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When my husband died suddenly in July, it felt like a gut punch. It was so unexpected. Of course, as you get older, such an outcome isn't quite as far back in the mind as it used to be, but still, you figure there would be some warning. Along with things unsaid and plans not followed, my husband left me a lot of stuff. We had been married for almost forty years, and living in the same house for almost all of that time. Closets, built-in drawers, little nooks and crannies, desk drawers, piles on the floor, all full of stuff.

Over the years I was mostly successful in ignoring the accumulation of things because I was busy working, while my husband spent more time at home as a stay-at-home dad even before it became fashionable. It wasn't until I retired that we finally realized how different our views were. For me, "cleaning" meant getting rid of stuff, clearing up piles, and straightening things up. Whenever I said I wanted to clean up, he figured I meant I wanted to vacuum. It turns out that when I looked with a clear eye at any room in the house, all the accumulated stuff made me feel sick. However, when he tried to hurry and clear up things, it made him feel sick. So we were in the process of trying not to make each other sick while still trying to make each other happy.

Come with me below the orange shoelaces (oh, they are in good shape, I'll put them with the good shoelaces) to read more.

My husband loved to learn about things. He was a huge fan of PBS, and taped a lot of shows because he didn't want to miss anything. He loved all kinds of music and bought records and CDs. He was a huge fan of Siskel and Ebert back in the day, and had an extensive collection of movies on VCR and DVD. He wanted to read everything about everything and enjoyed going to the library and taking out books. The only problem was that he read slowly. It always irked him that he couldn't read fast enough to keep up. He saved newspapers and magazines, planning to read them. He would find interesting tidbits in the news that he would cut out and leave for me to read. If he found a magazine he'd never heard of before, he wanted a copy to see what it was about. We had gone through and gotten rid of half of the books, the ones he regretfully agreed he really didn't want to read anymore, and there are still twenty full boxes and a couple of bookshelves worth. We had various agreements about which newspapers he would save and which we would recycle, but I've found little stashes of newspapers in closets. I guess he just couldn't give them all up. He was reading them as fast as he could, but it just wasn't fast enough.

We both agreed on living simply, and on reusing, recycling, or giving away whatever we could instead of throwing things out. We have a reduced size garbage can because we never used to fill it. In fact, it was always less than half full. We had old TVs, an old vacuum cleaner, an old washing machine, etc. We didn't see any need to buy new things (except maybe for computers!). My husband was good at using shoelaces, clothespins, string, paperclips, and whatever else he needed to figure out how to fix things. We have some garbage bags with hooks on them to hang over the louvered windows, and a long stick with a broken fork on the end to hook and unhook them. It looks a little weird, but it works fine! One of my friends was admiring the cover we have over the windows in the kitchen door when she realized it is a big piece of bubble wrap. It does keep out the wind and let in the light though.

My husband didn't believe in throwing things away that were still usable. I agree with that way of living, but it can be carried to extremes. I'd say that saving all clothing that is worn out in case you need rags is a great way to reuse. However, if that results in six large bags of socks with holes in them, you've probably gone past the point where you could use them. The same goes for scratch paper. We had enough scratch paper to last a hundred years. I have recycled much of it, but the problem is that getting rid of it makes me feel so bad. I have never gotten rid of any of my husband's or children's stuff without first asking permission. It seems so very odd to be getting rid of things without getting an agreement. And so along with the knowledge that it's something I need to do, I am haunted by survivor's guilt.

I sorted through the two boxes of shoelaces. I decided to save all the ones that were in good condition and labeled the length, while getting rid of the ones that were torn, worn, or dirty. I felt guilty throwing the half out that I did, but I still have some if we need them for anything.

At least in my case, I am living in the house where I am sorting stuff. I don't have an artificial timetable for completion. I can take as long as I want, and flit from one activity to the next. When I told people it would take at least two years, I'm sure they had no idea that I was serious. I work on it every day, from the time I wake up and look around the room to see where I can make a dent, until I go to bed and do the same thing. Unlike some who have written diaries here, like Michelewln, I don't have to work with a deadline. I am having enough trouble going through things and deciding what to do with them without having that additional pressure. I am trying to be reasonable about it, and trying to find good homes for what I am sure we don't need.

Early on, my kids and I decided the first thing to do would be to put all the same kind of things together. That's how we built cereal mountain, a collection of boxes of cereal (which we are still eating) which were no doubt bought on sale and remarkably aren't outdated yet. Since we eat cereal every day and it will be used eventually, I have no problem keeping them all. I think we found about seventy boxes of cereal in closets and bags. We also have a lot of snack food—cookies, candy, potato chips, canned nuts. I have enough waxed paper that I will never have to buy another roll.

There are bags and piles of clothes in several rooms, many of them with the tags still on. My husband was in charge of buying clothes for the family, and he always liked T-shirts and baseball caps with funny logos. He used to shop at Goodwill and the Salvation Army a lot, not to mention Ross Dress for Less. When my kids were small, we never worried if they forgot a jacket in the playground, because instead of losing a fifty-dollar item, it was a five-dollar item, and we had replacements already at hand. And then there are the socks. So many socks. I think I found a hundred pairs of new socks, and at least six bags of old socks with holes in them. I found a home for the new socks in a large plastic bin I found. Those we will keep and the kids can use them. The old socks, however, I am throwing away. Guilt-ridden or not, there is no way I could ever use that many rags.

So I continue on, cleaning out a drawer here, a bag there, trying to balance what makes sense to keep and what I need to get rid of. I have found bags of bags in every room and every location in the house. Bags are useful, however, and I do use them to throw out the garbage and the compost, so I am only recycling the plastic bags with holes or really unusable shapes. I have bags of large grocery bags with handles wrapped in garbage bags in the basement, as well as boxes of rolled up plastic bags. I will never ever get another bag when I buy things. I carry two plastic bags in my jacket pockets, which I can whip out whenever I need to buy something, and we take our own grocery bags back to the supermarket when we shop. I know I could just get rid of the extras, but I can't. They are still usable. At least I can put them in the basement.

I don't even know what some of the things I have found are supposed to be used for. And there are things that might have great sentimental value, but without knowing why they were kept, I can't make any good decisions about them. If there's a sentimental value for something, I would urge you to make a note so your family will know why you saved it, and can decide whether to keep it or not. I am definitely looking at everything I own and getting rid of whatever I really will never use or want, and making notes on things that have sentimental value so my kids will know why I kept them.

I've also been using Freecycle to get rid of things that we don't need but that other people might want. I have been pretty successful getting rid of a lot of things that way. I don't feel quite as bad when someone appreciates getting something I don't want to keep. I felt better when I found someone to take the old auto magazines and give them a good home, for example, because there are people who collect and enjoy reading them, as my husband did.

Well as always, I appreciate the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and my grief. It is hard to explain, but it's not all bad. In between the grief and the guilt, there is laughter. While going through some boxes of new shoes yesterday with my kids (shoes bought on sale for whenever they'd be needed), we came across a box with two new shoes, with a note in it in my husband's handwriting that said, "Two left feet." I had to laugh. I'll write another diary soon about my freecycle adventures.

Originally posted to Lorikeet's Landing on Wed Dec 05, 2012 at 11:39 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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