A New Look at Old Stuff

I inherited an apartment full of antiques … plus everything else … in Nice, France.

What was supposed to be a gift has become a burden, considering I have to pay 60% French inheritance taxes on everything.  You see, Aunt Elisabeth and I were not blood relatives, so I’m taxed to the maximum by French law.  That means that anything I don’t sell, I not only have to pay 60% tax on, but I also have to pay to ship it back to the States.

So I picked out one piece of furniture:  a dark, almost black, wooden chest I’ve admired for 30 years, each time I sat in Elisabeth’s living room.  Richly carved with an unusual metal locking mechanism, it must have come from one of their North African trips.

Over the years, Elisabeth would say, “When I’m gone, I imagine you’ll just get rid of everything…”  I’d reassure her, “Oh, no, there are several things I’ll want to keep, of course.”  But the truth is, other than the chest and some paintings I dearly love, the rest will go to auction and move on to the homes of people who didn’t know her.  What she accumulated over her life, and treasured, will be dispersed in an anonymous way, just as she herself bought those that are antiques:  through auction.

As the time approaches to have the auction house come empty the apartment and for me to coordinate the packing and shipping of the chest, I thumbed back through the photos I had taken last time I was in her apartment.  I kept going back to her antique desk and chair.  She sat there so many hours, running her businesses and her real estate deals, doing her accounts and typing letters to attorneys related to her latest lawsuit … on her manual Smith Corona.  Making carbon paper copies.

I struggled with the thought of putting her desk and chair in the auction with the rest of the beautiful things she took so much pride in.  Too much emotion, too much energy, too many memories.

Then I stopped myself.  I don’t even like the style of the desk.  Or the color of the wood.   What I love is what it represents.

It made me think about how we accumulate stuff.

I thought about my Aunt Pat’s purple steamer trunk in the corner of my dining room that’s filled with things someone thought I’d like after she died.  It’s still sitting there, unopened.  Four years later.  And I remembered that when my friend Sarah’s mother Esther died here in Miami, there were lots of things Sarah couldn’t take back to France.  So she brought them all to my house.  After all, I loved her mother so they’d be going to a good home.

Those boxes of Esther’s things wouldn’t fit anywhere, so they went into the guest bedroom.  Temporarily, of course.  And like anything else you put in the middle of a room, on the floor, it mysteriously grows.  More and more boxes, a piece of furniture here, a case of books there.  And last week I realized I could no longer move 3 feet into the bedroom without climbing over something … forget finding the bed.  The door has been kept closed for over a year because I didn’t want anyone to see what’s in there.

And I certainly can’t have any guests come and stay, because the guestroom is unusable.

For a week or two, I’ve been mulling over the whole concept of “inheriting” things from other people.  Things that may not be our taste, but things we keep to honor the memory of the person who once owned them.

I thought again about Elisabeth’s desk.  And then I remembered a desk I own that dates back to 1640, when the Dutch invaded the north of Brazil.  I’ve moved that desk from continent to continent, Brazil to U.S., U.S. to Europe back and forth two or three times.  I love that desk.  And I have no room for it in my little house, so it’s stored somewhere.

Why would I pay 60% to keep Elisabeth’s desk, plus pay to ship it here, when a desk I truly love is sitting in someone’s garage?

Why do we feel we have to hold on to things that someone else owned, after they’re gone?  What kind of mystical powers are imbued in their “stuff” that make us add it to our own and trip over it for years?  Especially antiques that have been owned and loved by others over the ages, maybe even strangers.

Yesterday, I was walking with my friend Elena as I do each morning.  I mentioned my desk dilemma to her.  She said, “Sharon, when you die, what’s going to happen to all the lovely things you’ve accumulated over the years in your worldly travels?”  I answered, “Well, there are some pieces my brothers and sister might want because they’re family things.  But the rest?  Who knows?”

She went on, “And if they’ve all died before you do?  After all, you’re the youngest …”

After a moment, I said, “Someone will come and sort through everything, maybe hold a piece or two.  And the rest will be dispersed anonymously.”

