OT: Securely cleaning up 38 years of haphazard record keeping and filing.

Ellsworth Kelly Installation on the UT Austin Campus.

One of my earliest memories of my maternal grandmother was a visit to her house in the Ben Avon neighborhood of Pittsburg, PA. I was probably five or six years old and I was fascinated that a house could have three floors and an attic and basement. Even more fascinated that every room was filled with newspapers, furniture, housewares, books, lamps, etc. And when I say, "filled" I mean that each room had small walking pathways through the stacks and clutter that occupied the majority of the square footage in each room.  I remember walking into one room on the third floor that had been my grandfather's home office for nearly 50 years. It was filled with IBM typewriters of nearly every vintage. When a typewriter broke my grandfather would put it on a shelf and pull a new one out of a box and continue typing. He never trusted a machine once it failed him. I'm sure he always meant to have the dozens and dozens of typewriters repaired, or at least donated, but he never got around to it.

Once my grandparents filled one house they eventually bought a bigger one nearby. I remember visiting years later to find that the new house was now so full of stuff that the family was storing a mahogany table that would seat 16 under a tarp on the front porch. I don't know where all the stuff came from but it seems that once it entered the house it was trapped their forever...

But this is not a story about my grandparents, it's about my own parents. They bought a modest house in San Antonio about 38 years ago. I never lived in that house as I was already in college and firmly ensconced in Austin, Texas. I would come down for holidays or dinners and I never really paid attention to my mother's tendency to save everything in the event that a greeting card or jelly jar could be repurposed or in case the IRS wanted to see some detail of a return filed 37 years before. 

Most stuff ended up layered in boxes which were layered in closest and in the garage. When I say, "layered" I mean that a box might have old Christmas cards from friends and family, circa 1982 on one layer and under that might be some series EE savings bonds and under those might be a cache of credit card receipts from 1993 and under those might be some photographs from the end of the 19th century. These seemingly endless boxes of stuff were everywhere but since my parents seemed to be competent to handle their own lives the "archives" never hit my radar. 

That all changed at the end of 2017. My mom, the curator and essential content creator for most of the saved material passed away rather suddenly. Then it became glaringly obvious that my mother and her housekeeper had been keeping my dad's progressive dementia and memory loss from the three of us kids. My dad hadn't signed a check, balanced a checkbook or participated in financial record keeping in the better part of a decade. He had no idea what was in the boxes, or, more importantly, where to find important documents and things like checkbooks or bank statements. 

At the time it seemed a herculean task but we were able to find a very good memory care facility for dad. I thought that would be the toughest task to get done in this tumultuous and emotion laden transition... But it paled in comparison to the enormous process of cleaning out my parents house and finding, and securing all their legal documents and financial instruments. 

Belinda and I took on the task of sorting through everything to find all paper with account numbers and social security numbers on it. Anything that could be used for identity theft or information theft. We would head down to San Antonio once or twice a week, from January through May, to both visit my dad and to also sit for hours opening and sorting through boxes, filing cabinets, desks and cupboards. We looked through every nook and cranny. We had a three bin system. One bin was for all things with identifiers on them but which did not need to be saved for legal or financial purposes. This box was called, "Shred." A second bin was for memorabilia. Anything from family snapshots to class rings, old watches, cards from various grandchildren (my brother seemed incapable of tossing anything his kids had made as presents for our parents....) notes, letters, etc. This bin was called, "Memorabilia" and had a note: "to be sorted by Alison and Ned" my siblings being more attached to the nostalgic residue than I.  The final box that Belinda and I worked to fill was for recent tax returns, property deeds, stock certificates, life insurance policies, financial accounts and medical records. All of this material went into a bin called, "Save and File." 

We have, just this week, finished our primary filtering of all the boxes, desks and hiding places. Belinda and I brought the ten moving boxes of shredding up to Austin and called a service that will come to your business or home and shred documents in a big truck fitted with a powerful, industrial shredder. They charge by the pound. We handed over to them 420 pounds of material to shred. It was sweaty work for the technician to pull the boxes out and into the hot interior of the truck but we were overjoyed to get our space back in the studio and in Belinda's office. 

