I don’t post much on the Net about my family, partly because it’s of little interest to anyone else and partly because I like them and want them to carry on liking me.  Today is an exception, because family matters have been much on my mind of late. And the question of how family matters become history. And how all of history is really the version we choose to tell of the stories of everyone’s families.

It’s almost two years since my father died. My mother has now moved to a new home, taking all the items she wishes to keep and washing her hands of the rest with admirable practicality. Their house has become home to another couple, and I guess we’ve all moved on. But then there’s the Stuff. That’s moved too, but only from my parents’ home to ours.

View of clutter including a book called NO MORE CLUTTER

I have to admit that some of the things in that photo are ours (including the book on the right) but not all. Most of the Stuff consists of items that have been carefully collected over the years but which take up far too much space for my mother to house them. Or indeed anyone. I know much of it has to go, and that if we keep only the important things, Downie Towers will feel less like a junk shop. The problem is, how do you judge what’s important?

Some decisions aren’t too difficult. A bulging manila envelope found inside the “Old Photos” suitcase (my mother is very good at labelling) turned out to be full of the hair I’d had cut off when I was thirteen. That went in the compost bin, where it caused further consternation because every time anyone lifted the lid it looked as though one of us had buried a human head in there. I must ask my sister what she did with the collection of her own baby curls that came back to haunt her via the Royal Mail. My brother was spared, because by the time he arrived my mother seems to have lost interest in the preservation of body parts. I suppose we should be grateful there were no teeth.

There are books. There are photos: too many albums to count. There are postcards from family holidays, some sent by generations long gone. More books. There are records of the purchase & sale of houses, and the documents from Dad’s work as Executor for his own father. And more books. Proudly-preserved details of the achievements of children and grandchildren. Yet more books. Letters my generation was never intended to read, and which my sister and I chose to burn. The Guest Book from when my parents ran a Bed and Breakfast. Still more books. One of them held a folded place-marker I vaguely remember making, bearing the word “Daddy” in wonky crayon. I burned that, too. What else do you do?

In fact, what do you do with any of this stuff? It’s been here for months and I know that’s partly because I’m both sentimental and a terrible ditherer. It’s also, perhaps,  something to do with being an historical novelist. These aren’t just Things, they are Sources, and it’s hard to throw away sources even though I know I’m never going to write a novel about mid-twentieth century Britain. At least, not yet.

But the truth is, we have to make some choices. There is no such thing as ‘doing nothing.’ Inertia is effectively a decision to hand over large chunks of space in Downie Towers to the preservation of somebody else’s treasures.

I guess we siblings will divide all the photos between us. None of us has much idea who some of the people were, but comments like “Related to Nanny???” on the back of the pic below mean we dare not part with it.


And then we come to the books. Hundreds of them. Books, for my Dad, were a route to freedom. Books were what lifted him from being an eleven-plus failure, a boy who left school at thirteen, to being a man with a belief that most people could understand anything if they put their mind to it for long enough. Books made him a man who was awarded a Doctorate in political history at the age of sixty-five, after studying on top of a full-time and very demanding job. Books were what made him a man who in his eighties, despite poor health and failing eyesight, sat at his desk every morning to translate New Testament Greek simply for the love of doing it.

So I’m working through the books very slowly. The easy ones – the volumes on cricket, the annual editions of Colemanballs – have found homes, either with family and friends or with the charity shop. The few items the Library can use have gone there. I’ve snaffled most of the Ancient World items, and one day I might even read them. Books that are worth money are slowly being listed for sale. Last weekend there was an historic moment when our dining table reappeared from under the boxes of books I knew were only valued at 1p on Amazon but were too good to throw away. Surely a needy student somewhere must want a battered biography of Asquith, or an out-of-date textbook on constitutional law, or the memoirs of the wife of an Archbishop? What about those old paperback classics – the yellowing, tatty Thomas Hardy and James Joyce we were chucking out because we have Dad’s (pristine) editions?

In the end Husband despaired of me ever finding a student with these very special needs, and phoned the local charity bookshop. The organizer came that afternoon, filled a couple of carrier bags and tactfully confirmed that the rest of what was there was, basically, rubbish. So I went and did something else while Husband took them all up to be recycled. Because it was too painful to think about books which had been so proudly and carefully acquired over many years going to the tip.

Photo of soldiers outside First World War hospital
This photo is a treasure even if none of those men was Great-Uncle Harry.

It’s not all negative. When he wasn’t translating Greek, Dad’s mornings at the desk were spent writing his memoirs – 1000 pages of typescript that we haven’t yet got around to reading because we’re overwhelmed with Stuff. Maybe we need to crack on with sorting out the Stuff. Because then we’ll have time to find out how Dad himself wanted to be remembered. From a book. Of course.

Meanwhile, here’s a timely TED talk I’ve just picked up from fellow-scribe Vicky Alvear Shecter. It’s by author, illustrator and wise person Elizabeth Dulemba, asking  Is your stuff stopping you?








20 thoughts on “Stuff

  1. Oh Thank you so very much for this post. As a former military family, that “stuff” was so important as a connection to our families. Now we are the ones who need to move on. We are slowly working trough my husband’s family stuff, but there will be ever so much more what his sister passes on. Both of my parents are 91 and now my sister and I will have to consider what goes and what stays. My mother is a self taugh genealogist. Every one has contributed to her collection of the families past. What do we do with it? When she is gone, though, my sister and I know much will have to go to a museum nearby. But, how can I throw out the notebooks written in my Grandmother’s beautiful copperplate handwriting of the last century, even if all they contain are the sermon notes she made each Sunday at church.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I do not feel so alone now.

    1. That’s lovely, Elaine, thank you. I wish you and your sister well with your decision-making. And oh my goodness, I know exactly what you mean about the handwritten sermon notes!

