Marni Jameson | Special to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
"It falls into the 'most stressful' category," said Peter Brenton of Medford, Mass., who with his two older sisters cleared out their childhood home this past year after their mother, their last living parent, died.
Having gone through this myself last year, I felt an instant rapport.
"Our parents weren't classic hoarders," said Brenton, 47, an administrator in the nuclear engineering department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But they hung onto a lot of things they saw no reason to throw away.
"Financial papers and receipts that went back 30 years," he said. "Wedding gifts they received in 1955, which they didn't like and never opened; guns and ammunition."
"Wait," I said, "Guns and ammunition?"
"I don't have a gun license," he said. "What was I supposed to do with this?"
"The memorabilia was the most excruciating," said his oldest sister, Anne Brenton Isenberg. "We opened box after box marked 'miscellaneous.' They would have black and white photos of people I hadn't thought about in 50 years, along with birth announcements. Every box was like a time capsule."
Because every family moves through the process differently, some better than others, I'm always curious. The Brenton siblings began last spring and dedicated most Sundays to the task.
"As the executor, Peter felt the weight of the job," said Isenberg, 55. "He was the practical one and kept pushing. My sister and I would have let things sit for a year."
"Sometimes I had to be more firm than was polite," Brenton said.
The first two Sundays, they filled two Dumpsters. That was the easy part.
"Here's where it got sensitive," Brenton said. "Most Sundays we worked six to seven hours, except when we got in a stupid fight."
The day they spent sticking their names on items they wanted "ended in a horrible argument," he said. "None of us was blameless."
"I love my siblings," Isenberg said, "but we had to pull away."
"We fought not over any thing but because of the emotional weight of sorting through it all," Brenton said. "We all had this huge burden." They made a rule: Nothing would leave the house without all three agreeing.
Then he nailed the heart of the problem: "While we wanted to hold on, we knew we had to get rid of 95 percent of the stuff," he said. "None of us has a huge house. We all have our own objects that have sentimental value.
"There were the Christmas tree decorations we grew up with," he added. "The green glassware that was my great grandmother's. The tabletop statue of a moose that our parents bought in Germany. Every object had a story."
Like me and my brother, and like many brothers and sisters before us, the Brenton siblings have crossed to the other side. For those who still have this coming, here are some guiding lights that helped them through:
- Keep the end in mind -- Whenever the siblings lost focus or their spirits lagged, Brenton reminded his sisters of the goal: To empty the house so they could sell it. The house was costing them $1,800 a month to carry. It would serve them all to clear it and sell it.
- Know what you want and why -- "I looked for things that I remembered the story from or remembered my parents really valuing," Brenton said, "but also that I had room for and would use." One item is a monogrammed keybox his father carried in his pocket so the keys wouldn't poke holes in his pockets. It's small, personal and useful.
- All in the family -- When two antique clocks became a little contentious, because Brenton wanted both and so did his sisters, this realization helped. "I really didn't want both clocks," Brenton said. "What I really wanted was to keep them in the family. It wasn't important that they were in my house."
- Hire help -- Although I chose to sell most of my parents' belongings through an estate sale, that's not for everyone. "I knew from the start we wouldn't be able to do that," Brenton said. After they sorted the personal items, they brought in professionals. MaxSold, a company their real estate agent recommended, has 50 years of auction experience, which the company combines with the wonders of social media to liquidate households swiftly.
- Reverse sticker shock -- "Like many people, we thought there was more money in stuff than there really was," Brenton sad. "We weren't out to get the highest price, but MaxSold helped us see that the pricing was appropriate for the goal."
- Price of peace -- In two weeks, MaxSold, which gets 30 percent of the sale, grouped, photographed, cataloged and auctioned off everything. "It was a dramatic clean sweep," Brenton said. "For people in our situation, who were paying the costs of holding onto the house, this was absolutely worth the money."
- Listen to your parents -- When Isenberg catches herself thinking of items that got auctioned off that she wishes she had, she banishes the regret. "You can get caught in that spiral thought." But instead, she summons the voice of her mother. "She would tell me, 'You have to let that go, honey. It's gone. You have what's important: your memories, your children, your life. You have to live your life.'"
The Brenton family house went on the market in November and sold in January -- 11 months after their mom's death.
Join me next week as MaxSold founder shares tips on how to clear a house and how much the average household of stuff is worth.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of "House of Havoc" and "The House Always Wins" (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.