In my 30s, just as I began acquiring (kids, house, furniture for said house, etc.), I noticed that my parents suddenly stopped acquiring and began divesting. It seemed like an abrupt shift, as if a switch had been thrown. Almost 40 years later I now find myself doing the same.
At that time, my parents were moving out of their capacious, midcentury ranch-style home in Massachusetts where they had raised kids and added on rooms and renovated and landscaped several times. They needed to get rid of things to make the move to more compact digs in a sunnier clime. I was focused on getting my kids into the best school system, updating our ancient kitchen, purchasing some dining room furniture — doing what we could with our modest financial resources. What we couldn’t afford I merely lusted after. We renovated each room of our drafty Victorian manse, bit by bit, spending all our spare time poring over wallpaper choices, paint chips, upgrading windows and window treatments, shopping at garage sales for toys and bikes and household appliances in decent shape.
I think the desire to expand and acquire changes with age — driven in part by the need to downsize, but also as part of a reckoning with mortality. One begins to accept the truism: You can’t take it with you, so you might as well pass it on.
My husband and I moved from New Jersey to the Washington region eight years ago not knowing what our new residence would look like, how spacious, what style house. Would there be storage, a garage, a basement, an attic, closets? Would the living area accommodate our furniture? Both my husband and I had offices in our house in New Jersey, large offices. Would that be possible in D.C.?
We spent at least nine months sorting through the accumulation of 30 years of living, raising children and acquiring. We tossed, we shredded, we sold, we donated, we hosted garage sales. I donated maybe a thousand books to the library and to a charitable organization that raised gobs of money for college scholarships by selling used books. We gave away or sold garden tools. We tossed dozens and dozens of tape cassettes and eight-track tapes. We tried foisting our possessions on our now-adult children who were even more resistant than we had been in accepting my parents’ castoffs.
Our outdated computers went to recycling centers. These early Hewlett-Packard computers had been learning machines for our children as they grew. Very quickly, though, the children had become our tutors. The oldest machine, practically an original, was now a collector’s item. That one we kept. Electrical tools, electronic devices, old calculators were part of the collectibles of my engineer husband. There were crib accessories, toys, Legos that had to be sorted through. Heavy luggage that was a wedding present, and the luggage that my husband had brought with him when immigrating to the United States from Israel in his 20s. All of that went. There was a record of our family’s history contained in all that was left.
It was painful, all this divesting. Painful and interesting. I spent hours shredding canceled checks and old income tax forms. Remember canceled checks? Turns out old checks are a peep hole into personal history and family economics. This is what my therapist used to charge. This is how we somehow made it through seven long years of college costs. This is what property taxes were when we bought our house. Ah, the name of that roofer that we could never remember.
For me, the most painful of all the divesting was getting rid of almost two full file cabinets worth of files that I had accumulated throughout my professional and academic life. The contents of these battered garage-sale-quality metal cabinets contained my identity as a professional psychotherapist, teacher and writer. There was both accomplishment and aspiration contained within.
Here were courses that I had taken as a graduate student. Here were courses that I had taught. Here were journal articles that I had admired and from which I’d learned. Here were journal articles that I had written. Ideas for books that I had not written, projects never finished (but maybe someday), ideas never quite realized, all here. These file cabinets affirmed my professional identity. But they had to go.
I went from 2½ file cabinets to a couple of drawers. Getting rid of books hurt. Winnowing my files was devastating. Somehow both the books and the files defined me. When we finally landed in the D.C. area in 2010 and we unpacked and I set up my office, I literally howled in pain at how little remained.
These divestments were not related to age but to relocation, but now I am at a new stage. I am a bit older than my parents were when they started their divestment project. But like with my parents the shift seems abrupt. I am not moving. I am not ailing or feeble. A mere eight years after the emotional storms and drama that occurred when I unpacked my files and saw how much was missing, I am voluntarily divesting.
One daughter has her grandmother’s wedding ring now, no longer languishing in my jewelry drawer. I have passed on my least loved costume jewelry to my youngest granddaughter. The older one has one of our many afghans, crocheted by her great-grandmother, for her bed. I have promised my daughters the china and the silverware passed down from my mother. I am packing them up. I am looking at those files and wondering why I saved so much and I’m starting to toss mounds of paper into recycling. Those are the same files that I clung to eight years ago as we packed up our possessions.
I know this doesn’t happen for everyone — some of us are pack rats to the very end. I can identify with that, too. We still miss that bowl we gave away. My husband longs for a cast iron Dutch oven we sold for $2. And, indeed, now I still cling to useless things — my textbooks from college more than 50 years ago; earrings whose mates are long gone, hoping for the style of asymmetrical pairs to come into fashion one day.
But I sense a trend within myself. I am beginning to reckon with the truism that, indeed, I can’t take it with me.
May Benatar is a psychotherapist in Silver Spring, Md., and author of the memoir “Emma and Her Selves: a Memoir of Treatment and a Therapist’s Self-Discovery.”