Giving Away Stuff: Things Come and Go, but Memories Last Forever

I knew this day would come. It’s been nearly a month since my grandfather passed away, and we have started the slow and painful process of going through his things. For most of his life, he was a bit of a packrat, but fortunately began to try to cull his possessions a couple years ago.

Recent events have set me back on my mission to reduce the number of things I own. I had planned to start going through my things and finding 20-25 items to give/throw away per month. I have discovered the task is much harder than I thought, particularly now that so many things have sentimental value.

Skipping Rocks by Egan Snow on Flickr

Just Because You Get Rid of Something, You Don’t Lose the Memories

I wish I could properly attribute this idea, but I honestly don’t remember who told me this, or where I heard it. However, it is too profound not to share. When faced with the decision to keep something of sentimental value, but lacking practical value, it is important to remember that while you can give away things, you can also keep the memory of why you found that item sentimental.

For instance, I found a small box of rocks I had collected as a child during the many walks I took with my grandfather. Unbenownst to me, my grandfather saved those rocks for over thirty years, probably because they conjured up memories of us spending time together.

It is just one of the emotional discoveries I’ve found in the last few weeks, and I initially set it aside in a “Keep” pile. After reflecting on our good times, however, I came to the conclusion that those rocks really had no value. They were simply reminders.

I didn’t need the rocks to remember all those trips to the mountains to hike trails. I didn’t need them to remember the time we camped along a mountain stream and collected the smoothest rocks we could find – worn down by centuries of erosion from the icy currents.

Hanging onto that box would mean I’d have to find a place to store it, or display it. It would add to the number of “things” I have to worry about finding a home for. I decided it wasn’t worth it.

I moved the box to the “Toss” pile, but then decided I would give these rocks a more proper send off. One of the reasons I collected rocks as a kid was because I loved to skip them along the many mountain creeks and lakes we camped around.

So this weekend, I think I’ll take the kids to a local lake and we’ll skip these rocks across a new body of water. The rocks will eventually sink to the bottom, under many feet of water in cold darkness. But we will have created new memories that will stay on the surface. These memories will live on and be reflected upon warmly by both me and my children for many years to come.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. I love your approach to dealing with this sentimental item. Honor it by using it to make more memories. Awesome.

  2. What a wonderful post! I’m a bit of a packrat so I can relate. My husband and I are trying to simplify things so we can move out of our 1400 square foot home into an apartment. That way we can save almost $800 a month and save up until we have a good downpayment for our second and hopefully last home. I signed up for my local freecycle group so somebody will be able to use some of the stuff. Did I mention I hate to throw stuff away? :)

  3. My wife and I have this discussion from time to time. I disagree with you to a point. Memories do last but only if you have something to trigger them in some cases. In a lot of cases the items that I have kept over the years are the only key that can unlock old memories that I don’t want to lose. I don’t think about them often but I want to keep the item that triggers the memory for me down the road. I’m not a huge packrat or hoarder but I do have a few medium sized rubbermade tubs with items that I would not want to part with.

    • @Shane: For every item I get rid of, there’s another I find myself wanting to keep. I wonder if a good compromise would be to take a picture of the item and just save the picture. Recognizing of course that a photo has much less tangible qualities (can’t touch and feel the item, like those rocks). But it could offer a memory aid without taking up too much room.

      • Absolutely! My wife and I have been working on getting rid of the unnecessary extras in our house and garage and have managed to get rid of many things that have great sentimental value to us by taking pictures. It’s so much easier to store photos than it is to store ‘stuff.’

        Keep up the good work!

  4. I’ve been coming to realize these same things… For me, I’ve come up with something that makes letting go a little easier. I take a picture of the sentimental item first– then I feel I can let it go, knowing that I will never forget the item or the memories it triggers.

    I love the idea of creating new memories with the item first. I think your grandfather would smile to know that he saved these rocks for so many years so that his great grandkids could find joy in them as well.

  5. This was a great post. I almost cried at the end! I have the same problem. My dad was in the military from the time I was 2 until I was 18. I have all these great things he bought me in different places around the world, including a huge coin/money collection. All of it is in boxes, even some at his house still. I don’t have room to display it at all. A lot of the items represent memories of me seeing him when I hadn’t seen him for what seemed like an eternity; I don’t know if I can part with them. He’s been home for 11 years now and I now work with him on a daily basis and spend tons of time with him but those items are from a time when I didn’t see him for months at a time.

