You’re gone: Who’s stuck with your stuff?

Spider Web pearls by Lisa

Dew-covered spiderweb photographed by Lisa Mendelson

By Susan Caba
The Resale Evangelista

A dear friend, just 55 and apparently healthy, died in her sleep on St. Patrick’s Day.

She left behind a desolate husband—and a house she inherited from her father, along with all the belongings he had accumulated in a long life. Lisa couldn’t bear to part with any of it, and she’d added 20 years of her own possessions.

Her husband Lee called me an hour after the paramedics left with Lisa’s body, wailing with heartbreak. The second or third sentence out of his mouth? “What am I going to do with all this stuff?

Lisa sweetness in a moment

Lisa, last year, at the Santa Barbara Harbor 

I’ve said it before: “If you think you are ever going to move—or die—start getting rid of your stuff now.”  I guess I should add, “Start now, even if you don’t think you are going to die for a long, long time.”

Among her possessions  are dozens of potted plants, a 1924 Steinway grand piano, her stuffed animals from childhood, 1980s sweaters (hers, from high school), cashmere sweaters carefully preserved (her father’s), her mother’s ashes, kitchen appliances ranging from pro-level food processors to panini presses and pasta machines, collections of handmade pottery, five cartons of classic jazz recordings, dozens of towels, her father’s gold Rolex watch and a grandfather clock Lisa had lovingly restored herself. And that’s just what comes to mind in a moment.

Lisa was 9 years younger than Lee, and his health has been bad for some time. Neither one of them dreamed she would die before him. As an adopted only child of parents who themselves had no siblings, and who divorced when Lisa was about six, her father’s mid-century Modern house in Santa Barbara embodied the security that Lisa craved but never quite attained.

Lisa Mendelson’s obituary

She wasn’t a hoarder but something in her couldn’t let go of anything that evoked her past and that elusive sense of stability. She only parted last year with a little convertible her father had given her 25 years ago. She hadn’t driven it for years, and it was one of three cars she owned. As the years passed, stuff accumulated—and Lisa always liked things to remain mostly where they had been originally placed.

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Sunset behind Lisa’s house in Santa Barbara

When her father was dying, he made Lisa promise she would never put him in a nursing home or hospital—and she didn’t. She and Lee made the same promise to one another. When Lisa died, her estate was in order and debt free. Nonetheless, she left her husband with a heavy emotional mortgage. In the few conversations in which they contemplated Lisa dying before Lee, she always, always, always entreated him not to sell the house.

Lee grew up on a farm in Kansas. He joined the Marines and, after having four children with his first wife, lived something of an itinerant life as a successful engineer. When he and Lisa met, he was living on his sailboat in Santa Barbara. He is not attached to many things. There’s no way he can see himself caring for this house and these things indefinitely. His three surviving children all live in Colorado. None are likely to move to Santa Barbara.

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One of Lisa’s quirky wall plates

So here he is, heartbroken in a house that’s been maintained as a shrine to Lisa’s father and which now threatens to become her mausoleum, as well. Just acknowledging that it’s too much for him is painful. Of course, there will be changes made—there have been already. I’ve taken those high school sweaters and a few sundry other items to Lisa’s favorite thrift store. (Sorry, Lees.) I’ve pitched some plants and trimmed others (so very sorry, Lees!).

House-sitting for Lisa

It took me two years to edit my belongings down to a manageable volume to move from a small house in St. Louis to a one-bedroom apartment in Virginia. Have I mentioned I still have a storage locker and am moving from a one-bedroom to a two-bedroom apartment? I’ve developed a mantra when cruising the resale aisles: “I don’t need that. I don’t need that. I don’t need another one of those.”  (As opposed to previous mantras: “It’s no more than I deserve,” “The only purchases I ever regret are the ones I didn’t make,” and “At that price, how can I go wrong?”)

Watching Lee, I’m even more conscious of the over-abundance of stuff in our lives. If you don’t believe me, skip the retail aisle in your favorite thrift shop and go take a gander at the rooms that overflow with donations—much of it great stuff, much of it garbage.

We’re all going to have to do it sooner or later. If not for ourselves, then for our parents, our siblings, our friends.

So I’ll say it again: “If you think you are ever going to move—or die—start getting rid of stuff now.”  Your heirs will profoundly thank you.

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