Adi Rapport’s mother, Betty Steinfeld, and aunt, Ruth Steinfeld, had been living in the same house on Bartlett Street in Squirrel Hill since 1948.
So, when both women passed away—Betty, in 2014, and Ruth, this past April — Rapport found herself faced with a house full of memories taking the form of an enormous amount of stuff. Charged with clearing out the house, it was hard to know even where to begin.
Rapport and her husband started going through the women’s papers and found lots of treasures, like letters her father wrote to her mother and sheet music her mother used when she entertained senior citizens at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. The Steinfelds had kept kosher, so there were lots of different sets of dishes and pots and pans. Ruth had worked for 40 years at Saks and collected things over the course of her career, like her employee IDs.
While it was moving for Rapport to find so many items from the lives of her mother and aunt, it was also overwhelming, she said.
“I think that what is upsetting and heart-wrenching is that when you go through people’s things, it’s not your memories you’re finding, it’s their memories.”
Rapport’s predicament is common. As the parents of baby boomers age, downsize to smaller homes or pass away, the next generation is often left to deal with a lifetime’s collection of belongings. Often, the baby boomers are downsizing as well and do not have the space or inclination to store their parents’ effects. The dilemma becomes what to do with the things that have meant a lot to the last generation, especially when it is unlikely that the millennials will have any interest in taking on the role of steward of those items down the road.
“I have children and my sister has children,” Rapport said. “But they already have houses with their own things in them, and my mom and aunts’ taste is different from theirs.”
Rapport has been looking for organizations and individuals that will accept some of the items as donations, but is having difficulty finding homes for her loved ones’ things. It has been a stressful process.
“You’re physically getting rid of things, but you’re emotionally getting rid of things, too,” she said. “The combination is devastating.”
Jodi Eisner, the president of Method to the Madness, has been helping people declutter, reorganize and downsize since 2001. Eisner, who has a master’s in social work and is a certified professional organizer, is often called upon to help adult children whose parents are downsizing, or who are responsible for clearing out their parents’ home.
Typically, she said, “there are boxes in the attic that haven’t been opened in years,” storing items that have been moved from “basement to someone else’s basement and keep getting moved until they get into the hands of some millennial who says, ‘I don’t want this stuff.’”
The answer, she said, “is not to keep boxing it up and sending it down the generations.”
Reluctance to part with family heirlooms, Eisner has found, is usually not about the item itself, but about the memories.
“I usually ask people what each treasure means to them,” she said. “It’s usually about the storytelling. They may say, ‘I remember when my grandmother used to serve with this piece.’ But people don’t take the time to think it through. Your children probably don’t want that piece. It’s about stopping that thinking that these things have to stay in the family.”
Eisner doesn’t view her job as trying to convince people to get rid of their belongings, she said, but rather “to help people see that they don’t have to have this mindset that they have to keep everything.”
For example, Eisner may suggest that a family member choose just one item from an elderly or deceased relative and to display that item in her home, rather than take possession of a whole collection of items to keep stored away in a box.
“I was very close with my grandmother,” Eisner offered as an example. “She gave us grandchildren different things of hers and loved seeing those things in our home. In every room of my house, there is a little something from my grandmother.”
On the other hand, her grandmother’s furniture and dishes that nobody wanted, “we let go,” Eisner said. “There is nothing of hers in boxes; what we kept tells a story and is part of our daily living. It’s not mammoth amounts of stuff; it’s much more manageable.”
Shayna Creeger, who runs Steel City Organizing which services the greater Pittsburgh area, has a few methods she uses to help people part with quantities of items from previous generations.
“If someone doesn’t want to let something go, we see how we can preserve the memory of it,” Creeger said. “One way to do that, is to have family members pose with the object in a photo before parting with the object.”
Creeger also recommends donating the items to people who can use them.
“The hardest thing is letting go, but if older people know their things are going to someone else to make that person happy, they also will be happy,” she said.
Like Eisner, Creeger recommends taking just a few objects from an older loved one.
“If someone has 20 different pieces from their great-grandmother from Europe, cut it down to five,” she said. “Keep just a few things that you can cherish and treasure.”
Photographs can also pose a challenge when helping people downsize, said Eisner.
“Photos are tricky business, because people have tons of them,” she said. “The first thing I tell people is it’s OK to throw away a photo. If you don’t look good, or if it’s a duplicate of the same pose, pick the best one and just keep that one.”
There are services, Eisner noted, that will organize photos into albums, or digitize them and put them on disks.
Letters and cards are another matter, she said.
“I worked with someone years ago who had every wedding card everyone sent her,” Eisner recalled. “So, I opened one and said, ‘Tell me about this card.’ She didn’t even know who the person was who sent it. She was just hanging on to it. When people do that, especially in extreme numbers, that’s just clutter. She was able to let go of all these cards, keeping maybe just one or two that had meaning.”
On the other hand, another of Eisner’s clients, an older woman in Sewickley who was downsizing, found a love letter written by her late husband when they were dating.
“That’s something you keep until someone says, ‘I don’t know who these people are,’” said Eisner.
Many of Eisner’s clients mistakenly believe that possessions handed down from previous generations have monetary value, which can lead to reluctance to give those things away. Such items include collectibles like Hummel and Precious Moments figurines, dishes used at formal dinner parties and “things that people think are sterling but are just plated,” she said.
Eisner noted that she is not a certified appraiser and does tell people to “err on the side of caution,” if they are unsure of an object’s worth.
If it doesn’t have monetary value, she suggests people ask themselves: “Does it have sentimental value to me, and am I ready to part with it?”
“I strongly advise people to not box it up and leave it for the next generation to deal with,” she said. “People need to talk with their families, so the generations understand what’s important and valuable to you and to not make people feel guilty. What might be sentimental to me may mean nothing to you, and that has to be OK.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.