Sometimes a box holds the memories of a lifetime.

I’m spending two weeks this summer at my parents’ house in Illinois, going through the house, attic, and basement, sorting through 45 years worth of accumulated life’s possessions.7 Lessons Learned While Cleaning Out My Parents' Basement|The Holy Mess

Going Back in Time

As I make my way down the rickety basement stairs, it’s as if each step carries me further back into my childhood.Down basement steps

There are the boxes underneath the stairs, which I was never allowed to go into. “It’s just dusty old things that wouldn’t interest you,” my mother always said, which made it all the more enticing.

We escaped to the cool basement in the summer months since our house wasn’t air conditioned, watching my dad work at his workbench or “potchin’ around” with his massive collection of screws, nails, and metal bits, carefully arranged in drawers and baby food jars hung from metal shelves.

My dad's tools|The Holy Mess

Many tools from my dad and my mom’s husband’s collections.

A Huge Task

Our situation was not immediate, but my brother and I knew we needed to face the task of helping mom tackle the often-overwhelming job of starting to pare down her overflow of boxes. After almost 50 years in one house, plus combining households with her husband a number of years ago, the basement was packed from wall to wall, and much of the stuff hadn’t been touched in years.

Basement|The Holy Mess

Mom’s Basement

Mom's Basement|The Holy Mess

Sometimes these sort-throughs come at stages of intense grief, like after the death of a parent or spouse. Thankfully my mom is alive although she’s struggled with a number of health issues in recent years. My father died almost 20 years ago, and my step-father is entering into the next stages of Alzheimer’s and now requires full-time care.

What Do You Do With All This Stuff?

As I’ve talked with other people about my plans, I’ve learned most of us go through this process at one time or another (or several times) with a parent, grandparent, or at our own house.

One of the biggest decisions in these situations is how to deal with all the things that needs to be sold. You can host a rummage sale, send it to be auctioned, or bring in a company to host an estate sale, and there are pros and cons to each option, which I will cover in a later blog post. You can also consider doing a combination of these options.

Since my cousin Jeff is a semi-professional rummage sale host, we decided to host a rummage sale. (See some of his previous blogs about rummage sales here: Tips for Attending a Rummage Sale, Rummage Sale Tips, Dos and Don’ts of How to Prepare for a Successful Rummage Sale) This option will generally give you the most control and earn you the most income, but keep in mind it’s a LOT of time and work.

Rummage sale|The Holy Mess

Rummage sale


7 Lessons Learned While Cleaning Out My Parents’ Basement

After a tremendous week of laughter, tears, tired legs, and moving tons of boxes, allow me to share 7 lessons learned while cleaning out my parent’s basement.

1. Your items have value.

While it’s easy to say the words, “It’s all just stuff, get rid of it,” the reality is that it’s not so easy. These items hold the touch points to memories of a lifetime, and that matters.

My dad has been gone from this world for almost 20 years, but I’ve learned things about him this last week and been reminded of others I had forgotten.

Strange little bits of life get stashed in boxes.

A random leaflet from a school program of which I didn’t take part. An ugly Christmas mouse, hardly more than cardboard and plastic. A 25-pound textbook with hand-written notes in the margins.

I remember these hanging from our dining room light at Christmas time.

I remember these hanging from our dining room light at Christmas time.

Who would have known, 30 and 50 years later, I would open boxes and discover these items as a treasure?

The school program lists the names of classmates who were and are friends. The Christmas mouse brings long-forgotten memories of the best Christmases a girl could want. The book is laughably outdated, but the handwriting tells of the writer, bringing pain and sweet joy blended together.


2….and they don’t.

In the end, stuff is still stuff, and you’ve lived this whole time without it. Whether the items inside a home have a large resale value, the reality is that most estate sales average anywhere from $2,000-$10,000 after expenses. This is a nice amount of money, but not that much in the greater scheme of things when you consider it’s the accumulation of a lifetime’s worth of assets.

From my own recent move from Colorado to New York, I’ve learned that while items are wonderful for own, for every item you own you must plan for more time and expense taken to care for it.

We used the move as an opportunity to get rid of many things and it was incredibly freeing! I don’t regret parting with a single item.

I’m learning to let go of items, guilt free.


3. Bring someone to reminisce with you.

My brother, Daniel, and I have been going about this working together throughout the week, and I can’t count the number of times one of us has said, “Remember when we used this?” or “Had you seen this one yet?”

Key Hanger|The Holy Mess

Daniel made this key hanger for my dad. It’s still hanging by the back door. This might be my favorite find.

Three of my five children are with me, and sharing this experience with them has been important. They’ve spent hours putting around the basement picking up small random treasures. My son got to try out using a record player for the first time.


4. Bring someone impartial.

On the other hand, impartiality is invaluable in this type of situation. If you go into this overly sentimental, you’ll want to keep every item that makes you tear up. You need someone who can look at your dad’s 40 year collection of magazines or your moms lifetime obsession with plastic containers and say “Throw that away. Stat.”

You will also find yourself getting lost in the stacks for hours. The task is emotionally overwhelming and I tend to just stare at it, or go through one box for an hour.

My cousin Jeff, or my brother’s girlfriend, Brittany, I’ve noticed, can come in and get done 5x the amount of work than what my brother or I can do. Rather than feeling guilt about this, I’m realizing they simply don’t have the emotional connection. It’s stuff, it needs to be dealt with.

Jeff in mom's basement

6. Give yourself time.

We are fortunate to be able to tackle this job while NOT in the midst of emotional crisis, such as right after the death of a loved one, and it’s still really difficult at times.

I’m find myself emotionally spent at the end of each day. I’ve been reading the Outlander series as a way to give my brain a much-needed escape. (If you haven’t read these books, by the way, I highly recommend them!)

Jeff and I have also laughed ourselves silly over ridiculous things, because that’s just what we do.

The pink bunny candle|The Holy Mess

Mom told me there was a pink bunny candle she put away when she started baby-proofing the house when I was a toddler. I looked through tons of boxes and never found it. I was just telling Jeff about it when I heard him yelling, “oh! oh! The PINK BUNNY!” Here she is, in pristine condition 40 years later.


7. Decide what to keep, sell, give, and pitch.

The biggest challenge comes in deciding exactly what to do with all this stuff.

  1. Take pictures. Many of the meaningful items will do just as well with a photograph as with keeping the item. Then either throw it away or donate it.
  2. Only keep it if you’ll use it. Only keep it if you will somehow use it. Otherwise your kids will be going through boxes 30 years from now wondering what to do with it. If you can’t use it or display it, toss it.
  3. Too much stuff weighs you down. Just like an extra serving of food is “wasted” when it goes to your hips, extra stuff weighs down your life. For every item you own, you have that much more time and money invested to store, maintain, and upkeep each one.
  4. You bring your memories with you. You don’t need the items to have the memories.
Sleeping Santa

This candle was on our fireplace every Christmas. Poor Santa fell off so many times his foot broke off. I found him in the boxes under the steps.

Have you cleaned out a parents’ or grandparents’ house? What did you learn?7 Lessons Learned While Cleaning Out My Parents' Basement|The Holy Mess


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