  6. My fiance forwarded me your article. In the last 3 years I have lost both my parents to cancer and am now in the process of emptying out a VERY full house that they lived in for 45 + years. While I love stumbling upon items that evoke strong memories and struggle whether to keep, sell or donate — I realized that if I took everything that was meaningful, there would be no room in my new home with my husband for our own new memories. The “lesson” I got that affirmed my decision — we were hosting a yard sale — and a box of paperweights — beautiful glass ones — were part of it — unbeknownst to me at the time. As a lady came up to purchase one — a memory was triggered and I struggled with whether I could let it go. But I knew — the memory was safe in my mind and the lady was a collector of unusual paperweights and was so excited to see one that was vertical — she’d never seen one. She couldn’t wait to get it home to see how the sunlight would hit it. It meant more to her in a new way — than ever would be appreciated by me — collecting dust and only serving as a reminder when I occasionally looked at it on a shelf. It was going to a better home — and I still had my memory. Lesson learned! And as these memories are evoked — I journal about them or tell my fiance — so it is not lost, but shared — even though I’ve given the item away.

    • @Annie: Thank you for sharing a comment, and thanks to your fiance for being a Frugal Dad reader!

      I’m sorry to learn of your parents’ passing. So tough to lose loved ones in a relatively short span.

      My grandparents lived in their home for nearly 35 years, and accumulated quite a bit of stuff. Fortunately, after my grandmother passed away, we convinced my grandfather to move with us about six years ago. That was round one of reducing unnecessary things, but it’s going to take a few more rounds to identify only the irreplaceble items that we want to keep.

  7. I like this post a lot. However, if it were my box of rocks, I would repurpose them in a garden. My son and I have a similar ritual when we go for a walk just the two of us. Except, we deposit the new rock in our existing garden where we have rocks instead of mulch. The rocks we collect are distinct from the uniform ones already in place.

    • ITA w/Mike’s rock idea! My family collects *lucky stones*–rocks w/a hole all the way through–on our camping trips. We have a special place in our landscaping where we deposit them after the trip. The kids like to say we have a lucky yard.

      You could also pick out just one or 2 to keep and skip the rest w/your kids.

    • I like Mike’s idea of keeping a few with Kelly’s suggestion to use some of them as skipping stones with your kids. Looks like you can have your cake and eat it too :-) My mom has a small landscaped area in her yard where she’s placed bricks from homes she lived in as a child and significant rocks from over the years among some of her favorite flowers. It doesn’t look ghoulish or cemetery like, but it’s very significant to her. My husband and I actually saved sections of brick from beautiful apartment buildings that housed our first apartment and the first apartment of our best friends after the buildings were torn down. Once we figure out the safest way to hang them on the wall, they’ll be used as shelves for some of our pictures. My father died of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease in his early 60s, and he very much needed a tangible reminder of memories in the later years. When you take pictures of memorabilia that you are decluttering, make sure to write down the memory that goes with the object.

  8. I’m a tosser and my husband is a keeper, so we have many discussions about the value of saving things versus throwing/giving away. However, I respectfully disagree with you about your small box of rocks. What a unique reminder of your grandfather and the things you did together. Those rocks are not like a plastic junky toy you got at the carnival or something that you’re holding onto. Though I’m not a big fan of collecting for collecting’s sake, a SMALL box of one of a kind items that each jog a specific memory (especially something from nature) is something that I consider worth keeping.

  9. I just watched my in laws get rid of everything. They currently live in a small RV and all they have left in storage (which is at our house) is 2-3 tubs.
    My father in law would say, “we still have great memories of Aunt Bernie, even though we don’t have her stuff.”
    I struggle with keeping things that I put in a box and get into once every 3 years. Why am I keeping that? Although it is a memory, I am fine without it every single day.
    I will admit I do have my grandmas view master. It’s very old and I remember using it a ton as a child. When my grandparents died family was going in and grabbing tons of stuff. My mom kept asking “are you sure you don’t want anything else?” That was all I needed, and I don’t even know where it is right now, how sad is that?

  10. After losing my Grandfather and brother last year we had 2 whole houses to go through. My grandfather had so much stuff, most with no meaning, but a few things I wanted to keep. Also with my brother at first we wanted to keep everything. But eventually (it took over a year) we got both houses cleaned out. My brothers is sold (we had to do a short sale.) My grandfathers will be put on market soon (the proceds will cover my grandmother’s nursing home.)

    I ended up keeping a few of my brothers shirts. Just so I can tangiable hold something that he wore. My grandfather I kept some coins and knives (which my boys use.)

    • I saved a few of my dad’s shirts as well. They are part of a quilt I am putting together for my grandson.
      I also saved a few small paintings my dad had. On the back is his obit. from the paper.
      Personally, I LOVE the skipping stones idea of skipping them with your children. What a great idea of extending a wonderful time with your grandfather.

  11. While going through my mother’s personal things after her death, I came a across the box of rocks my dad had collected when traveling. Dad had died 17 years earlier. It was amazing the amount of emotion that was linked to a box of rocks and the memories of a loved one. More tears were shed over those rocks than anything else discovered that day.

  12. Thank you for your post. I have found that there have been so many times that I’ve had trouble letting go of stuff because of the memories.

