my great grandmother, whose last name was Smith, and who passed away in the 1940s. (I have to say the napkins withstood the test of time!)
Although exhausting, the weekend was not without its humorous and joyous moments. For reasons I’ll never understand, as a wedding gift, my parents received portraits of George and Martha Washington which hung over their living room sofa for as long as I can remember. Neither my brothers nor I ever cared too much for that duo, and I was resigned to the fact that undoubtedly George and Martha would probably be taken to Goodwill. Imagine our surprise when they were one of the first items sold—to a 5th grade social studies teacher. It makes me smile to think of George and Martha holding vigil over pre-pubescent school kids. Our founding parents almost seemed to stick their tongues out at me on their way out the door.
It takes a purge to make you realize the disparity between how much you have and how much you actually need. Does anyone really need 3 sets of Christmas glasses? For what reason? Once the sale was over and the house sold, we had whittled our possessions down to exactly what we would use—rid of the Barbie sheets that were once a young girl’s fancy, rid of the place mats I bought during a Bohemian phase, and the lamp that I purchased at an estate sale when I was pregnant, couldn’t see my feet, and just wanted something pretty. I realized that I could survive on two mixing cups, instead of 10, and three Pyrex baking dishes, rather than seven.
The furniture was more painful to part with. In our new condo, we would have no room for my grandmother’s Jackson Press buffet. How easily I can remember standing on my tiptoes to play with the little treasures in the small drawers. The wood smell reminds me of my grandmother and her Saturday night meatloaf. The buffet is now with my niece, and I like to think her four little girls might hide treasures in those drawers—and that the love that built me is seeping down to them in that way. My grandmother’s china cupboard now reigns over my daughter’s living room, and I hope she thinks of her heritage when she slips the ancient skeleton key into its lock.
The process of intentional purging brings freedom on the other end. Oh sure, every now and then we will think of something we wish we hadn’t sold. But by and large, in our little condo home, there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. It occurs to me that perhaps embracing the purge signals my acceptance of middle age. Unlike my daughters who are in the accrual phase of life, I find myself relating more to my mom, who was an inactive bystander on our shopping trips for years. “I don’t need anything,” she would say. (She had 11 sets of salt and pepper shakers; she really didn’t need anything!) But I understand what she could perhaps not articulate—that these middle years are not about collecting things, but about people—about the conversations and the laughter, the experiences that fill your mind and soul when the possessions leave your house.
When a daughter invites me to go shopping, I readily go. I love nothing more than watching them build their nests… watching the life fabrics they are weaving. One day they will probably end up with multiple sets of Christmas glasses, and that’s ok. But when they ask me, I’ll say that I don’t need anything.
And I’m good with that.