Treasures in the Attic?

My parents have an attic like this with no flooring, no light, and 50 years worth of dust!

Recently my mom asked for help cleaning out her attic. To access the attic, she has to empty her bedroom closet and place a ladder inside to reach the hatch, then climb into the attic, and hand down the storage items to someone waiting below! Link and I did this in June.

Mom had always stored her Christmas decorations up there, but moved them to a more accessible location a few years ago. Everything remaining had been there at least 5 years and as long as 45 years!

There were a few old suitcases packed with papers and a few loose items, but there were at least 20 garbage bags full of clothes, toys and knick-knacks. The stuff was put up there temporarily “until the kids go through it” but then it was neglected. This was because (a.) we kids moved away, (b.) we didn’t really want that stuff in our own homes but it was comforting to know Mom had it, (c.) there were always more fun things to do when we visited, and (d.) it was so difficult to access.

We only have two months of hot weather every year, but it was enough to disintegrate the garbage bags – many of them fell apart into little bits which mingled with the contents of the bags. Items in cardboard boxes fared better. At least there were no pests in the attic insulation!

Some of the clothes and plush animals were torn, worn and stained because they had been kept for sentimental reasons, and weren’t in great condition to begin with. Everything in that category was recycled. There was a surprising amount of clothing that survived well. I gave these items a wash and they looked beautiful! I already have as many sentimental items of clothing as I want (from previous visits) so this lot was donated. I couldn’t be bothered selling it. I am hoping the charity shop will make a bit of money on selected vintage stuff.

I researched the clothing stream in my community. After I throw bags of used clothing in the charity bins, it goes like this: first, it is taken to a central depot, then it is picked for high value items such as new clothes with the tags on, and vintage items in good condition. These items are sometimes sold by the charities on Kijiji or eBay to make more money. “First run” clothes are selected for the charity shops, and “second run” clothes are selected for export (by the ton) to developing countries. Stained T-shirts are set aside and sold by the pound as rags. Finally, all remaining clothes and textiles, such as torn or stained items and odd socks, are shredded for use as insulation. In the past, I had thrown out ripped and stained clothing because I thought the charities only took saleable items. I did know, however, that animal shelters take used towels and blankets.

The glass heart pendant has a mustard seed in it (Gospel of Matthew) and the Sacred Heart picture (for First Friday devotions) is dated 1936

So what did I find? Naked plastic dolls from the 1960s and 70s with their eyes permanently rolled back in their heads. Terrifying! A Barbie case with homemade doll clothes inside. Two baby cribs taken apart and used as supports for placing the suitcases and boxes on. A lot of religious artifacts, once ubiquitous in Catholic homes, but now unfashionable to display. An altar boy surplice (robe) converted into a Grim Reaper Hallowe’en costume. A bunch of men’s hats in different styles, squished beyond recognition. And a sprinkling of Christmas ornaments that had been dropped into the rafters during their annual migrations!

I took some vintage clothes home to inspect and wash. Among them I found a christening gown that looked antique and was in almost perfect condition. When I asked my mom about it, she said, “Oh, that was ours!” – meaning the one she and her siblings had worn in 1936-1940!

This bag, for delivering coins to banks, wasn’t salvageable. I guess I’d better return it to the Mint, as instructed!

I cannot deny there was a lot of crap up there. Have you seen the book or Tumblr Crap at My Parents House? – click the link for a good scare!

I imagine that either the items were in good condition when they were stored or, like most of us, my mom was blinded by sentimentality and couldn’t see the true condition of the stuff. She wasn’t wrong about that, because even the toys and clothes in the worst condition provided a rush of nostalgia.

I was beyond happy that my mom asked me to do this, because she got to tell me about all the items, who owned them and where they came from. I truly feel the pain of people who have to do this after their parents’ deaths and they either keep everything out of guilt, or chuck everything due to the absence of stories.

I fared well with my clear-out because it was confined to one space. Everything was tossed down in an hour and reviewed in a week. If I’d had to clean out the attic, the basement, the garage and the closets, I would have been overwhelmed. I probably would have “shut down” and just recycled everything.

It made me think that if something were to happen to me, Link would have no idea what a “bureau runner” is or what one does with a rosary. I would like to leave behind a curated collection!

When I left home and set up a household for myself, I took along the contents of my bedroom which included all of my mementos from my teen years. I have a good sense of what my childhood was like, based on amalgamated memories and images from family photos. But seeing the real-life artifacts was so powerful. I was left with a profound sense of how much our parents loved us and made a good life for us, and how close a family unit we were.

