10 September 2012

De-cluttering an inherited collection of things

I encountered this issue on one of those TV shows about house cleaning/renovating/makeovers recently. What do you do when a relative has left a collection of things to you?

The way I see it, you have two options.

One, you can get rid of it all. Start with the de-cluttering method where you sort into three categories -- trash/recycle, donate, sell -- and then act on the categories as necessary. The Unclutterer blog reminds us that setting a deadline for the action is crucial, and goes so far as to suggest that if you blow your deadline for selling or donating, you need to toss the items into the trash. (Post thoughts on that method here or at Unclutterer!)

But are you attached the the items? Do they carry for you a special meaning? Does it hurt to completely remove them from your life, because it feels as though you're kicking the person who gave them to you out of your life?

Then think about option two. Go through the items, and trash/recycle, donate, and sell almost all of them. And then keep two or three representative pieces and display them prominently, with care and love, in your home. How to pick which two or three? Choose the ones that you like, not the ones that you think or know the giver liked best, or the giver would want you to keep.

Keeping all of the items clutters your home, your time, your thoughts, and ultimately your life. You can't live the life of an efficient urban home economist if you're tripping over things that used to belong to someone else and that you didn't actually choose to bring into your home. Keeping any of them honors the memory of giver. Keeping the ones you like honors yourself.

Here's an example at Rowhouse Livin'. I was handed down some mid-century fine china a few years ago. (And by "fine china," I mean "pretty ordinary, probably from Sears, wedding china.") After putting the dishes to daily use for a few months, I decided I didn't enjoy the hand-washing so much any more; and I started to replace it by getting a few pieces at a time from thrift stores. Now my everyday dishes are all vintage American-made diner china, bought here and there from second-hand shops across Philadelphia. But what to do with this full set of fine china? And I mean the full complement of what you "need" from a set of fine china: dinner plates, salad plates, dessert plates, teacups and saucers, gravy boat, sugar bowl, creamer, and serving platter.

Rowhouse Livin' hosts a small group of friends for a semi-potluck dinner on Sunday evenings. Emphasis on small, here. Who among us regularly entertains parties of eight? Or even when we do, in a gathering so formal that we'd use fine china? OK, maybe your household is a lot different than mine, and you do: important holidays and special formal occasions come up often during the year. But not here at Rowhouse Livin'. We're happy to serve our weekly dinners on my very sturdy, vintage American diner china and eat it with ordinary stainless steel flatware. (Speaking of flatware, if you still have silver kicking around, seriously consider cashing it in, especially if it's solid, not plated. Do it for the same reasons you'd get rid of your fine china, with the added perk that you can get actual cash for real silver flatware, unlike fine china, which holds little to no value in the second-hand marketplace because it has been ubiquitous since the 1950s. Like diamonds, only with less environmental destruction and child slave labor.)

Now, I do still have nearly a complete set of china, minus a teacup, butterfingers -- another reason why fine china is hard to sell: nobody has a perfect set -- that I never use. It takes up an entire drawer in the dresser in my living room. It never gets taken out for use, because I have to wash it all by hand afterwards. And it carries some family baggage, in that it came from the literally wicked stepmother of one of my parents. So here's my plan. I've taken out one oblong serving dish and eight dessert plates from the set, to keep. The plates are small, a good size for hors-d'œuvres at a wine tasting party, or pieces of birthday cake in a size reasonable for those of us closer to 40 than 20. The rest is off to a consignment shop, or to charity thrift store if the consignment shop won't take my "imperfect" set. Keeping some small plates honors my household's values: hosting get-togethers frequently while maintaining a home filled with things that are useful, not unneeded.

What will you do next time an unexpected collection lands in your lap?

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