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At Home: The ‘pyramid of postponement’

March 29, 2013 

"Make it a treasure hunt," says organizing guru Peter Walsh, author of "It's All Too Much." That's the attitude to adopt when sorting through elderly parents' possessions, and trying to decide what to keep. "I'm in the middle of this with my own mother, who's 90," said Walsh. "A whole generation of us are dealing with this."


Contrary to what Sheryl Crow sings, the first cut is not the deepest. The last cut is.

Cleaning out my parents’ former home of almost 50 years involved a ruthless week of letting go of a lifetime of home furnishings. What’s left is the pyramid of postponement, a pile far bigger than it should be of family photos, letters, military memorabilia and other artifacts.

I pushed these items off into the old home’s garage, saying: “I’ll deal with you later.”

I now better understand how seemingly pulled-together people turn into “someday” people, who fill basements and garages, or worse, storage units, with their parents’ old things, close the door on it all and tell themselves “someday” they’ll deal with it.

Ambivalence is the root of all clutter.

Through the first cut of the clearing process, the words of declutter king Peter Walsh, host of TLC’s “Clean Sweep,” were my mantra: When everything is important, nothing is important.

Thus, I kept keepsakes to a minimum: I tucked a few pieces of Mom’s jewelry into my carry-on bag and shipped three boxes to my home. In them were an oil painting of French hens, a mainstay in our old kitchen; three handkerchiefs monogrammed with my mom’s initial (one for each of my daughters and one for me), and the gold-edged stemware – because it’s beautiful and I will use it. I already have the china and silver.

Now I must face the pyramid. I call Walsh. “What’s wrong with me?”

“This isn’t about the stuff,” said Walsh, who’s going through this with his 90-year-old mother.

“Going through a parent’s belongings makes us confront our own mortality, the loss of parents and the fact that life is fleeting.”

Walsh suggests I liken the process to a treasure hunt: “Imagine that your parents have deliberately left you five treasures. Your job is to find the items that have the strongest, happiest memories for you. So look, not in sadness but in joy, for the few, best items to keep. Let the rest go.

I tell Walsh about my three boxes. “I can tell by the words you used – ‘I love it. She loved it. I will use it.’ – that you chose exactly right,” he said. “You found the treasures.”

I let out a sigh. “At first, when I saw the chicken painting in my kitchen, it made me sad,” I admit. “But now I love seeing it every morning.”

“That’s the test,” said Walsh. “Welcome to adulthood.”

But I’m not done. I still have the tough stuff, I tell him. “We can get through this,” he said, then tackled each category in my pyramid:

Say yes to the dress: Mom’s wedding dress was made by hand, by an Italian seamstress for $35. “A wedding dress like that is such a beautiful, wonderful, emblematic thing,” Walsh said. “Hold onto it.” Maybe one day it can be worn, made into a christening garment for a grandchild or used to wrap bouquets in a daughter’s wedding.

Love letters: My dad is a sweetheart. We have letters to prove it. Pages he wrote to Mom over their courtship and marriage. “I’m going to get emotional telling you this,” said Walsh, “because I’ve done this. First, remember, they’re not really yours. They are part of a romance between your parents, and were never meant for you.” Walsh, who has six siblings, gathered with family members on his parents’ anniversary. They shared their letters, told stories about them, and at midnight burned the letters. “We ritualized them, and sent the love back into the universe.”

Family photos: My dad was a slide man. I have Kodak boxes containing carousels that, if stacked, would tower over me. “Photos have particular power and importance that make it feel like sacrilege if you throw them away,” said Walsh. Pull out the great ones. Send them to an online service like or Snapfish and make albums.

Military medals: My parents met during World War II on Okinawa. Dad was a Marine fighter pilot and Mom was an Army nurse. Their medals are framed and with them in the assisted living center where they live. “As we speak, I’m standing next to my Dad’s framed medals,” Walsh said. “They remind me of his bravery and how he built a family. That is the treasure my dad left me. That is all I need.”

I take that wisdom with me, as I prepare for my next icy plunge into the pyramid of postponement.


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