My brother and his wife have taken care to mine all of the memorabilia and to sort it for "keep" and "throw." 

All that's left in the house now is the bulk of the furniture (some rescued by my two siblings and their kids) bedding, kitchen ware and old clothes. We thought of having an estate sale but no one was up for spearheading that so we're working with a charity to have then come and take anything of value.  After that we've found a service that will excavate the house of all trash, unwanted items, unclaimed stuff, pile it all into a dumpster and haul it away. 

So, what is the tangential lesson I've received from the universe by doing this process? First, that most of the stuff we're probably hanging on to is worthless to nearly everyone else in the universe. Second, that over time we spend enormous amounts of money accruing crap we don't use up and don't store well. And, finally, that after we die someone else has to take responsibility to put aside sentiment and radically downsize the ever growing piles of things we thought we'd take out and look at sometime in the future which have laid, untouched, in boxes for decades. In fact, I'm pretty sure my parents had no idea what was finally in most boxes and could not have found anything particular thing which they had not used or seen past two years. 

Two things struck me as odd. One was that my mother and father were fond of Bonne Maman jams, jellies and preserves. I like the look of the jars just as much as the next person but when I opened a cabinet in their kitchen I came across several hundred empty jars which had been used, cleaned out, had the labels removed and were stored with their lids on. There was no sign that my mother had ever reused even one but the collection grew right up until near the end of 2017. 

The second odd thing concerned a chunky collection of U.S. Savings Bonds. Series EE. My mother seemed to collect these as well. She worked for a large insurance company for many years and, in addition to the generous pension that was part of her compensation she also seemed to love the month ly purchase of these government bonds. Since I had been designated as the administrator and executor for both of my parents my mother brought out a thick 9x12 inch envelope on day in 2016 and asked me what she should do with these bonds. It was the first time I knew of them. I told her she should take them to her bank, cash them and put the proceeds into one of her accounts. We never spoke of them again but I called the bank after her passing to see if she'd ever completed the transaction. No. Now the search was on for the envelope. 

We looked in every nook and cranny. Every strong box. Every moving box. Nothing. Finally, I was gathering up clothing and accessories to take to Goodwill or their church's thrift shop as donations. One old canvas bag that hung with some of mom's well used leather purses seemed a bit heavy and bulky so, of course, I looked inside and there was the envelope we'd spent months looking for. 

I can't wait to sell the house. I never liked it. And I'm tired of writing checks for taxes, utilities and maintenance for a house that no one lives in. I'm meeting with a realtor who my elder law attorney has recommended. I hope the sale can be handled with as little intervention on my part as possible. 

I hate projects that go on forever.  I'm stacking up my banker's boxes with old tax returns in a corner of the studio. When I pull out all the old paper from the filing cabinets I'll call the shredding service again. It's cathartic. And it's something you should try not to pass on to your children. Not when they'd rather be walking around testing a new lens....


  1. A few of our "older" acquaintances have gone through similar ordeals after the death of a family member and have reached the same conclusion. Purge the things that have accumulated in their lives while they still can and simplify their lives. I need to get started in the room that holds my camera gear. Happy you are reaching the end of this chapter. In time it will all be a memory.

  2. Thanks Frank. It has been an ordeal but I think I'm past the survival stage and into the recovery stage. A few more hurdles and well have that house in the hands of a family that needs the space. And I'll have fewer checks to write each month. Thanks for your continuing support and not too infrequent wisdom.

  3. My father's rule was to seal "stuff" into boxes and date them. If a box wasn't opened for six months, toss it.

    I've been involved in or in charge of closing four estates. First thing to do is order a dumpster, then another and another until the house is empty. If a relative wants something tell them that if they will haul it away (or arrange to have it hauled away) by a certain date they can have it. If they miss the date, into the dumpster.

  4. At 76, I have very much in mind not leaving my clutter for my kids to clean up. I have a lot of clutter, so I hope I have enough time.

