Conversations at the corner cafe – letting go of the past

Letting go of stuff is hard. Decluttering takes longer than you think it will. I am still getting rid of crap after over three years of tackling my house full of stuff I held on to. Why do we hold on to stuff that we no longer need?

This past week I met two women at my local café. Both had grown children who had left their family home over 20 years ago. And both had rooms still full of their kids stuff.

This enrages me, it really does. How dare children use their parents house as a free storage facility? For a short while maybe. When they first leave home, but for twenty years? Really?

The first lady I met told me that she had a pile of programmes from rock concerts her son had attended over the years.  And all his uni books.

She told me that she’d love to make her middle bedroom tidy for when people came to stay. The people who come to stay are her son, his partner and her grandchildren. I could tell that having the room stuffed full of other people’s possessions which are too heavy for her to move made her unhappy.

As she talked to me I could see she was close to tears.

She fought the tears back as she spoke about her late husband. Recently widowed and overwhelmed by having  not been able to sort through her husband’s clothes. I understand this. It takes time, the grieving process. You have to find the right time to start sorting the clothes.

The kids stuff? Why would she hold on to this? Why did she let them do this to her?

In addition to the son using her house as if it was the Big Yellow Self Storage facility, her daughter in law also abused her generosity. The DIL had expressed an interest in a piece of furniture that her mother in law wanted to get rid of. It was still in her house two years later,  as they were not ready for it yet. Two years of not being ready. Dear daughter in law,  you said you wanted it so come and get it.

I asked her why she allowed them to do this to her. She explained that at first it was because hers son had lived on a barge and had no space.

‘He lives in a big house now, has done for over 20 years.’

‘Why is his stuff still in your house?’

‘Because I’m soft.’

As she spoke she looked away, her eyes wet with unshed tears.

Her son was coming to stay the weekend.

‘This is your opportunity to ask him to take his stuff then. If he won’t, let him know that it will be put in the bin.’

‘Oh,  he will tell me not to because the programmes may be worth something.’

‘All the more reason for him to have them then. If he really wants them he will take them.’

She was visibly shocked at that suggestion. The idea of upsetting him disturbed her. I guess we always have to be nice to our kids, even when they hurt us.

‘Start sending them a monthly storage invoice, see what happens.’

She smiled.

‘They will think I am joking. They will laugh and throw it away.’

At this point my incredulity became outrage.

‘They will laugh at you?’

I think she could see how shocked I was at that. Now my kids laugh at me all the time. When I can’t remember the name of the song that we heard on a boat tip back in 2007 they laugh, when I don’t know which remote to use to get Netflix, they laugh. I don’t think they would laugh if I invoiced them for storage for 20 years, I think they would work out I was serious. Like the time I cut the plug off the TV, serious.

‘Do you really wanted to get that middle bedroom clear? Because if you do, you have to take action. The choice is yours.’

‘Oh well,  when I am gone they will have to sort it then won’t they?’

‘Yes they will and let me tell you, it is horrible.’

I told her about my mom and her stuff. How I had promised my children that they will never have to go through what I had to.

Will she do anything about it? I don’t know. She is the one that has to take action. It doesn’t bother her son that his mother has to live with all his crap. It doesn’t bother her daughter in law that the chair she said she wanted is in her mother in law’s way. They would laugh if she sent them a bill. That is how much they respect her.

By this point I was incandescent with rage and she admitted that she had only found out that her son was coming over to stay with her that weekend via her grand-daughter. The grand-daughter who calls her every day to chat. Her son had not thought to let her know. I could see that this had made her cross.

Now maybe he thought it would be a lovely Mothering Sunday surprise for her. The thing is, she was worried that she needed to get extra food and make up a bed for him, his wife and her grandson. In the rooms full of his crap.

He hadn’t thought about that. And as a son he really needed to realise that unexpected house guests, although welcome, create work.

‘Let’s go to Mom’s and surprise her, she can cook her special roast this Sunday. That will be a nice treat for her.’

Meanwhile mom is thinking about the mess they will leave behind.

I hope I am wrong on this one. I hope he has booked somewhere lovely to take her. I do. Because one day she won’t be there for him on Mothering Sunday. One day he will have to sift through her old photos, her clothes and her personal papers. One day he will have to decide what he is going to do with the concert programmes that he treasures so much that he can’t be bothered to move them out of his old bedroom.

She had one consolation, her granddaughter calls her every day. The thoughtfulness skipped a generation perhaps.

A few days later I met the second woman at the café. She too had grown children who also expected her to keep their rooms as they were when they were kids. They were in their 40’s and thought this was OK. It’s not.

She reasoned she had the space and it didn’t worry her as much as it clearly upset the first woman I had spoken to.

‘They can sort it when I am gone, it will be their problem eventually.’

It wasn’t getting in her way or holding her back as it was with the other woman.

She had come to do some clothes shopping and hadn’t been to Bearwood for some time. While I wondered where on earth she could go shopping for clothes in Bearwood, I heard these words.

‘I’m a shopaholic.’

