“I’m sorry for your loss,” the buyer says as he streams through the door of the estate sale I’m having at my parents’ house.
Loss? What loss?
“Thank you,” I say, mirroring his somber note.
“My condolences,” says another buyer a few minutes later.
What? This is an estate sale, not a funeral.
“Thank you,” I say, feeling once again, like the last person to know what’s going on.
The third time a stranger expresses heartfelt remorse, I get it: They think my parents died. But they’ve just moved to assisted living. Most estate sales, apparently, happen post mortem.
I want to explain that my elderly parents moved out because a fully loaded, four-bedroom house became too much for them, that I’m selling the contents and eventually the house – with their permission – to help pay for what I hope will be many more years of their retired life. But that is too much information to download on someone pretending to care but who really just wants to know if I’m selling the bookcase or not.
I’m in a weird spot, standing in the home I grew up in surrounded by presumption, superstition, and more memories than the Smithsonian.
The year-long week began four days earlier when I flew to California from Florida to sort the homestead’s contents. After two days of dismantling the house a piece at a time -- mom’s costume jewelry, dad’s tools – I finally discovered what all these buyers were talking about. Letting go, item by item, feels like a hundred small deaths.
It’s the end of an era.
I shake the nostalgia off, however, because I need to sort through the remains and draw the line between what to let go of and what to keep. I consult my gut and two experts and come up with this formula:
Need, use, love: Those are the key words Mark Brunetz, Emmy-award winning host of Style Network’s “Clean House,” tells me he uses when helping folks figure out what to keep. Do you need it to live your life right now? Would you use it today? Do you love how it looks? If you answer yes to any one of those questions, it might be a keeper.
Add your own filtering questions: This is not a one-size-fits-all exercise, but these additional questions served me well: Does it mean a lot to me, and why? Will it go beautifully in my home? Is it worth shipping? Do I have a place for it? Am I keeping it out of guilt? Will it burden my kids?
Choose meaning over value: “Don’t grab the most valuable pieces,” said Gary Sullivan, an antique appraiser for PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” who for years did estate liquidation sales for families. “That’s what people do, but that’s not the right decision. Keep what means something. If you have an antique that a dealer is willing to buy for $5,000, and you decide to keep it, you just bought it for $5,000.”
Choose small over large: I loved some of my parents’ larger furniture items, but shipping costs were prohibitive. I get just as much resonance and connection from the pearls Dad bought Mom. They are easier to pack and store. Don’t underestimate the cost of housing and maintaining an item, Brunetz said.
Get your story straight: Everything has a story, and that’s what makes letting go hard, said Brunetz, also the author of “Take the YOU Out of Clutter” (Penguin, 2010). Consider the story that you attach to the item, not the story your parents endowed on it. “The minute an item transfers from a parent’s house to yours, it’s no longer about the meaning they endowed it with,” he said. “Once you’re clear on your story, you can cut what you decide to keep in half; that becomes a really great touchstone for determining what to keep.”
Remember the present: Living your life for a day in the past (but it meant something) or one in the future (I might need it) robs you of today, Brunetz said. Live in and for the present.
Check your sentiment: How you love someone is in your heart not in an inanimate object, Brunetz said. “Your heart can never be too full but your home can.”