Suddenly I realized that we spend our lives collecting things, caring for them, maintaining them, cherishing them, and putting locks on our doors to keep them safe.  And then, one day, we die and those things become a burden to someone else.

I’ve just taken one more step towards rebuffing the power “things” have over me.  I’ve now been shown that we just “borrow” the things that are in our possession.  If they bring us joy, fine.  But realize:  they’re borrowed.

Tomorrow the Vietnam Vets’ truck is coming to pick up what had “grown” in the guest bedroom.  And, after my conversation with my friend Elena, the volume of what they are picking up doubled.

After all, it’s all “stuff.”

So what are you tripping over?


Sharon O’Day is an expert in global finance and marketing with an MBA from the Wharton School. She has worked with governments, corporations, and individuals … yes, she was the secret ‘weapon,’ if you will, behind many individuals in high places. At age 53, she lost everything: her home, her business, everything. Since then, Sharon has interviewed women and done extensive research to understand how that could have happened, especially with her strong knowledge of numbers and finance.

The surprising answers will be shared in her upcoming book “Money After Menopause.” Today her focus is to show women how to reach financial security for the long term. She has developed a step-by-step plan to get past all the obstacles that keep women broke and scared … and from reaching the financial peace of mind they so deserve.

  • Keeping things that once belonged to those we love and have passed on initially begins as a way to stay connected to that person. Some feel the need to have them around as a reminder of that person…As we grow older and mature into a different perspective of life, we know that none of that is necessary. All we need when someone we love passes on are our memories, they are with us always and take up very little space! Wonderful article Sharon, I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  • Shirahpenn

    I, too, enjoyed your article,Sharon. I am learning to let go of the attachment to things as I am learning to accept aging and even mortality. I am letting go of a doll collection that it has taken me years to accumulate. I think I needed to fill a void of my childhood of not having enough dolls. Now I am downsizing and the dolls are taking up too much space. I am going to donate them to a children’s home or center. I know there are lots of little girls who would love a doll to cherish. Gramma Shirah

    • Anonymous

      Shirah, just think of how you’ll fill the void in many little girls’ hearts … the same one that you carried forward for so many years. That’s a wonderful solution! And I’m so happy for you that you’re looking squarely at aging and mortality. I’ve found, once I did the same, that I appreciate every day so much more profoundly. Each one’s a gift! And I look at the little aches and pains as badges of honor! 😉

  • Judy Roberson

    Very insightful article, Sharon. It’s particularly relevant for me as I consider my relocation to another state. Letting go of some of my “stuff” doesn’t have to mean I’m letting go of the people associated with it. As Denny already mentioned, those memories are mine forever and that, of course, is what’s precious. Thanks for the great reminder!

  • Joy

    Dear Sharon, you’ve hit the nail on the head once again.LOL. Why am I not surprised.When my husband and I went through what we thought was our “darkest hours”during the last few years and witnessed everything in our space slipping away and disappearing one by one …health, money, jobs, car, and numerous cherished items, in time we came to realize what a blessing it was and how we were “freed” from the shackles of ownership of mass quantities of “stuff”. We ended up giving most of what was left away to friends and organizations that provide for others in need. We came to realize that we come into this space with nothing and we will leave this space with nothing. Everything else is just background colour to add to the canvas of the “whole picture of all that we are” and we are no lesser beings without it. It also allows exciting NEW “stuff” to come into one’s life to match each changing frame of the picture. As life changes so too does the picture. So be thankful and have gratitude for what you have,but don’t become attached to the “STUFF”. My husband has now declared that when we move from our current address, he’s putting most of our current “stuff” at the curb with a big sign saying “Free sh_t ” and whoever chooses too can help themselves. Stay well my friend, Joy.

    • Anonymous

      Ha! Such clarity! You’re tinkering with “lightness!” While I still hang on to things that bring me pleasure, I do live in hurricane country (South Florida) and did go through a Cat 5 hurricane … Andrew … in 1992. In the face of Mother Nature’s full force, given the choice between staying alive and losing everything, “stuff” loses every time. And as I drove back to my house from the shelter I had evacuated to, I expected to have nothing left. When I saw that my house had actually stood up to the storm, suddenly all that “stuff” felt heavy. Funny, huh?