When someone tells me a shopaholic I feel the urge to rescue them. I stopped shopping many years ago. To be accurate, I stopped buying things I didn’t need when I started decluttering.

‘I don’t like shopping.’

I understand this statement can baffle a person who loves to shop.

Here’s the thing, I do like shopping.  I like buying good quality food at a farmer’s market and engaging with the producers. I hate shopping in a big supermarkets where everything is over packaged. I like shopping at Mistral in Winchester where the clothes fit me and where the sales staff remember me from a month ago, asking how the mother in law is, remembering she is in hospital. The same staff that know that I only wear certain colours and find the items for me.

I like shopping in John Lewis where staff know their products and explain the pros and cons of sound systems without patronising me.  Who explain why one is not worth £700 more despite what I have been told elsewhere.  I like buying lovely tech that will simplify my life. Tech that will enable my husband to let go of the vinyl records, the hundreds of CD’s and complicated sound systems that clutter our house. Tech that enables me to click and listen to music I like and not waste an hour looking for one CD.

But I digress. My point is that I don’t get the buying rush that shopaholics get. I don’t have hundreds of clothes in my closet with the price tag still attached. The Bull Ring is not the temple I worship at and I wouldn’t go to Poundland and fill my house with crap because it only costs a pound.

After her first reaction of shock on meeting a woman who doesn’t shop for leisure,  she confessed to having wardrobes of designer clothes that she no longer wears. She listed the labels, Betty Barclay, Jaeger, Austin Reed. She had needed them for her work as she had to be smart when she ran her business.  Some outfits were bought for weddings, and apparently you can only wear those once.  I could hear her justifying every purchase. Thank goodness we didn’t get on to the subject of shoes.

She couldn’t bear to get rid of them because they had were so expensive.

‘Will you ever wear them again?’

‘No, they no longer fit me. Some I have had for over 30 years, they are all too small now.’

We discussed ways of how she could let them go.

‘Could you sell them online?’

‘I wouldn’t know how to.’

Could you ask your children to show you?’

‘They are too busy.’

‘What about donating them?’

Giving to charity shops worried her for two reasons. She believed that the staff and volunteers took all the good clothes. She also was alarmed that the big charities paid their chief executives six figure salaries, so only a small percent went to help those in need.

I explained why I give my unwanted items to Acorns. It is a local charity, helping local families. As it is small charity, so the structure is not as corporately complex as some of the bigger charities are. I know the manager there and she doesn’t skim off the good clothes for herself. None of them do, they can’t run like that.

I could see her thinking this over. She liked the idea of donating to local hospices. It eased her to think that more of what is raised would go directly to help people who were terminally ill.

Perhaps now she has the lies that The Daily Fail implants in its readers brains erased, she will go to her closet and take one item to a charity shop. Perhaps.

Two conversations. Two women with very different lives. Two women with the same issues.

Both holding onto the past.

One allows her son to take her for granted. She lets this happen because she needs to keep his childhood intact and make him happy – her son was clearly her life and this way she still has him. Being recently bereaved, this would be important to her. I get that. Yet she wanted to move on. Not being able to sort the middle room vexed her. This was possibly what was stopping her from sorting through the clothes of her late husband. Tidying away the past to make room for the present.

The lady with her clothes, they were her status symbols. They now only remind her of the person she used to be, the slim sucessful business woman with spending power. They represented her past, not her life now.  A constant reminder of what once was, holding her back.

It clearly worried them both as they were so keen to tell me their stories. Why would they open up to a total stranger they met in cafe? Why tell me things they have possibly not told anyone else?

How can I be so sure of their reasons for not letting go? Because their story is my story.

I had closets full of clothes that were too small for me. Too expensive to give to charity, I told myself. The silk Monsoon dress, the Viyella trouser suit, with price tags still attached. They were too small for me when I bought them but they were on sale at a vastly reduced price. I got them twenty years ago. The velvet jacket I loved that no longer fitted me.  I held onto them all as I would lose the weight, someday. There’s that dangerous word again.

The Moses basket and the cot sheets and blankets had been in the attic for 17 years. Mom had bought the basket when my son was born over 23 years ago. The sheets and blankets were 60 years old, given to me by my mother in law, she had used them for her two sons. How could I possibly part with them?

A room full of stuff my daughter no longer wanted nor needed. Uni books, school reports, old birthday cards. There were some old clothes hanging in her wardrobe including her beautiful frock she bought in Sydney for her leavers ball.  I loved that dress. I really must keep that.

Why is my story different to these two women? Because I don’t have this stuff any more.

And life is better because of it.

I took the  cot blankets to Acorns. My son is grown, he doesn’t need them, I had to let go of the child he once was.

I asked my daughter about her stuff. She reminded me that she’d been telling me for years to get rid of it. It wasn’t her using my house as the free storage facility, it was me that was holding onto this stuff. Holding onto my past, a little bit of the child my daughter used to be.

Her dress and my still labelled clothes went to charity. Let someone else enjoy wearing them.

We don’t need them anymore.