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A blender from the 1960s, a restored 1936 piano. What I learned from clearing out my childhood home

NEW YORK — It’s been eight months since I last closed the door of my childhood home in suburban New Jersey and said goodbye to more than half a century of memories.

Sometimes I still have trouble letting it go.

Mom passed away in February 2023 after a short battle with cancer. My sister and I didn’t want to sell the family home right away, but we quickly realized that we couldn’t maintain it in the fastidious way my mother had done since she and my father bought it in 1962. But more importantly: without mother, our house would have become just a house.

Losing my mother, my best friend, was hard enough. The dismantling of my childhood home only deepened her loss – and made me reflect on my own legacy. My mother’s home had been the center of gatherings for relatives and friends who enjoyed her Italian cuisine of manicottis, chicken cutlets and pastries and then gathered around her restored 1936 baby grand piano, singing show tunes – sometimes off key.

So how do you declutter a family home to prepare for sale, while honoring Mom’s passion for all things culture and love of family?

My parents weren’t hoarders, and every year they forced my sister and me to clear more stuff from the attic. But Mom still had many memories, most of them neatly stored in the attic. They ran the gamut from her study notebooks to outfits from our childhood. There were hundreds of record albums and 80 labeled carousel boxes filled with 5,000 slides.

Over the years, Mom had repeatedly warned us not to throw things away or simply give everything away after her death. It’s NOT stuff, she would say. She wanted us to treat her home with respect.

After my mother died, my sister and I quickly made a plan to honor her wishes, figuring out which items to keep, which to give to family and friends, which to donate—and which to simply get rid of. to throw.

In my early stages of grief, everything was a memento, including my late father’s thick technical books and all the scribbled handwritten notes my mother left around the house. I’ve gone through everything. But I quickly realized that I needed to focus on preserving her most beloved possessions while providing a home for other items that reflected her spirit. I live in an apartment in Manhattan, so I had to declutter.

Mother loved her home. After Dad passed away in 2002, she decided to hold on to the house that had become a repository of little treasures she had collected over the years, or from her own childhood. There were works of art from our time living abroad in Italy and the Netherlands, and our childhood bedroom – still in pristine condition. There were many books. And her kitchen was filled with a mix of high-end cookware and old items that were decades old: an 80-year-old flour sifter from her mother-in-law’s kitchen, a working blender from the 1960s and an old food scale from the 1940s. .

My mother wanted us to have an estate sale for some items we didn’t want, but an estate representative came to our house and told us what we already knew: younger generations don’t like “brown furniture,” like wooden china cabinets. and old stuff.

This is how we learned to be creative.

My parents’ dining room set went to our friend’s family in Georgia. The new owners of Mom’s house wanted some stuff. My sister and I took a lot of furniture, rugs and kitchen utensils with us. We thought we could make space by giving away things from our homes that didn’t mean much.

We also did some redecoration. My sister took the old wooden sleds and remodeled them as holiday decorations. I have plans to convert the wooden high chair where I kept my childhood dolls into a plant stand.

The most challenging and emotional task: figuring out what to do with the piano I’ve been playing since I was seven. Playing the piano was a tradition my mother passed down from her family.

Some charities were only interested in pianos less than twenty years old. I panicked. It broke my heart to give it up, but I already had a piano that I inherited from my uncle.

Then a stroke of luck. My mother’s piano tuner, who came to the house to appraise it for donation, expressed interest in purchasing it and then reselling it to a musician. I think Mom orchestrated that deal from heaven. Still, it was a gut punch to see that piano roll out of the house.

It’s now been a year since my mother passed away and I have successfully unloaded 75 boxes of her things into my apartment. In the meantime, I got rid of a lot of my own stuff that I didn’t care about. I gave away my couch so I could get it from my mother. I traded some of my art for my mother’s. My sister came from Boston to help me redecorate my apartment and make room for some of my mother’s belongings. And I’ve successfully organized and edited thousands of slides.

My kitchen? It now holds my mother’s things, including the old blender and strainer, along with my own accessories.

Cleaning out my mother’s house allowed me to fully appreciate her passion for a life of family, art, books, and travel. She taught us the value of buying and maintaining quality things – and preserving family history.

When I walk through my apartment, where my parents’ and my own belongings now reside, I often get teary-eyed. I have no children, so after my death will others take the time to carefully sort through my belongings, as I did with my mother? Or do they just throw them away?

I try not to think about it. Instead, I play a Broadway tune on my piano and then go to my kitchen to prepare another Italian meal—manicottis—for some friends. I get out the old blender to make tomato sauce. I’m comforted by the hum of the machine, knowing Mom would be proud.