I’ve heard it said that the average home contains about 300,000 items. I’m not sure if this is true, but I do know most people have a lot of stuff. Some of it is useful, such as a plunger, frying pan, underwear, etc. Other possessions are largely pleasurable, such as a piece of art or plants. Still others are what we collectively call “memorabilia.” These are pieces we have chosen to keep because they provide an emotional connection to people, places, and experiences from our past. They are important not only to us, but also potentially to future generations as tokens of history. While there is value in holding onto memorabilia, sometimes we start to be overwhelmed by the quantity we have accumulated. Have you ever considered what percentage of your possessions you are keeping for sentimental reasons? Is there such a thing as too much?
Shedding the sentimental stuff can be tricky. When I work on decluttering with clients, I rarely begin with memorabilia. Reviewing memorabilia is an emotional process. All of our logical, rational arguments for what to keep and what to shed tend to be overshadowed by our feelings. We want to keep everything. Unlike other belongings, these pieces can’t be easily replaced, so it makes sense to be sure about our decision before we let them go. Still, there are times – such as when we are downsizing – when we need to reduce our memorabilia collection. How do we proceed?
First, acknowledge that not all memorabilia is clutter. Every person deserves to have at least one bin, box or drawer’s worth of treasures. Sentimental items provide a connection to our past, reminding us of who we are.
The second thing we can do is seek to retain a quantity of memorabilia that we can access. When we have one or two boxes of special mementos, we are likely to periodically pull them out and have fun browsing through them. Even better if we can put these feeling-laden pieces on display where we will regularly see and enjoy them. I loved seeing this display recently in a client’s home, celebrating his service in the US Navy.
If it gets to the point where we have 20 boxes of memorabilia piled on top of each other in an attic or are paying to store sentimental pieces in an offsite storage unit, we are unlikely to look at any of them. Alternatively, we may find ourselves unable to use our primary storage spaces for current items because our drawers and closets are filled with things from the past.
One of my favorite phrases is, “Too much of anything is hard to enjoy.” There is no hard and fast rule about how much is the right amount, but one way to know if you are keeping too much is when your memorabilia feels like a burden instead of a joy.
In her book, The Gift of the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh compares our lives to the process of collecting seashells. Imagine that we are exploring the beach, gathering shells along the way. Each time we uncover a shell, we carefully consider its beauty and uniqueness. We decide whether or not each is worth keeping, slipping only the most special ones into our pocket. By carefully choosing which shells to keep, we end up with a small collection of beautiful shells to treasure. We keep them in a glass vase on the nightstand, or line them up on the kitchen windowsill. In contrast, if we insist on keeping every shell, the most unique and precious shells get lost in the shuffle, get broken by surrounding shells, and eventually become too heavy to carry.
The lesson of this analogy is that we need to “curate” our memorabilia. Much as a museum mindfully picks and chooses the best pieces to acquire, so we can and should be choosy about what we keep.
There is a phrase that the women in my family use when trying on clothing. When we think a garment is particularly flattering, we deem that piece of clothing a “zinger.” We encourage its purchase because it really stands out.
When reviewing memorabilia, our goal should be to keep the diamonds, not the whole collection of semi-precious stones. Not every sentimental possession carries equal emotional weight. We want to prioritize space for those items that trigger particularly wonderful memories and feelings.
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Are you starting to feel ready to review some of your memorabilia? Here are a few truths to bear in mind.
- Letting go of physical memorabilia does not mean that we will forget the person, experience, or event to whom the object is attached. It may be Mom’s old vase, but letting it go doesn’t mean that we will forget Mom.
- Objects are not the same as people. Letting go of a loved one’s belonging, trinket, clothing, or creation does not indicate that we do not love the person or memory of that person. Objects don’t get offended when we decide we no longer need them.
- Less is more when it comes to memorabilia. For instance, we may choose to keep one copy of our wedding invitation and one box of the “party favor” matches we gave out, but then we can release any surplus invitations, leftover cocktail napkins, and the monogrammed champagne glasses that we never use.
With these principles in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into the process. Remember, sorting memorabilia is rarely a “one shot” experience, so give yourself sufficient time and grace to slowly review what you have. After all, you kept these items to look at, so you don’t want to rush. Take the time to reflect and reminisce. If possible, have someone else nearby so that you can share and retell the stories that the various items inspire.
As you review, imagine that you are peeling an onion. Begin by aiming to eliminate the “outer skins” of your memorabilia. These are objects that no longer hold emotional significance. Items you aren’t sure about can go into a “maybe” pile for a second go-around. Don’t force yourself to get rid of anything. You want to be at peace with your decisions, so this is one of those times when you shouldn’t feel pressured to touch it once and decide right away.
Also, you may find it helpful to pre-sort your belongings into categories as you pull them out of their containers. It easier to make decisions when there is some context, such as when we can see that perhaps we’ve kept too much of a certain type of item.