As much as I enjoyed looking at them, I only kept about half a dozen things. I am pretty sentimental, well into packrat territory, and I have a lot of family keepsakes already. To help me let go, I looked up a few pictures (on the Internet) of toys I used to own, and made a Pinterest board I can look at when I am consumed by retro-mania. I have decided to focus on textiles as things to keep because that’s what Link relates to most, and may want for posterity.

I was going to offer readers some motivation for clearing out their own spaces, their parents’, or their children’s. Instead I have probably inadvertently made a case for keeping everything! However, I’ll give it a try:

Advice for anyone moving out of their parent’s home

Declutter and organize personal belongings you are leaving behind:

  • Identify items you treasure most
  • Take photos
  • Pack and label the items for storage.
  • Agree on a space limit (e.g. one box, one shelf or one closet)
  • Agree on a time limit (e.g. two years or leaving home town or buying first house)
  • Let your parents know when you are ready to release things you don’t want any more
  • If parents save your old stuff that you don’t want, they are responsible!

Advice for parents (I don’t practice what I preach here, but I am making steady progress)

  • Recognize that the things you value from your child’s early years are not the same things they value. You may want to keep baby shoes, karate belts, dance trophies and report cards. They may want to keep video game cartridges, T-shirts, 3D artwork and Pokemon cards.
  • Maintain the right to space in your own home. You have the right to a clean and safe attic, garage and spare bedroom. You have the right to turn a former child’s bedroom into a craft room, office or gym! You have the right to downsize to an apartment without bringing your adult child’s belongings.
  • Your child may have excuses: they live too far away to visit and go through their stuff. They can’t afford to ship it. They will buy a house and have room for it “in a few years.”
  • If your child thinks you are ruthless, offer to take photos, or pay to ship a box of special favourites.
  • If your children say they don’t want anything, accept that you are keeping the stuff for your own reasons, and scale back accordingly.

I actually had a Cinnamon doll, not Crissy, but I thought more of you would recognize Crissy (or Velvet)!

Advice for everybody else

  • Declutter and downsize before you need to.

In a book I read recently called You Could Live a Long Time. Are You Ready? the author noted that if we don’t downsize and declutter by age 70, we are unlikely to do it at all. We will keep putting it off until we have a crisis and are forced to sell the house. And then someone else will have to step in and do it for us.

  • Identify which items have the highest sentimental value to you.

Display or preserve them. Let the right people know what they mean to you so they can make informed decisions later. For example, heirlooms – who owned them? How did they get them? What were they used for?

  • Identify items that you would like to sell, or that you would want family or friends to sell for you.

Let them know. e.g. I have a Crissy doll in perfect condition and I saw one on eBay for $200!

  • Rate the condition of potentially saleable items.

Uh-oh. My Crissy doll is not in mint condition, in its original box. In fact, it was thrown into a plastic bag with a bunch of other toys and left in a hot attic for 45 years. It is smushed, dirty and degraded. Its value? Zero! Instead of keeping the ruined doll for sentimental reasons, enjoy looking at a picture of one online, and say to yourself, “I had one of those!” (True story)

  • Keep in mind your relatives and friends’ interests and tastes.

I noted I will keep textiles for Link, such as hand-embroidered linens and a few items of clothing. Maybe your kid would like a cassette tape, a floppy disc and a CD! Better yet, identify some sentimental items that your kids have their eyes on and will actually display or use, and give them to the kids now!

What is your experience with old treasures or junk – yours, your parents’, or your kids’?

25 comments

  1. It saddens me terribly to know of and see the need out there (poverty, hunger, etc.) and know how many usable items are lying wasted in attics or closests, just because people do not want to part with or are too lazy to throw out stuff they will never use or need again. And please, what I said is by no means a dig at your mom, your post just reminded me once again to declutter so that others may benefit. I work as volunteer for an animal charity and the charity shop provides a huge amount of income for much needed food and medical care for the rescued animals. End of sermon. 🙂

    • I agree, Kris. With my own stuff, I try to donate things I don’t need quickly, so they are still in good condition for the next person. If I hesitate over donating something I rarely use, I ask myself if there are people out there who would want it and could be using it right now? I think there is a tendency to save “good” stuff in the hopes it can be loaned or given to someone we know such as relatives, friends or co-workers. I have given up on that and am now happy to donate to anyone, no strings attached!