    I now take photos of important items and put them in a scrapbook. I like to journal about the photo… that way, when I look back, I can reflect on my feelings about the item – the connections it had for me.

    I was very close to both of my grandparents, and I found that putting together a scrapbook filled with photos and journaling the lessons I learned from them was very therapeutic.

    As for the rocks… I love the idea of throwing them into a lake.. but I also like the idea of turning them into something, too. Adding them to garden, placing them in an aquarium, or having an artist paint something on them would all be interesting ways of repurposing a memory.

  13. When my grandmother died, my family members focused on her things that she had but never used.

    I was more interested in the plant that she grew and took care of every day! So I asked for that and tried to care for it like she did. Luckily for me, it was just a snake plant, so the upkeep was minimal…

    For the rocks, I think I would do the same as you. But it was touching that your grandfather keep the stones for all of these years..

  14. What a touching post.That is some great writing.

    One of my friends was saying the one thing he regretted was not taking video of his parents before they died. He said the thing he misses most is the sound of they’re voice. It wasn’t stuff at all.

  15. I’ve spent the last several years trying to downsize and get rid of stuff so that my children won’t have to go through all that I did when my mother died. I finally discovered if it’s something that I’ll never use, take a picture of it and pass it on. That way I still have visuals to spark pleasant memories. I’m also trying something new. The last couple months I’ve been getting rid of at least one thing every day. The sad thing is I can look around and not miss a thing. If I had not been keeping a list, I wouldn’t even know I declutter as many things as I have. And it’s so much easier to let go of one thing at a time.

  16. This is beautiful and so true.
    I have a hard time with objects of sentimental value. I feel bad giving or throwing it away. What I do is think about how that item may help someone else. If I kept the item, it would probably just collect dust. Fortunately for me, my daughter runs tons of clubs in her school. She is always collecting stuff for fundraisers like penny socials and tricky trays. This is another great way to donate things that are just taking up space…

  17. Awesome post. I, too, keep too many items for sentimental reasons. I will find a way to properly “toss” these items and, in doing so, create new memories.

  18. We now have my 93 year old mother living with us. She has short-term memory loss. In my situation I have a very different perspective on the tossing out of keepsakes. You might live long enough that you won’t have those memories that your article assumes. Your days might become very foggy and your reality might be in layers that become confused. Having letters, photos or a notebook of recollections could be very uplifting on those days when it seems that your mind just won’t behave.

  19. Beautiful and touching article. We moved after living in a house for 22 years. I quit my job to get the house ready to sell. I “touched” everything in that house, and took photos of items that I did get rid of. It really isn’t as easy as one might think to get rid of items. I have all, yes all , of my daughters ballet slippers. I just couldn’t get rid of a single pair….They are in a box in our new home, maybe someday.

  20. Two of the earlier comments suggested exactly what I was thinking, so I’d like to second those ideas~ For unique sentimental items, keep 1 or 2 to represent the group (as in the glass paperweight collection) and take photos of the rest. Sometimes seeing an object does trigger memories that you’ve forgotten, and the photos will help…

    For the rocks, I would absolutely make a rock garden, or just a nice pile in your current garden. We’re all fascinated with rocks and pick them up when we travel. We have several groups of rocks in our gardens, front & back. A great way to keep the memories & enjoy the rocks at the same time!

  21. I get it. I do. Everyone is trying to clean up their lives, to clear out the excess. I do realize that I have a lot of stuff that I should get rid of. But frankly, if I hear one more person say the item doesn’t hold the memory, you do….I will scream. Yes, I understand that. You didn’t need those rocks to remember all those good times at the lake, but I bet when you saw those rocks, felt them, the memory came back very strong. Perhaps you hadn’t thought of it in a while, the rocks served as a reminder. Often I will be going through stuff and come across something. I’ll sit back and smile as a memory comes back to me, jogged by the sight of the item. Something I may not have thought of in years. Sure the memory is located in my brain, but most people don’t just sit there and try to access these memories. Unless they are jogged and enjoyed, they will be lost. I would have kept at least one of those rocks, given it a place on honour on a shelf. Then anytime you passed and it caught your eye, you could have had a momentary connection with your grandfather. Sometimes it takes a visual to access these precious memories. I will clear out stuff, I promise, but I will also hang on to many many things, for the sheer joy of the memory jog when I see them.

    • @Christine: Valid points, all. Actually, I’ve reconsidered based on a few ideas from readers shared here in the comments. We are expanding our square foot garden this spring and I plan to use the rocks (at least a few of them) around the garden. This way they will continue to be functional/decorative, out of the house, but still serving as that memory jog you refer to. Seems like a win-win.

    • I do agree that seeing some things trigger memories that we’d have otherwise forgotten. And there’s definitely value in that! My weakness is sentimental items that remind me of my sons’ childhood.

