From too much to just enough: Discarding the most sentimental items

As one family aims to trim their belongings, they find giving away items with sentimental value is the biggest stumbling block to reaching minimalism.

Frederick Deknatal
Artist and collector Amgad Naguib's garage-storage space in Downtown Cairo show a variety of historical objects.

You know the thing. That thing you have hanging in your closet, hiding in your drawer, or taking up space in your cabinet. Maybe it’s a gift from someone close or an inherited treasure, to mark some special occasion. Or it seems to hold a reminder of a loved one. Though it is not your style or is otherwise useless to you, it remains in the house because of sentimental attachment. You wish it was easier to let go, but it’s not.

Sentimental objects. On the path to minimalism so far, this has been our biggest stumbling block for my family. And the blocks are everywhere.

I can see that this is going to be a big challenge as we downsize and declutter. Baby gifts, stuff we inherited from our parents and grandparents, memorabilia unsorted since high school. By my estimation, sentimental objects take up about 35-40 percent of the stuff in this house.

Now that we’re moving to a house less than half the size of the 3,500-square-foot monstrosity we’ve been renting for the past three years, I’m revisiting this idea often. I found it easy to let go of those seven muffin tins from my kitchen de-clutter, the pile of magazines in my office. Harder to come by are practical methods for letting go of the things that tug on my heartstrings.

This stuff is the hardest stuff because we have imbued these objects with feeling – they hold an energy for us that goes beyond the ordinary items that we are bagging up for resale and donation. I truly have no idea where to begin when it comes to how to tackle this issue, so I try to gain some clarity through research. Apparently, this is a hot-button issue because almost all of my most oft-visited websites on living with less all cover this.

Courtney Carver, on her blog Be More With Less tackles this with an interesting perspective. She writes, “ an effort to hold on tight I thought, “it’s not hurting anything or anyone to keep this stuff” and then I remembered that I want my standard to be more in line with “how is this helping?” instead of “how is this not hurting?”

She’s right. It’s not enough that something be benign – it should be of benefit in order to earn its place in our home. My late mother’s collection of antique bottles, currently sitting on my office bookshelves aren’t doing anything but taking up space, but in three years since I’ve unpacked that box, I haven’t yet found a use for them.

However, letting them go feels like I’m letting go of a piece of my mom. Even twenty years after she’s passed, I still don’t want to release anything that feels like part of her (even if, of course, it really isn’t).

I knew I needed someone who could talk specifically about what to do with items inherited from a beloved parent who has passed. I found excellent insight from writer Joshua Fields Millburn (he’s one half of the great blog The Minimalists, co-written with Ryan Nicodemus). In a thorough and thoughtful post about his mother’s death and his subsequent experience with her belongings, Mr. Millburn wrote this: “An item that is sentimental for us can be useful for someone else.” This seems like such an obvious thought. Even a person like Millburn who is dedicated to a minimalist lifestyle struggled with this emotionally charged experience when his own mother died. He initially rented a U-Haul to take all of his late mother’s belongings halfway across the country to put into storage. Ultimately, he chose to cancel the truck and storage unit and donate everything instead.

I either need to put those antique bottles (along with the many, many other boxes of objects I will never use again) to use in my new zero waste / plastic-free / minimalist lifestyle, or I need to find someone who will appreciate them more than I do. Giving any object that has meaning away is giving that item a chance at a second life where it will be appreciated and valued.

I wasn’t considering minimalism at all last year when I sold my parents’ wedding china at a yard sale. We just had SO. MUCH. STUFF. We were just trying to clear a surface to deal with other things. My siblings and I agreed that none of us wanted the china and so we sold it to a local newlywed couple for their summer cottage. The idea for me now that it’s stacked carefully and used with regularity for lobster bakes and family breakfasts brings infinitely more satisfaction and joy than it did when everything was wrapped up carefully in a box.

It’s a potent reminder that each item that to us might only be of emotional value could actually help another person who needs it or will enjoy it more than we did.

As I peek into the abyss that is our family Holiday trunk, my box of high school and college stuff, my mother’s craft and sewing boxes – it strikes me that I am still missing something. How do I divest myself of things that I don’t need or want but still honor the history and the legacy they carry? Both writers mentioned above made it clear in their writing that we have to remember to separate the item from the emotion and that the emotion and memory exist for us (probably for us only) without the existence of the item.

The trickiest item for me is my mother’s vintage Singer sewing machine. I’m pretty sure that it’s been around so long that now it’s retro-cool again, but I have no clue how to operate it. I can sew neither a button by hand or nor a straight machine line, even if I tried. Should I get rid of it, or should I learn how to use it? We are entering this new phase of our life where sewing would be an excellent and helpful skill for me to transform, repair, and create things from raw materials. My mother used this sturdy, classic machine to make everything from curtains to Halloween costumes. But a close handful of people I know can sew very well. I wonder if it’s just better to throw a little money their way (probably less than I’d spend buying supplies or the time it would take me to figure out how to use the machine) and let them help me with whatever projects might arise.

I remembered something I recently read in the New York Times. Author Penelope Green’s article, “Kiss Your Socks Goodbye” details organizational advice given by expert Marie Kondo. Her ideas give the sentimentally weak a nice way to pay homage to the items before letting them go. She suggests holding each item to decide whether or not to keep it, feel its energy and see if it, as she says, “sparks joy.” This tactic, for Kondo is universal – she applies it to all items in question, not just objects that might hold sentimental value.

So, those antique bottles, that sewing machine, the dessert plates. Do they spark joy in me and my family? I’m not sure yet but as we work through the piles, I now have better questions to ask myself.

Combining the advice of seasoned minimalists and organizing experts, our methodology will be an amalgamation of thoughtful awareness towards what we will let go, where it will find a new life and with whom. Whatever I decide to do, I have to know that my loved ones would prefer for the objects to be appreciated rather than clung to by me. And doubtless, they would want me to feel free, at ease, and peaceful in my life – experiencing my life rather than curating my stuff.

I just threw away my old yearbooks and I will probably burn most of my old school stuff in our New Year’s bonfire. I did have a pang of regret for my own children not knowing a part of me through my adolescent collections. But they’re not here to find their identity through me. They will have their own school photographs, their own love letters, their own memories to make.

This is exactly the kind of legacy we are trying to leave for our children, after all. I don’t want to leave them more detritus to sort through now, or ever. We are trying to open our life to more peace and freedom by liberating ourselves from our belongings. By allowing all of what is materially unnecessary to leave our lives, we have a new opportunity to refocus our life on what’s really important to all of us for whatever time we have here: each other.

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