The sounds of closing doors, rustling potato chip bags, steps on the back staircase, and the refrigerator door slamming at 3 a.m. have become unfamiliar these days, yet having three teens home from college has removed our silence and returned us to a house of vibrant activity, dishes left in the sink, and late-night returns home from seeing friends. 

At first it was disturbing, disrupting the silence these empty-nesters only recently discovered after 18 years of care-giving. But now they are joyous sounds, now that we’ve adapted again, this time knowing our guiding voices are needed a little less.

I used to rise early, while the house was sleeping, in order to find the sounds of silence. I’d escape to the back porch, overlooking the neighbors’ 40 acres of cattle. This morning, I sit in the living room, dogs on my lap, nudging me to pet them while my hands are juggling the keyboard. 

Seasonal Memories

Old friends greet me — the giant Christmas coffee cup and platter we have used for almost two decades to put out cookies and milk for Santa. The stockings with the names of each family member, the dogs, and dogs from our past. The tall strong nutcrackers stand guard by the fireplace, following instructions to let no one other than Mr. Claus enter. The color-filled tree, filling the air with the scent of pine, holds family heirlooms, treasures from our past. If there were to be a fire, those ornaments would be the biggest loss — ornaments with the kids’ faces on their first Christmas, reminders of vacations over the years, ornaments that were favorites from our childhoods that stimulate memories of our lifetimes.

A Solution to Hoarding

On the table in front of me is the old family Bible, used for generations and the place everyone documented family births and graduations to a better place. Beside it, a pair of preserved baby shoes that were mine, discovered with my mom’s special treasures when we had to clean out her house. Only a few items remain from the house of memories, which is now gone. Rather than take everything away with us (which would have been impossible), we each picked what we wanted and then took pictures of the things we had not seen in years so that, rather than becoming hoarders, we could get the good feeling of seeing them in our photo libraries.

Decades of Dust

When my grandparents died, the same process occurred. People took what they wanted and put those memories to use. My mom did the same, but the big stuff, like furniture, went into a storage unit she intended to use for a little while, until she could use the things in it “someday.” Laurie had the pleasure of driving to Indiana on the way home from New York, and having the storage people cut the lock off the unit and pry the door open. It had not been opened for 25 years, since the last time I visited to consolidate everything down to a smaller unit. Overall, my mom paid on that unit for 35 years, and those “someday” things never saw sunlight. This summer we’ll stop on our way back to the lake and spend a couple of days going through the dust, to fill a truck with some of those antiques to use in our antique lake cabin. The rest will be distributed to my brothers or to Goodwill.

Depression Babies

My Depression-era parents saved everything because they grew up with nothing. I was well trained in hoarding. I used to do a spring cleaning of my room and throw out toys and things I no longer needed, and when I came back from school they were all back in my closet. I eventually learned to keep everything, following in the footsteps of my past.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

For decades I begged my mom and my dad to not leave us with this mess to go through. Dad listened and has spent weeks combing through his storage unit and is no longer clinging to good things that should be put to use one day. Mom never did. The other remarkable three-year project was getting every photo and slide my dad ever made scanned to be stored digitally.

Starting Over

After a failed marriage over 30 years ago, I left with what I could fit in a couple of trips in my car, but it seems I’ve managed to keep everything since. Hundreds of paintings I’ve created, useful to no one but my memory. Oh, and piles of old business records, scrapbooks, boxes of photos, and a lot of stuff I’ll never use. Of course my fear is something good will end up at Goodwill. Thankfully, I’ve had all my paintings photographed and archived; I just need to get around to “comments” to explain the meaning of each. And of course there are about 30 portraits of me, by the greatest living masters, that will one day need a home.

When going through mom’s storage, I realized that the only things meaningful were memories we could relate to. Most everything she kept that had meaning to her was of little meaning to others.

The Giant Purge

One of the greatest gifts someone can leave their kids is a clean home with the excess distributed to heirs or removed. And, since this Christmas will be a homebound holiday for most, why not use the time for the great Christmas memory adventure? Scan the photos, photograph things you can let go of and give to charity, purge drawers filled with old gadgets that were once expensive but are no longer of any value, and comb closets to rid yourself of those favorite T-shirts you love but haven’t worn in decades. Your heirs will thank you. And, if you can, make your heirs part of the process. They may want things once they hear the stories behind them. Doing so will stimulate a Christmas of memories and an activity to create some family togetherness. 

The Cycle of Stuff

Life is funny. We start out with nothing, we want to make more money to buy more stuff and bigger houses, which we fill with even more stuff. Then, as we age, we eventually need to downsize, but instead of getting rid of things, we make storage unit owners rich. The guy who owns the storage unit I visited has one of the biggest houses in town and told me that most of his customers pay every month and have not visited in decades. His longest absentee customer hadn’t been seen in almost 40 years. My mom was his second-longest. 

Clinging to stuff is understandable, because we’re really clinging to memories. It’s hard to throw out a 30-year-old piece of furniture you paid a lot of money for. It’s hard to part with the old appliances you could barely afford. It’s practical to think you might use something or wear it again someday. 

What’s Holding You Back?

Stuff is an anchor. Friends once told me they wanted to downsize, but they had too much stuff and did not want to deal with it. So they never did … until their house burned and they were left with no stuff. Though it was a devastating moment that ruined their lives in many ways, they also told me that it may have been the only thing to get them to move on. Now they are building a modern dream house in the same spot, and it’s more of a fit with their lifestyle today.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

As I sit here writing this, I know that I’ll have to do it too. Shelves of stored paintings and books, old easels I have not used in years, gobs of paint. Yet I know someone will want it, and I can either sell it or give it away. I actually have an “eBay pile” of things I’ve intended to sell for the past decade. Never got around to it. It’s embarrassing. But it’s time for it to go, and I need to take the time to make it go.

So, Christmas vacation will be a staycation, and the virus may be doing us a favor by making us stay close to family and deal with the many needed projects that never get done. I don’t want to look back knowing I had the time and did not use it.

What about you?

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Joyous Holidays.

Eric Rhoads

PS: What’s better than accumulating stuff? Accumulating knowledge. I always want to grow, and this time is a great time to take online courses in something you want to learn. We have created thousands and thousands of hours of art training by the best in the world, which you can find here. 

We also have a rare gathering of the top watercolor artists in the world, teaching online for four days in January. It will make you a better painter, even if you’ve never painted. You can learn about Watercolor Live here.

We’re in survival mode, like most small businesses, so a subscription or a gift always helps. A gift guide is here and everything we do can be found here. Yes, it’s ironic to bring new stuff in when taking the old stuff out. But, when you give it, it’s going elsewhere too. 🙂