  2. Margie in Toronto

    A very timely post that I am going to forward to a friend. She is retiring next Spring and will be selling her too large townhouse a couple of years after that. In the meantime, along with her own stuff she has become a storehouse for her two grown children – both of whom have their own places. She has been very lenient with them but I know that it is starting to cause her more stress.
    In the meantime my own de-cluttering continues. Luckily for me a friend is having a garage sale at the end of this month and has invited me to join in – I cannot believe the amount of stuff that is piled up in my dining room even though I’ve done a lot of de-cluttering over the past couple of years!
    I live in a small apt. but I have a basement storage locker and a lot of things got deposited there when I moved from a much larger space and it has taken me a couple of years to work my way through it all.
    I’ve also spent this weekend moving furniture around and cleaning as I went. I found more things to sell and more things to give away or to just throw out. I’ve already got rid of one piece of furniture and I’ve got another item that will be leaving next week.
    Already things are looking so much better and I’m feeling so much calmer – although I’ll feel even better once the garage sale has taken place and I get my dining room back.
    It’s funny – I had plans to buy this kitchen shelving, and that new bookcase, and perhaps some new living room items – but I managed to reuse pieces that I already owned and saved myself about $600! The only two items still on my “to buy” list are a standing lamp for the living room and a small side table for the bedroom – should be able to get both at IKeA for $150 max!

    • I can’t believe how much calmer I feel when I have decluttered a space. All that “stuff” seems to absorb mental energy! I have heard said that every unneeded item in one’s house represents a deferred decision. And sooner or later, the decision has to be made. It is stressful waiting for each decision to ambush me! I recently found something to place a TV on, without buying a new TV stand, and was inordinately happy.

  3. We looked after my granddaughter recently and I found my daughter’s Sylvanian family house in the loft for her to play with. She loved it. Most of the toys were passed on but I kept this house and some Lego as they were like new.

    • I think Sylvanian families are adorable 🙂 I keep threatening to buy Rom the badgers because he thinks they’re creepy. You can even get badgers with motorcycles! We have the Calico Critters brand here. I substantially reduced my LEGO collection but still have some.

  4. Such an interesting post. I love the blue and white dress, it’s beautiful

  5. NicolaB

    I am pretty unsentimental- other than some stuffed toys and a small wooden chair I am not sure I have anything from my childhood. But then again, my parents have all of our childhood photos from before the days of digital cameras stored at their house! Those I might find harder to throw away- though I think I would get them digitised if they were my responsibility. Though I would keep those from earlier generations, probably because they are much rarer.

    I think my parents were quite firm about us taking all of our junk with us when we moved out, so as far as I know there are no surprises lurking in their loft! They are more inclined to keep things than I am, but they have not held back on repurposing our old bedrooms!

    My boyfriend is more of a keeper of sentimental items- he HATES going through stuff as he thinks he is throwing away good memories. I have yet to find the right way of encouraging him to find a new purpose for things he never looks at and may well have forgotten about.
    His parents are downsizing from their current big house in the next year or so, and that will be a mega decluttering project- I think some his stuff is still there- he has told them he doesn’t need any of it has he has done without it for the past 7 years, but we shall see!

    Kris makes a good point about not keeping things others could use- I am much happier getting rid of things if I know they can be useful/at least not go to landfill!

    Finally- though I don’t need any more stuff, I still love the idea of rummaging through cluttered rooms/attics and finding amazing things- my inner treasure hunter!

    • I will have to digitize my family photos for Link who will never want my 20 or so photo albums! I wonder what future generations will do when they only share their photos on social media and there are no print photos left when the sites pack up? Not my issue, I guess…I wonder if your BF would donate things in good condition if he felt someone else could make real use of them?

  6. Jen

    I love the idea of creating a Pinterest board! Very thoughtful of you to think about what times of mementos might be more appreciated by Link. One person’s teddy bear is another person’s copy of The Hobbit!

  7. Agree 100% with Kris above… I don’t like to keep “stuff” for the sake of “keeping memories”. I don’t tend to keep stuff for sentimental reasons, I probably have 10 items I’ve kept for sentimental reasons. If we’re not actively *using* something, I get rid of it, sell it, give it, donate it, toss it, etc…

  8. Jamie

    There is a charity shop just down the road from us. We drive past it whenever we leave the house. It astounds me how much stuff is donated (especially for a smallish country town with two charity stores and a ‘tip shop’ at the garbage dump). This particular store has a large undercover area at the front where their bins are and they seem quite happy to have people fill the verandah with donations. They have to arrive 30 mins early each day to clear the front of the store and allow them to open. After a long weekend the donations are unbelievable. The best large items are placed on the area between the undercover area and the road. I would say probably half of what is placed in this area is sold within the first day. I wonder how much just cycles back in donations after a period of time.

