On Hoarders, and now on his terrific, Emmy-nominated PBS show Legacy List, Matt Paxton helps people deal with their stuff, whether they’re in crisis because of hoarding or downsizing and sifting through family heirlooms.
In his new book, Keep The Memories, Lose the Stuff—which is now available on Bookshop.org, Kindle, and at your local bookstore—Matt offers practical advice for dealing with stuff and memories. In this excerpt, Matt writes about how he got started, explains why memories about stuff matter, and discusses generational differences in collecting things.
Did cleaning out Dad’s space spark an epiphany that decluttering is my lifelong purpose? Not at all. I was just happy to put off my job search for a few months while I figured things out.
I still had no idea how I was going to earn a living.
My father, my hero, was gone, and I was lost and wandering—and the only thing worse than being lost in life is being lost in life and broke.
I had one thing going for me, though: a community. People knew my grandfather, they knew my father, and now they knew me. I had my people. The upside of a tightly knit community is that people look out for you when you’re down on your luck. The downside is that everyone knows the details of your life. Both realities played into what happened next.
Word got around that I had cleared out my dad’s house and that I was looking for work. At church one Sunday, a kindly eighty-year-old woman—we’ll call her Etta—came over to me. I’d known her my entire life—she and her loving squad of bridge players, with their immaculate, blue-tinted white hair. No matter what was going on in their lives, these women got their hair done at the beauty parlor every other Thursday afternoon.
Etta told me she’d heard I was looking for some ways to make money and offered to help me out. She lived in an old colonial house like my father’s, and her friends were encouraging her to downsize now that her beloved husband, Jim, had died. She was years away from going into senior living, she hastened to inform me. But she figured I could use some extra money. She asked if I could do some work for her.
I quickly agreed, happy to help her out and earn some cash. A few days later, I arrived at her home ready to clear out what I assumed were a few boxes.
Then I stepped inside. Etta’s home was a sign of a well-lived life. Dishes and crystal of every type imaginable were stacked in her kitchen and dining room. Cases of wine and shelves of wineglasses. Linen tablecloths and napkins folded neatly. At least ten card tables and dozens of decks of cards. It looked to me like her home held enough to supply a banquet hall.
I had thought, going over to Etta’s home, that helping her declutter would be depressing. Weren’t we going to throw away a lifetime of stuff, after all? Wouldn’t helping her clean out be like helping her write her own obituary?
That wasn’t what happened at all. Over the next few weeks, Etta and I took pleasure in her favorite life stories. We didn’t bury her best years; we celebrated them. She had an eager audience in me, and she was in control of how the organizational process worked. She took her time. Etta’s memories were given another life when she recalled them to me—and in this chapter I’m giving them another life by recalling them to you.
This is the most important part of the process—the part most experts miss entirely. If we don’t know the stories behind the stuff, we will never be able to freely let go of it.
Why different generations collect different stuff
If you’re cleaning out the home of older generations, you’ll likely notice how differently they consumed and collected stuff than we do in our current era. I hadn’t realized this until cleaning Etta’s home. Etta was an entirely different species from me or my dad. As we talked that day, I understood for the first time the significance of that generation gap.
Etta was a child of the Great Depression. Those of us who have grown up in more prosperous times might not understand what it was like to come of age when scarcity was the norm, not the exception. But those who lived through it never forget it. Soup kitchens and bread lines. Labor strikes and Dust Bowls. “One-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished,” as President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1937. These traumatic memories became part of a generation’s DNA. Starting with Etta and continuing for the last twenty-plus years, I have worked with that generation and witnessed the indelible imprint the Depression left upon millions of people. It’s not always detectable in their words or actions out in public—but it’s visible in their homes.
But I didn’t know that yet. So at first, I wondered why Etta seemed to keep everything. Why hold on to those skinny yellow plastic bags tossed on her porch every morning with the newspapers? And the rubber bands wrapped around the armrest of her rocking chair? She had a stack of bulletins from every church service I think she ever attended; it looked like fifty years of neatly stacked Sundays. I was stupefied at the sheer amount of stuff this petite woman possessed.
Starting in the dining room and moving to the basement and the attic, we went to work, packing things up, picking and choosing what to keep and what to donate or discard, and, most of all, talking and laughing
And crying. Tears welled up in Etta’s eyes as she looked at a note from her father, in his rough handwriting, when he’d left home for months to go out in the world in search of work. She showed me his pocket watch, which she remembered him pulling out of a vest pocket often to ensure they’d be on time for appointments. That story led to others: She and her brother splitting a single slice of bread because that was all they had to eat that day. The Christmas when all her mother could afford for her children was a gift of a single orange and a peppermint stick. Etta told me with delight, with gratitude for her good fortune, the luxurious treat of sucking the juice out of the orange through the peppermint stick.
I felt like I was not just helping Etta go through her stuff; I was in the trenches with her. As I got to know her, I began to understand why she had so much stuff: For people who had nothing at one time, anything they have is precious. More than sixty years later, Etta hadn’t lost the feeling that one day, abundance might suddenly disappear, leaving her with nothing once again. And then every plastic bag, every last rubber band would be as precious as coins and paper bills.
Wading through her belongings and talking to Etta about her memories of deprivation, I started to understand something that would later become essential to my life’s work: People hoard to cover up pain. The scarcity Etta had suffered when she was younger stayed with her for the rest of her life. She wanted to have enough in her home so that she would never, ever run out. And plastic bags and rubber bands aside, she was damned proud of the possessions she and Jim had worked their tails off to earn. That made parting with them all the more difficult.
Etta explained something else to me: As a full-time homemaker for decades, entertaining guests, friends, and family was deeply important to her. That was why she always kept the house spotless and stocked with enough supplies to serve a small army. When I first got there, I wondered: Who could ever use that many card tables? I’d been to some underground casinos in my time, but something told me that Etta wasn’t a card shark running an after-hours club in her basement. And enough platters and serving utensils to open a catering business? Now I understood.
Excerpted from Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff: Declutter, Downsize, and Move Forward with Your Life by Matt Paxton with Jordan Michael Smith, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Matt Paxton and AARP, 2022.