The four categories of memorabilia are:
- Family Heirlooms (furniture, family Bible, jewelry)
- Reminders of Accomplishments (rewards, awards, trophies, medals, varsity sweater)
- Memory Triggers (photographs, souvenirs)
- Connections to the Past (love letters, childhood items, keepsakes)
Now you can consider one category at a time. As you review the pieces, you might find it helpful to ask yourself a series of questions:
What does this item mean to me?
Simply being part of our past is not a good enough reason to keep something. Focus on things that spark the best memories. If a piece brings on negative feelings, let it go. We don’t want to hold onto things that bring us down.
Is there a story associated with this piece?
Memorabilia means the most when it carries a great story, much the way a piece of art can be more valuable because of its provenance. If there is an associated anecdote, consider writing it down so that the story can be saved as well as the object. If you can’t remember the story behind a piece, this might be a good indication that you can let it go. After all, if we don’t know what it means today, we probably never will.
Did I choose to keep this intentionally, or am I holding onto it for someone else?
Periodically we end up with items that someone else gave to us for safekeeping. This doesn’t mean we have to hold onto it forever. If a belonging doesn’t provide an emotional benefit to us, we can offer to return it to the original owner or pass it on. Never feel pressured to be the family historian if you don’t want to perform this function.
Does this mean anything to anyone else in the family?
Sentimental items are personal. It is possible that others may want specific pieces after we are gone, but we should never assume this is the case. Anything we decide to keep that won’t mean anything to the next generation can be marked “feel free to toss after I’m gone.” This keeps us from burdening others with guilt about shedding pieces to which they have no connection.
Is the item in good condition?
Memorabilia, by definition, tends to be older and thus more likely to be in disrepair. When we come across a piece in poor condition, we should consider whether it can (or should) be restored, and also if we want to invest the time, money and energy to do so. If not, we can let it go. It will only continue to degrade.
What is the best way to preserve the memory?
Sometimes the best way to preserve a memory is not by simply keeping a possession. For example, it may be wiser to keep a photograph of grandpa in his favorite recliner than it is to hold onto the fraying, sagging recliner itself.
As you might expect, there are no “right” and “wrong” answers to these questions. The goal is simply to thoughtfully prioritize.
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What do I do with the stuff I don’t want?
As you go through the reviewing process, you will likely begin assembling a pile of items you have decided not to keep. What should you do with these things? Consider a few alternatives:
=> If it is something with practical value, use it.
A woman shared with me that she has three sets of china in her home: her own, her mother’s and her grandmother’s. These take up a lot of space, and her daughter has already told that she doesn’t want any of it. So, she decided to simply start using it. She wasn’t going to worry about breaking them or damaging the gold trim by putting them in the dishwasher. Instead, she was going to enjoy using them now and when they are no longer good enough to use, she will let them go.
=> Find an appreciative donation recipient.
Multiple people have furniture that is not “au courant,” but is still in good shape. Organizations such as Habitat for Humanity Restore can often use pieces like these to furnish homes for people who are in need. It is often easier to let go when we know our pieces will go to good use.
=> Sell them.
If you have silver or other valuable pieces that you no longer want, you can look into selling them. Of course, selling takes work, but there are auction houses and ebay resellers who are typically very willing to give you an estimate from a few photographs. You may find out that what you have is not worth selling but knowing this will make it easier to donate.
=> Utilize technology.
One of my clients had a grass skirt, flower lei, and ballet slippers that her granddaughter wore in a performance when she was little. The woman had been holding onto it because she loved looking at it, but the grass skirt was disintegrating. We decided take a photo of her, her granddaughter, and the outfit, and then wrote a few lines about her memories of that event. There are tools to help capture memories in this way, such as the Day One app.
=> Repurpose older pieces into a more practical format for your current lifestyle.
Especially when space is at a premium, think creatively about how you can keep the memories without having to keep large or bulky pieces. For instance, if you have a closet full of your deceased father’s flannel shirts, have them made into a couple of throw pillows. Another example is to make (or have made) a casual blanket from the t-shirts your teen has acquired over the years but will no longer wear. If you have a room full of large golfing trophies that won’t fit in your downsized condo, remove the faceplates with the names, dates, and tournament names from each individual piece and assemble them into a beautifully framed piece to display in the new space.
It may come as a surprise to know that most reputable junk haulers today will donate or recycle as much as possible of what they collect before heading to the refuse center. This process not only saves them money on dumping fees, but it is good for the environment. Fabrics can be taken to textile recyclers, auto parts can be dissembled and used, glass and metals can be recycled, paint can be treated and reused, and even some plastics can be used to create products like flooring, furniture, and more
=> Digitize paper memories.
While old papers often have significance, they are subject to deterioration and decay. We are fortunate to have the option today of digitizing old photos, documents, movies, slides, cassettes, and more. Companies such as EverPresent and LegacyBox will take boxes of memories and return them to you on disks, thumb drives, or other digital media. Children’s artwork can be scanned and make into photo books.
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Memorabilia should enhance the quality of our lives, not detract from it. Do you have a lot of memorabilia? Do you think you have too much?