Treasured Trash

Don Southworth

WHEN PEOPLE DISCUSS financial matters or take the “A Year to Live” class that I lead, there’s a common refrain: They don’t want to be a burden to their loved ones. They’re concerned about having enough money to take care of themselves when they’re older.

But even if we have plenty of money, we can still end up being a burden. How so? Our kids and other loved ones don’t want the stuff we’ve gathered over the years. I was reminded of this recently when talking with some older friends about downsizing. For some, getting rid of beloved books, albums and paper records is like saying goodbye to long-held friendships. When we moved four years ago, we gave away more than 10 boxes of books. We still have too many.

I always ask people in my class what their five most precious possessions are, and what they plan to do with them when they’re gone. The good news: People typically hold memories much tighter than material things. The bad news: They usually have no idea who, if anyone, will want the material objects they love.

I’ve seen this up close. I was challenged and fortunate to take care of my dad when he went into home hospice care. The six weeks he thought he’d live turned into one year. I spent much of the year dealing with stuff that he and his late wife had accumulated. She was a collector, and had so many teddy bears and dolls that it was hard to get rid of them all.

When my dad died, I was grateful that the company that bought his mobile home promised to dispose of any items that remained. I have no idea where they donated the furniture and boxes of china I left behind, but I was relieved that I didn’t have to deal with them.

On the small altar in my office, there’s a handful of special keepsakes that have belonged to those I have loved. A ceramic Santa Claus my grandmother took out every year. The International House of Pancakes mug that we used to scatter most of my mom’s ashes, and which now contains eight ounces of her remains.

My favorite keepsake from my dad? A small coffee scoop I used to make his coffee each day when I took care of him during the last year of his life. When I use it each morning to make my coffee, I smile and remember that final year, and how lucky I was to share it with him so intimately.

I’m trying to dispose of as much of my stuff as I can, so my kids and other loved ones don’t have to do it when I’m gone. I hope my legacy can be a memory or a coffee scoop, not several trips to the dump.

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