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The double ordeal of getting rid of a lifetime of possessions and moving into an active adult community during a pandemic

Beverly Silverberg in front of some unopened boxes in her new home. (Courtesy of Beverly Silverberg)
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A pandemic was not one of the contingencies my husband and I considered as we thought about moving. We were looking for a retirement community that offered activities we wanted to pursue such as fitness programs, art classes, a book club, a wood shop and trips to theaters. None of which has happened yet.

I loved the garden in my home but grew to hate the deer that ate my hosta to the ground and thought the flowers I planted were their salad bar. The maintenance on the house had become onerous and in the weeks before we moved, a gutter sprang a leak, a pipe in the basement had to be repaired and a section of wall needed to be replaced, convincing us that we had made the right decision.

An apartment that was beautifully landscaped, with a phone number to call if anything failed and no worries about leaf- or snow-blowing seemed just the right thing for us.

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But since we moved into Leisure World in Silver Spring, Md., four weeks ago, we’ve barely seen a soul in the halls, in the elevators or on the streets. We take our evening walks with our masks and gloves and paper towels for touching elevator buttons and getting mail. The few folks who are out are similarly garbed, and we wave and give each other a wide berth.

I look forward to the day we can meet our neighbors, swim in the pool, eat at the restaurants and not have another box to unpack.

For five months we had been giving away, throwing away and selling the possessions we had spent more than half a century accumulating. We had filled our attic, our basement, our two-car garage, a tool shed, four bedrooms, an office, a living room, a dining room, a den, a basement living room, bar, utility room, workbenches, laundry room and a kitchen with stuff.

Now, within months, we needed to dispose of it or move it to a three-bedroom apartment. What a Herculean feat, which we totally underestimated and failed at miserably. Downsizing is truly daunting!

My husband and I, both pack rats, were on a collision course with reality. As many trips as we took — to Community Forklift (a nonprofit that takes tools and building materials); to Value Village (a nonprofit that takes almost anything in the way of household goods); to the library to donate bookshelves full of books; to A Wider Circle (a nonprofit that takes usable clothing for people needing them); and trips to the hazardous waste disposal, electronics recycling and the dump — we still had a whole lot of stuff to get rid of.

For months we’d been selling beloved possessions using our local email group. What a treasure that community group turned out to be. Hubby parted with his barbells, riding mower, chipper shredder, snowblower and leaf blowers (yes, plural), not to mention his pressure washer, 16-foot ladder, and assorted and sundry tools.

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He gave all kinds of power tools to his brother-in-law, nephew, son-in-law and neighbors. The chain saw, rakes, shovels, wheelbarrow, seed spreader and other useful items went to whoever would take them. When you have three workbenches and four tool boxes, there are a lot of tools. Some even came with us. Too many, actually, but that’s my take.

I, meanwhile, was stripping three fireplaces of tools and a truly magnificent Beaux-Arts fireplace fan I’d named Minerva. My niece got some fireplace tools and Minerva found an appreciative buyer. Fireplace mantel adornments that were gifts from dear ones or bought on trips to faraway places were painful to give away or sell.

Truth be told, some of them made it to the new apartment, which has no fireplace mantels, and they now must find another home. Silver, brass, pewter, crystal, vases, mirrors, lamps, baskets, Christmas paper, postcards, greeting cards, 45-rpm records, an espresso machine, ice buckets, furniture, bookcases, filing cabinets, rugs and art all found new homes. I couldn’t part with the record albums, so they came with us, as did a record player.

The local elementary school got lots of office supplies. I’m going to miss my Eliot Porter posters of spring and fall and my beautiful print of Georgia O’Keeffe’s red poppy. Household items were sold, some were given away and other goodies went out the door with the “junk” man, including tables, chairs and a wonderful roll-top desk whose dimensions were too big for the folks who expressed an interest in having it. Lawn furniture went along with the grill and patio flower pots.

You might ask, why did we do this? We occasionally ask ourselves the same. It’s all our daughter’s fault. She looked around our house one day and said: “Mother, you are not allowed to die until you get rid of all this stuff!” We knew she was right. Not fair to burden her with all our things, particularly when she was quick to say she didn’t want anything. Not the china, not the silver, not the crystal, not anything. She ended up with the dining room set anyway. It simply would not fit in the apartment, and I couldn’t bear to give it away, except to her.

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She’s not wholly to blame; the stairs and maintenance on a large home finally took their toll. Well, back to the move. The original estimate for the move was $1,300; the final cost was $2,890. Yes, more than double. Can’t blame the moving company really. I do blame them for busting a hole in the wall and breaking some of the furniture, although every other household item arrived intact. They must have chopped down a forest for the boxes and paper they used to pack everything.

After all the giving away, selling and hauling away, we still had five large boxes of framed family pictures, closets of clothes, kitchen dishes, glassware and gadgets, and hubby’s tools and wires that he thought he might need, and many of those are still in boxes. The movers, when they saw what was left to pack, immediately called in two extra men and a total of 47 boxes in addition to several wardrobes and the 30-plus boxes we had already packed. We had to get the job done in one day. That was all the elevator time we had from the Leisure World folks.

And by the way, we’d been moving things to the apartment for weeks: fragile things like glassware; valuable things like silverware; and birth and marriage certificates. Did I mention all of my mother-in-law’s beautiful artwork? Approximately 20 oil paintings, collages and art of various sizes that we inherited when my 98-year-old father-in-law died 10 years ago had to come with us to the new apartment.

Luckily, there are lots of walls. The framed family pictures, however, are an impossible challenge. They still are sitting in a pile staring at us every time we walk by them. For years, some of those pictures graced the piano we were fortunately able to give away, and some of them came from our parents’ homes when they downsized. As we unpacked, we realized what a poor job we had done of divesting ourselves of stuff.

Did I really need the Keurig my 98-year-old mother had left behind when she moved to my brother’s home last year? Our coffee maker, Melita coffee pot and coffee press already were too much for our little galley kitchen. The large electric fry pan was great in our house, but would I be making potato pancakes for a crowd for Hanukkah in our new apartment? Not likely.

How about the Teflon coated turkey roaster that could easily handle a 25-pound bird? I should never have brought it to the new kitchen, and I’d already given my other roasting pan to my son-in-law. Did I mention the stainless-steel poacher? All sitting on a ledge above the cabinets in the kitchen and destined for new homes when the threat of this pandemic ends.

I won’t get into the things my husband could not bring himself to get rid of, but as I look around our office and in the space that houses our stack washer-dryer, which he has stuffed with the remains of his workbenches, I shudder.

Use your imagination. I envision a day when not only is the pandemic over, but our downsizing is done.

May they both come quickly!

Beverly Silverberg was the Metro spokesperson in the 1980s and president of Beverly R. Silverberg Communications, specializing in crisis communications, until her retirement.

Read more:

Geriatricians’ advice on what older adults need to do in coronavirus pandemic

Today’s active-adult communities are stepping up their games

How about first-floor master bedrooms for everyone?