  • Sondra Wright

    I’m certainly no pack rat and have never been one to emotionally attach myself to “things”. I hope that doesn’t make me appear cold. Admittedly, there have been times I’ve been a bit hasty at ridding myself of something and later missed it. So, now I try to put a little more thought into it. But Joy’s husband’s approach…now that’s my kind of guy; LOL

  • Sharon have you been that fly on my wall? You are right on when you mention that the pieces of furniture, pictures and such are a way to hold onto the person we just lost. I found myself in the same dilemma when my grandma passed away. When we brought her to live with us she wanted some of her belongings, to feel at home. Can’t say as I blame her. Afterwards though, trying to make two homes fit inside of a small home to begin with…just didn’t work. I think I see spring cleaning coming my way…soon.

  • I liked this!!!! Over the years as family has passed I have watched family fight over “Stuff” and lose connection because of someones else “stuff” that they did not pay for. It has always made me sick to watch. I have been given things over the years, money included and I would give it all away to have the person and not the “stuff”. My grandmother left me and ugly desk – that I hate. It sits and stares at me – after reading this – I do believe it is going to the road. It has NO meaning to me and makes me mad seeing the space taking up with something like that. We had a bon fire and I watched so much stuff be burned because no one wanted it.

    When I moved the last time we threw more away and took it to the center here in town for someone who needed it. It is the best feeling to see things leave the house and something new come in.

    Stuff… bah hum bug

  • Duchessherri

    As usual, Sharon, you hit the nail on the head. I have been working slowly but surely for a couple of years to de-clutter my home. Goodwill gets most of the stuff. And, since I need some cash, I put some stuff into a garage sale and pocketed $300. What did not sell when to the Goodwill store – the tax deductions are very appreciated at tax time. I’e beginning to see more and more of my home. Eventually I’ll have reclaimed my guest bedroom and then make take in a roommate to help with the financial crush I feel on a daily basis. When someone near and dear to me dies, I would prefer some small keepsake; I have a key ring that belonged to my grandmother. a tea towel from a friend, some devotional books that belonged to my mother. And an idea I once read about: take a picture of the beloved item and store it in a photo album with pictures of the loved one. Thanks for all your words of wisdom and guidance.

    • I’m thrilled you’re looking at reclaiming the guest bedroom and renting it out! It’s what I meant in an earlier note where I suggested “using your assets” … your major one being your house. Either renting out part of it or downscaling dramatically if the market permits selling what you have. (Remember, low market prices on the sale also mean low market prices on the purchase of something smaller, so it’s still a viable option in this depressed housing market. But it does depend on being right-side up on the mortgage, credit ratings today, etc.) BTW, I love your ‘keepsake’ ideas. You know, of Elisabeth’s (and Uncle Arthur’s) entire estate, what’s brought me the greatest pleasure are the 12 still-new linen dishtowels (Arthur was a captain on the Johnson Lines 30-40 years ago, when they still knew how to make dishtowels!).

  • You spoke exactly what is my message, only you did it perfectly! I hang on to the memory, not the stuff. I think when it hit me was when Ken’s mom died. She had a huge collection of fine crystal, china and silver all showcased but never used. When she died, his dad didn’t want it, the girls took a couple pieces – but in essence all her treasures were disposed of. That is the day I began using my good dishes and silverware. I don’t care if the gold gets worn off – I enjoy it every day, that’s what it’s for. Love your article. And I was in Nice when I was 17… suntanned on that “gravel” beach! 😀

    • Elvie, I walk the Promenade des Anglais, along those gravel beaches, every day when I’m in Nice. Aunt Elisabeth’s apartment is two blocks in from the beach, right behind the Negresco hotel, the one with the famous domed roof. I’ve been going to Nice regularly for 30 years, and love it!