    They have a huge range of items they accept and sell. I don’t know the rules in other countries, but most charity stores here in Australia won’t take electrical items and many won’t take mattresses. These guys seem to take everything.

    We have a ‘one box’ rule here for sentimental items. It works well, but our garage is still currently out of control. That is a job for this week. I have a lot of old ski gear and furniture that needs moving on. I should have gotten on to selling it about a month ago. I might end up just donating most of it. It can be hard to finish the task when so many of the items linger on here, waiting to sell.

    • We have two charity shops that will take loads of stuff dropped off outside, but also dozens of the bins like the ones in my photo. They are placed in the parking lots of malls, gas stations, etc. in the hope that people will donate more if the bins are conveniently available in their own neighbourhoods. I would guess they’re cleared out about once a week, but stuff usually piles up and is left in the rain. I have one closet full of personal items, Link’s stuff is about two closets worth, and Rom has a whole room!

  9. I love the idea of a Pinterest board for nostalgia items, in fact I had fun starting one last night. It’s amazing how seeing a photo of a toy I haven’t had 25+ years instantly brings back memories.

    I think I’ve finally gotten everything out of my mom’s house, instead of an attic clearing venture we went into the crawl space (ick!). But all I did was transfer stuff from her storage to my attic and I haven’t been able to do more. Much of it, I fear, has deteriorated to the point where it’s not any good to anyone? Taking a photo is helpful for most things, but for the especially sentimental, I have a much more visceral reaction to the item itself. But I need to do more of a clear out of this stuff. And the boyfriend, he’s really bad about getting rid of almost anything, although he is better about getting rid of clothes he doesn’t wear these days.

    • Aargh, crawl spaces are the worst! Yeah, a lot of stuff in my parents’ attic was seriously deteriorated. I do have loads of sentimental items I brought with me when I left home, or picked up on subsequent trips! And I like being able to see and handle them. Your BF sounds like Rom – he has improved a bit with clothes, but he still amasses so much stuff!

  10. I love the bed jacket! The idea of something being for such a specific purpose. Of course people used to spend longer recuperating in bed. When my mother had me she spent two weeks in hospital and wasn’t allowed out of bed for ages. Now they get you up straight away.

    I hope my mother doesn’t read this. I have stuff stored at her place. Mainly photo albums and school books. I tell her it is safe with her.

    I do encourage Mr S to pass on things we no longer use. But he is a hoarder. I gave a dog bed to a neighbour who got a new dog. We haven’t had a dog for over 12 years. And I gave he blanket made by Mr S’s mother for the bed. When my neighbour sent a photo of her dog all cozy, Mr S was a little unsettled. But better being used than rotting under our house until it was unusable.

    I have culled each of my sons’ school mementos into one box each. They will probably live with me for years!! I have much more decluttering to go but I refuse to move things to the garage or under the house. Both favourite places of Mr S hiding/storing things.

    • One box each is an amazing achievement! I used to think that the 10×10-foot cube of personal belongings that Rom brought to Canada was roughly equal to my personal effects. Now I don’t think so. I believe a lot of my personal things are actually household things (sewing basket, table cloths, printer paper). Occasionally I toss around the idea of downsizing in 15 years or so, and Rom is already bristling at the idea of decluttering his stuff. The dog bed, though – haha!

  11. Excellent post as always. The sense of freedom when no items call out to be dealt with (and they do call, wether it is real or mental) is fantastic. And yes, please allow your children to throw their old stuff in peace without adding to the sentimental burden – and without offloading your sentimental and worthless stuff on them with conditions that it not only must be kept but also cherished. It is important to be careful with gifts.

    • I agree that all gifts should be given with no strings attached, and no one should be weighed down with unwanted heirlooms. I think the best way for that to happen is for kids to be honest with their parents and risk hurting their feelings (no, I don’t want the spoon collection and the beer mugs). And, as you say, for the parents not to swoop in and save stuff (oh, you have to keep Elphie the Elephant, it was your first toy!) I think when all of those burdensome items are out of sight, out of mind, and eventually out the door, we are happier. Of course there are a good number of heirlooms and gifts I truly want and love.

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