Downsizing a big home is not for sissies
How many towels do I use in a week? How many pots and pans do I really need?
I never had to ask these questions until I faced the daunting task of downsizing from my five-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot house to a 1,071-square-foot apartment.
The decision to downsize from the home I’d lived in for 57 years, where I’d raised my two children, was agonizing. But when an apartment became available that met all my requisites at my chosen relocation, Riderwood Village, an Erickson community in Silver Spring, Maryland, I snapped it up.
“You’re 82 years old and in relatively good health,” I told myself. “It’s now or never.”
With no idea how I would fit the contents of a nine-room, two-level house into four rooms, I panicked. Luckily, my good friend Gail had the answers.
She committed to working every day to help me downsize, and assured me that my seven-week move-in time frame was doable. Gail could be detached, objective and tough, yet compassionate when needed.
Also, Riderwood’s moving company offered a free consultation with its professional downsizer as part of my contract. As a first step, she advised going through the house to identify and label my “must have” furniture and other possessions with different colors of painter’s tape.
She then measured them and devised a floor plan for my new apartment. Once we had an idea of what would fit, we got to work on discarding the rest.
First, I asked my kids what they wanted. “What on earth would I do with all that fancy china, crystal and silverware?” my daughter asked. “Half the time, I use paper plates and plastic utensils when I entertain.” My son’s only request: a brass eagle and some of his dad’s old tools.
That settled, Gail and I fell into a routine. She set the daily agenda with organizing skills that resembled those of a military officer preparing for battle. Everyone involved soon dubbed her “The Commander.”
As we marched on, slaying “the clutter enemy” surrounding us, she declared, “We have to be ruthless and take no prisoners.”
Keep, sell, donate or trash
We went through the house room by room, using the categories Keep, Sell, Donate and Trash (KSDT).
“When did you last use this? Why will you need it?” This was the test Gail and I applied to each item as we plowed through closets of outdated clothing, yards of unused fabric, stacks of vinyl records, and enough nail-filled baby food jars to reconstruct a city.
If I wavered the tiniest bit in deciding, Gail’s irrevocable verdict was, “You don’t need it.” And the object met its appropriate KSDT fate.
When, for instance, I removed a baking dish from a kitchen cabinet, Gail gave it the evil eye. “But that’s the lasagna dish I use for family holidays,” I said. “And,” she asked, “how many more of those will you host?”
Gail was at her ruthless best when it came to my many travel mementos. “You don’t need a hotel stub from the Greek islands to remind you of the place. You have those 20 boxes filled with photo albums when you want to revisit.”
With few exceptions, Gail outlawed sentimentality as a “keeper” reason. When I retrieved a stuffed puppy from underneath a crib mattress, I stroked it tenderly, telling her, “This was my son’s favorite sleepy-bye toy.” Gail patted my hand gently, took it from me, and agreed to create a Maybe keeper box.
On other occasions, when I expressed undue emotion over something like my sorority pledge paddle, she’d say, “Take a picture with your cell phone and it’s yours forever.”
Every night, overcome with a numbing weariness, I’d collapse in bed, asking myself, “Why didn’t I do this 10 years ago when I had more energy and less severe arthritis?”
Yard sales can help
Halfway toward our downsizing goal, when we could barely move among the boxes and bags, I suggested a yard sale to give us some room.
Gail agreed — with the caveat that whatever didn’t sell could not re-enter the house. It would be left for curbside pickup or stacked on the porch for donation.
Surprisingly, the yard sale proved a successful downsizing tool and a much-needed break. It introduced me to a host of neighbors, too.
By the end of that day, a spirit of conviviality prevailed. Kids were riding their bikes and kicking soccer balls around the perimeters of the sale area while their parents chatted amiably over carry-out coffee cups.
Many volunteered trucks and SUVs to haul stuff away, tables to display more goods, and muscle power to help customers carry purchases to their cars.
One neighbor actually brought a friend to the sale who ended up buying my house! That night I felt euphoric.
But the next morning, when the rejects littered the porch and curb, my balloon burst. A petite older woman knocked at my door and asked if she could take some things. “Fine,” I told her.
I watched from my kitchen window as she stuffed her SUV to capacity. Soon she returned for a second round, taking what was, by then, mostly junk. To me, she appeared like a bird of prey, descending on the scraps of the good life I had lived in my house.
Her callous manner brought me to tears, releasing feelings of loss, doubt and fear I had suppressed for weeks. Gail’s hug and shoulder to cry on helped cushion the blow.
Thanks to the love and support that I had all through the draining journey of downsizing, I was able to close the front door of my house on the day of my move with a wide smile, stripped of the debris of my past — and filled with excitement about opening a new chapter in my future.
Freelance writer Lynne Vance has been published in the Washington Post, Journal Newspapers and the Montgomery County Sentinel. She currently resides at Riderwood in Silver Spring, Maryland.