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Moving Day countdown: Be generous to yourself and others when decluttering

When Bonnie Sandler, my real estate agent and friend, walked into my house to discuss putting it on the market, the first thing she said was: “80 per cent of this will have to go.” I thought I hadn’t heard right. “80 per cent of what?” I asked, not so innocently.

“Everything,” she responded, as if speaking to someone who didn’t understand English. She pointed to the tops of every piece of furniture I own. “There should be nothing on any of those surfaces,” she continued. “And the paintings. They have to go.”

“Buyers want to envision the space as theirs, not yours. They don’t want to see photos of your family. All photos have to go.”

I was hurt. I pretended I understood. I feigned total agreement.

As soon as she left, I told myself calmly that somehow, some way I had to do what she expected me to do if I wanted to sell my house, and I had to convince my loving partner, Irwin, to do it with me.

Now this was not a simple goal. Irwin loves his books — all of them. So it took a lot of courage for him to de-clutter. He made three piles of books: one for bookstores; one for Renaissance (including those the bookstores wouldn’t buy); and one to keep. We loaded up the car on two separate occasions and drove to two second-hand bookstores: Encore in NDG on Sherbrooke St. and S.W. Welch on St. Viateur. They bought about 25 per cent of Irwin’s books and a few of mine as well. I took most of my books to Dawson where I teach and gave them to students.

Then I hired Jeremy, my next-door neighbor, a 16-year-old going on 35. Jeremy is an expert at organizing, cleaning, fixing, painting, and general maintenance. I can see him one day opening his own shop and specializing in … everything. Jeremy helped me go through and classify piles and piles of papers, about 1,000 photos, my daughters’ school work, art work, and memorabilia. We made order out of thousands of pieces of our family’s personal history. Then he tackled The Senior Times — piles and piles of newspapers, going back almost 30 years. Organizing that took days and days. Then he cleaned out both kitchens, taking whatever we didn’t need to Renaissance or packing stuff in boxes to give away to youngsters we know are moving into their own apartments.

The paintings and artwork that were all over my house and The Senior Times office were the hardest to organize. But I managed with Jeremy’s help. Some I gave to friends. Some we put in huge bags and stacked up inside closets. Knick-knacks? Same formula. Give to friends. Store in plastic bins. Give to Renaissance down the street.

Every day since I’ve taken a bag of stuff to Renaissance at the corner. They take everything but stuffed furniture. Since I’m a garage sale-aholic, there were many bags to take. Clothes went to our clothing swap at Dawson, to friends, to children of friends, and, of course, to Renaissance.

You have to be ruthless when you de-clutter and you have to do it in stages. You might feel attached to a certain piece of clothing or book, but if you haven’t picked it up in the last decade, it needs to go. Jeremy helped with the physical work but the emotional work was ours alone.

I found things I forgot existed under the piles of stuff, including my father’s handwritten mathematical doodlings and published works. I had a good cry while deciding what to do with these gems and other memorabilia. I took them to my daughters and sister and six-year-old niece in California.

I also discovered my mother’s mementos, never having had the time or patience to sort through them after she died. Her signed photos of Paul Anka, alas, had to go to Renaissance. My friend Pinchas treasures the Charlie Chaplin needlework she picked up on her travels to antique shops. Her original needlework and petit point is packed away for my daughters and grandchildren. My mother spent much of her life collecting stuff: she loved antiques, paintings, Toby mugs, jewelry, and clothes, used and new.

What is it that makes us such collectors? I won’t use the ‘H’ word but sometimes it seems we do that too. (Hint: HOA_ _) Watching Ecuador, my second favourite country, in the aftermath of a 7.8 quake, I was in shock at what I saw and heard from people I know there, but glad I had also packed away a suitcase or two to take to Ecuador and give to those who now very much need it. That event and the act of de-cluttering also made me realize how tenuous our existence is, not that I haven’t thought about mortality before. We are all going to die eventually. And we don’t want to burden our children and grandchildren with thousands of pieces of papers, clothes, dishes, and other memorabilia to sort through when we go. They will have better things to do.

Whether you’re moving or not, get some help and de-clutter. Your home will look so much better, as my friends tell me mine does now. And you will feel better in your expanded space.

And a fresh coat of paint doesn’t hurt either.

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