    I learned when my father-in-law was dying of ALS the sadness of treasuring things, and the valuelessness of those things to those you leave behind. His hospital bed was set in his first floor library/den, for the ease of several family caregivers. One day he gestured to his books, and asked me, "Who's going to take care of my books?" I stayed silent. How could I tell him that the things he valued so much did not mean as much to anyone else?

    When my mother-in-law recovered from her first stroke, she began setting things in order, and got rid of a lot, but not before the second stroke felled her. My wife and I made several trips to Dallas to both sort through things, and to make sure her partially disabled husband had a small enough apartment so he could live pretty much self sufficiently. She had many, many clothes, but luckily, being a church lady, all of the other women in the congregation came by, and benefited from most of it.

    I may have mentioned before, the Swedish practice of "death cleansing." Despite the morbid name, it is actually a gift to those who will take care of final arrangements.
    See https://www.amazon.com/Gentle-Art-Swedish-Death-Cleaning/dp/1501173243?tag=vogue0d-20

    I know it's not easy, and that it is tedious work, but eventually you'll get to a place where it's all done, you can breathe again, and take time for that which is of value to you

  5. Kirk, I sympathise with you as we went through exactly the same situation two years ago when we had to empty the farmhouse of my wife's mother. She had to move to a memory care home after we took care for her for nearly two years.

    All the best

  6. Kirk, I'm glad to hear that you are close to getting things in order. I have been through the same process several times following the loss of parents and other relatives for whom I somehow picked up the role of late-life caretaker. Each time motivated me to make a major purge of unused items and old paperwork. Alas, they are like weeds and keep growing back. It's time to go the the process again.

  7. Emptying my late father's house of 20 years of accumulated collections, eccentric habits like storing things in cigar boxes (stacks of them), and sorting the valuable from the simply disposable was one of the more difficult tasks of my adult life. Fortunately siblings allowed me to engage a firm that specialized in purchasing homes in estate divestment situations like this. My energetic niece and her husband were able to find homes for all the furniture, I was able to sort out most of the items of value to their respective inheritors, and the estate company took care of the rest in a turnkey fashion while still offering a fair value for the home.

    When I look around at my own family's possessions I see considerable opportunity to simplify. A good reminder that it is somewhat of an ongoing task throughout our adult lives (or -should be- anyway!).

  8. Thank you for reminding all of us readers that the burden of cleaning out our life-long accumulations of stuff often fall to our children (or their spouses). Really, it is a cruel thing to leave papers and junk they they must spend parts of their valuable lives reading and purging. It is also a warning for those of us with GAS (you know, that Gear Acquisition Syndrome). Whenever I see something tempting on the 'Bay, I ask my self, "Can I take a picture with this item that I could not take with an existing camera/lens in my inventory?" Honestly, the answer is invariably no and I skip it. And a few days later, I have forgotten about it. Guess it was not important....

  9. What's the best thing you found in an obscure location?

    A friend of mine, cleaning out her mother's house, found

    in a guest bathroom

    Under the sink

    in a box of tampons (which nobody had needed in 30 years)

    a pearl necklace.

    Nothing can be overlooked.

  10. I hear you Kirk about not collecting 'stuff' that your kids will eventually have to wade through. I've had to do this for my father's collection about 6 years ago and still have some boxes to dispose of. For him, it was a carry-over from his career at the Archives of Ontario. I inherited boxes and boxes of documents, books, and photos, as well as odd pieces he was trying to sell. One of these is an old card table with the label 'Sir Wilfrid Laurier (former Canadian Prime Minister) played cards on this table with the Lapierre family in Buckingham, Quebec.' Any buyers in Texas?

  11. I was involved in a clean out and round $1200 in cash in a drawer that was filled with 30 years of ATM receipts.
    When my grandmother passed, they found hundreds of dollars concealed in pockets of various shirts hanging in a closet stuffed full of clothing.
    You have to open literally every single envelope and check every pocket or drawer...

    I'm sorry you had to go through all that.


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