  2. Best short short story ever!! Thank you for sharing

    Blessings to mom

    Lori Parrini-Adamus

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. With you all the way on this one, Ruth. I’m still sorting out mum’s things after 2 years. But photos are all being scanned & going on a photo website (for family only). And a stall at a local Vintage fair means I’m aiming for a Big Carpet Reveal on May Day. The upside is it does mean you look carefully at your own Stuff, which is much easier to shift…except for the decluttering books.

    1. A family photo website is a brilliant idea! Thanks Barbara – I shall suggest to siblings. And yes, we are seeing our own Stuff in a new light…

  4. Borrowing from a popular book on organizing, when you hold something, ask yourself if it brings you joy. If it does, those are the things to hold on to.

  5. I loved the part ‘These aren’t just Things, they are Sources’, but perhaps that doesn’t apply to everything? Can I make use of it might be a good test as well as the does it spark joy. I shall refrain from giving advice as I still have items from my parents house…

    1. No, to be honest quite a bit of the Stuff wouldn’t pass the Sources or the usefulness test. All advice is welcome: I shan’t be round to check whether or not you’ve applied it yourself!

  6. Ruth your missive touched many a nerve and rekindled some guilt. My wife and I did similar duty for her parents (my outlaws) in August. A very tough business and filled with much angst and some tears. In our case both are still alive and in good health but the family home was becoming too much for the octogenarians. Moving from a 3,000 sq/ft family home to 700 sq/ft one bedroom was challenging as my wife’s Mom is very attached to her stuff and her stuff wouldn’t fit. Seven siblings were able to agree and distribute the family treasures equitably. Some we had to giveaway on the QT and Mom still asks where they are. We still have some boxes all these month later. They clutter our basement with the flotsam and jetsam of our gown sons and daughter’s repeated moves in and partial moves out. Seems despite your claims to the contrary you’ve done a fine job with a heart wrenching task. I might post some of my outlaws’ pictures in the hope you can ID the faces. No one else in the family has a clue who they were. Ancestors? Friends? Some other family’s pix? Who knows?

    It was interesting that you mention Elizabeth Dulemba. She’s a hoot and very talented. She also is part of our Southern Breeze writers group.

    Cheers from across the pond …

    1. Thank you Jamie. It sounds as though you and your wife have done a terrific job, and one that the Outlaws couldn’t have managed without you. I fear a certain amount of guilt goes with the job but somebody has to make the tough decisions! (Although I can’t even begin to think about the boxes in the loft that our absent offspring have probably forgotten entirely.) Re. the photos – I hear Google’s facial recognition software may be good for identifying unknown rellies, so that might be worth a try.

  7. You have my sympathy, and indeed it must be a very common problem. My mother died three years ago, leaving me the only survivor, and most of her large collection of books, CDs, and DVDs went straight to Oxfam. She valued them; but, alas, they weren’t really my kind of thing. I kept anything I thought I might value myself, and surely kept too much of that, so I still have all the Stuff in cardboard boxes here: I don’t have room to unpack them!

    My own clutter includes a book called “Freedom from clutter”, which is something I wish I could achieve. Will I ever do so, or will I die leaving all this clutter for someone else to throw away?

    1. Ah, that sounds comfortingly familiar! I think we have three ‘dealing with clutter’ books somewhere amidst the chaos. I suspect if I depart before we get all this sorted out, my children (who are admirably cavalier about Stuff) will just chuck out the boxes unopened.

  8. I have been dealing with “stuff” for several years since my Mom passed away. I’m now down to the things that have meaning. I try hard not to hold onto too much, as my husband and I are getting up in years too and I’d really like to pare down. However, when my Dad died, and in the immediate aftermath of mother’s passing a couple years later, some valued things were discarded in haste, items I’ve looked for in vain, things I’ve thought about and wished I had, to touch, to study.

    So my new mantra is to through everything, make an inventory on paper, computer or in your mind, set much of it aside and let it moulder a bit. Then, revisit the inventory and only then, discard items. Don’t let other people decide value or judge for you. Only we know what matters or what we’ll pine for. The book “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying UP” is a travesty in the disregard it holds for treasured memories. I can only imagine what a shallow life Ms. Kondo must have if emptiness is her joy, as she claims.

    One of my greatest treasure finds among Mom’s things was a bold water color I’d painted at age 3, in blues and yellows. Imagine if I’d tossed it out with the other school day memories? Just in case, I’ve also scanned it to my computer photo files.

    1. That’s lovely, Mimi! Yesterday I found a picture my Mum painted when she was 11. That’s gone in the ‘keep’ box. Agree totally about the tidy-up lady, but I do envy the beautiful order of her underwear drawer.

  9. We had stacks of postcards sent from Germany to my husband’s parents here in the States in the 50s and 60s. All written in German, of course. We listed them on our local freecycle page and a local artist who uses them in collages came and picked them up. She was thrilled to have them.

  10. I could have written this post; there is that much in common. My mother moved from her home of 51 years leaving my sister and I three floors of memories to sort through. I began blogging to preserve family history. The documentation we found is priceless; they saved EVERYTHING. Oh, the countless books. After the family had chosen their favorites, after some had been sold and many given away, we took two truck loads to our local library for donation. That doesn’t count the piles I brought home because I cannot part with them. We have two large Rubbermaid tubs of photos, some are not identified.

    We have hundreds of letters written by my great grandma beginning in the 40s, letters I’m sure she would never want us reading. They helped me solve some important family questions, mainly about my father’s growing up years. They are invaluable. I like the idea above about a family only site for photos.

    I enjoyed reading your post. 🙂

    1. Thank you Karen – those family letters must be precious. I don’t think even my Dad could have matched two truckloads of books though – that’s seriously impressive!

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