      But the fact remains that I can’t keep everything. Totally tying myself to memories of the past will hamper living in the present & anticipating the future.

      It’s essential to find a balance between keeping the things that are meaningful to you and make you happy and trying to cling to every last item that holds a memory. I’m still working on it…

  22. Great post. I highly recommend a book, Clutter’s Last Stand, which deals with reducing the clutter in one’s life. This book would make a great partial wedding present. When my parents moved out of their house, there was all kinds of stuff to sort through in a short time–not a pleasant experience. This reminds me of Joshua, who set up visual reminders of God’s faithfulness in the past that would spark curious questions from the younger generations.

  23. A number of uncluttering sties talk about taking a pix of items and keeping them. Works for some things (Kids pix), but not for others. Some things require touching, handling, reading, etc.

    As hard as it is to be selective, for most of us sentimental types, it’s wise to keep a few things. (Maybe not your rocks, and what a great idea about how to “recycle” them!) Touchstones as it were.

    I’ve been thru total decluttering with some families where they lived to sadly regret the tossing of everything (it was easier than going thru it). And these weren’t even sentimental folks or folks who had good memories of the person! Some of the “stuff” has to do with one’s personal milestones and identity. Things that matter as you age.

    When a much older friend passed several years ago (she was my great grandmother equivalent) at 101, her family let those who knew her pick from a few items. We shared meals together and I chose two plates that we had used. I use them every day and think of her each time. (Some people pick special items that get used only a few times a year. If you’ve got the space, I guess that works.) They have no value other than sentiment.

    Where it really gets tricky for families is when there are multiple people who want things and you have stuff of value, both fiscal and sentimental.

    It makes you love how some friends and relatives have items “tagged” before they pass so that it’s known who gets what. One way of dealing with stuff (and put it in the will!).

    As time passes, and we ourselves age, our perspective on what we keep or don’t will change. You’d be surprised. The good/bad news is that most of us (with no space) must choose.

    I disagree with those who justify tossing things by saying we should not live in the past. The past IS part of the now. Memories don’t have to dominate the present, but there’s no reason to not spend some time with them on occasion. For many people, there is both consolation and strength to be had from those memories. THEY are often the reason people can continue and sometimes the visceral presence of an item is exactly what is needed to move forward to the now and the future.

  24. Great article. For the past two years I have been “decluttering and downsizing” our possessions. Amazing how much stuff one can hang
    on to. The pivotal moment was looking at my parents home, stuff everywhere and they are 84 years old. When I asked my mom if she would like to reduce any of her stuff she said “no, I like to look at it” and we we die call “1-800-got-junk”.

    I don’t want to leave that kind of a nightmare to my kids so I continue simplifying our possesions and our lives.

  25. Thank you so much for posting this. I’m in the process of decluttering my bedroom and garage. I am like other people where I need a trigger to remember. My memory just isn’t great without a reminder. I figure this is why I’ve become such a packrat, because I’m afraid of losing my memories. I think what I’ll be doing is taking pics of items that are sentimental to me, and then motivate myself to scrapbook and journal about them. Otherwise if I just have pics, I may not remember the significance if I were to ever lose my memories due to old age or illness. I also agree with previous posters about using the rocks in the garden. My mom and I used to always hike and pick up rocks along the beach. Not little ones unfortunately. These rocks are like the huge, almost can’t carry, rocks. She used a majority of them lining her corner garden and the smaller prettier ones are in a basket in the living room as decoration.

  26. Awesome, awesome post! It really touched me.

    My father-in-law died recently and the family is attempting to sell his collections. That was the “inheritance” that he left. Forty years of stuff; most of which has little to no value today, or is only of interest to a relatively small circle of collectors. My husband and I have no interest in spending hours posting on eBay or driving around the country to conventions, so we have chosen to not receive any inheritance from his stuff. My FIL honestly thought he was leaving a better inheritance than my MIL, who travels a lot and has tons of photos and stories, but I beg to differ.

  27. Really touching post, Frugal Dad! I can very much appreciate a sentimental view of things, as I have that myself. Of course, I also think there’s only so much one can keep, and the way you’re handling those rocks is both practical and meaningful at the same time.

    This is my favorite post of the week!

  28. What a beautiful post and a wonderful way to honor the memories. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing it with us!

  29. Another thing you could do with them, if your grandpa is buried in a cemetery, is give them back to him, one at a time, at his site. The Jewish tradition of leaving a pebble or stone on top of a tombstone signifies that someone has honored the deceased person’s memory with a visit to the grave – if you visit him, leave a stone. At some point they will fall to earth and become part of his new mansion. I do this whenever I visit my husband, I’m Catholic and he was Armenian Orthodox, but I think it’s a touching and loving idea that transcends specific religious boundaries.

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