  • Absolutely love your style of writing Sharon and fully agree with the post… I’m a natural “horder”, so I can relate to your story very well indeed… It’s difficult to “let go”… but I also realize that we won’t take any of these things with us when we leave on our “last adventure”… Your article really put things in perspective… Thank you, Sharon! Smiles, Emm x

  • I believe the less attachment we have to “things” in this world the better…. it just ties us down. My mom is a collector and I know she wants me to treasure her things as much as she does, but my lifestyle is too mobile right now to gather collections… Instead, I’ve taken pictures of my mom with her special possessions… her silver clarinet from high school, her very first (and only) doll, now 70-years old…. and I’ve put those pictures into her life story book, so they won’t be forgotten. They are part of what makes my mom, my mom…. and I do want to remember and cherish everything – without having to make room in my living space for it all! But I do keep and travel with a few of her special things… like the rocking chair she rocked me in! 🙂

    Sharon, this is a beautiful view into your world and I can really feel your heart – thanks so much for sharing!

  • Victoria Gazeley

    I’ve become ruthless with ‘getting rid of stuff’, though there are some things that I just couldn’t part with. And of course, I love nice things. But when you live in a tiny house, you HAVE to be ruthless about not collecting things, and it’s actually turned out to be a great excuse when people offer things – I simply don’t have the room. Ultimately, it’s just stuff, and usually more of a burden than not.

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  • Jiji

    It is just so hard to let go of things that my mom owned – it somehow makes me feel she’s around.  But, yes, there will come a time when I really would need to dispose of them , accept the fact that they are all just “stuff” – and realize that the true value is the memory of her sitting on her favorite rocking chair or leaning on her favorite coffee table.  One of these days, I will muster enough strength to finally let go.  Thanks for this article – means a lot..

    • Jiji, I’m glad you captured the essence of what I was saying … and that it made you stop and think about what those “things” mean and what they represent.  If they bring you pleasure, by all means enjoy them!  If they feel like a burden, be free enough to release them.  To me it’s not a matter of right or wrong, but rather aware or unaware.  I prefer aware!  Sounds like you do too … 😉

  • Back for a second read this morning, years after first reading your article. We recently moved after living in my hometown for over 58 years and in one home for over 30 years. To say we had “stuff” is an understatement. The task of moving was so overwhelming I didn’t know where to begin. We still had two guest rooms, formerly our son and daughter’s rooms full of their belongings. You know, they leave, come back, want their “stuff” but are not settled yet…so, please hold onto it for me, mom! So began the task of sorting into piles: keep, give away, throw away, sell. As we moved from room to room we were shocked at what we found. In the end, (I’ll spare you the sordid story of the entire process) we paid to throw away over two…yes, 2 tons of garbage, why did we keep it all those years? Then we paid a moving truck (it took the entire 53 foot trailer) to haul our household “stuff” three states away; only to store it in the garage until we could decide where it would go. Our new home is 60 square feet bigger than our old home…the configuration is totally different. Nothing fits anywhere…my bedroom furniture…I must sell it…won’t fit. And so goes the story. We are whittling down the boxes in the garage…but, I can tell you this…a HUGE yard sale is in the works for the spring and my “buying” and “accumulating” days are over. This is called hoarding (cringe, cringe) and it stops here, not to be passed on. Thank you Sharon, you’ve given me, again the courage to suck it up and just do it.

    • Carla, I helped my nephew ‘downsize’ my sister from a lovely 2-storey-full-basement house to assisted living a few years ago. Ten long days of work later, we filled a PODS unit for transport, took all the antiques to be sold on consignment, gave away everything else we could … and still filled 5 Waste Management Bagster Dumpsters! I was in shock, especially at how much money was tied up in purchases that at times put her family in financial discomfort. I thought it would heal me of any of my own “what if” attachments … but it hasn’t. Despite knowing better, I still have some “stuff” to clear out so no one needs to do that for me. I’m thrilled if this article gives you a little more impetus to do that for yourself … I know re-reading it gave me motivation! <3