How to Let Go of a Lifetime of Treasures
Finding a new home for parents’ prized possessions.
Illustration by Dan Page
Two young women excitedly tugged at my mother’s dresser. Cool, I thought, they’re buying. Twenty years after making the journey from a New York City apartment to a retirement condo in Rossmoor, the hulking bedroom furniture my parents bought when they married in 1948 was about to be repatriated to urban life, this time a couple’s first apartment in San Francisco’s Mission district. I’d thrown in some luridly colored aperitif glasses they’d admired, along with the tale of my parents, World War II refugees who made a new life for themselves in the United States. The women drove away waving, the furniture tied into a borrowed truck.
Facing the demise or diminishing capacities of a parent is difficult enough. Disposing of items you’ve known all your life can drive the sharp blade of loss deeper. Ten years after my father’s death from prostate cancer, I had to move my mom into a care home and deal with everything left behind. I’ve walked out of estate sales because it’s just too painful to see strangers tramping through a deceased old lady’s house, pawing through her closets and drawers, and I didn’t want that for my mom and dad.
I was determined to handle my parents’ things with tenderness. As hard as it was, I found that letting go of my parents’ possessions in a way that gave them another purpose made the process less daunting.
The bedroom furniture turned out to be the only thing I sold on Craigslist. I found new homes for everything else by donating, recycling, or giving things to family and friends. College kids, injured wildlife, retro fashionistas, and aspiring art students were all the recipients of 50 years’ worth of accumulated household goods. One student decided that my parents’ black-and-chrome breakfast bar would make a great DJ stand for turntables and speakers. My Beethoven-loving dad would have chuckled over that one.
Some things went into recycling bins, including ones that accept and safely dispose of prescription drugs. I squeezed choice bits like the vintage Pyrex and CorningWare into my own already crammed kitchen cabinets. And I couldn’t bear to part with the very coolest of my parents’ midcentury furniture: the surfboard Formica coffee table, Eames-esque orange side chairs, my dad’s blond wood desk. So I rented a storage unit for the day one of my three kids sets up house. But next to nothing went to the landfill.
Giving my parents’ 20th century detritus a green send-off felt good, like sunlight breaking through a situation fraught with clouds. To those going through a similar situation: Find the best possible places for their possessions, and you’ll be amazed at how good it feels. Here are some tips from my experience.
Worn and torn linens
Mom kept everything, right? Frayed towels, holey blankets, and nearly transparent pillowcases can’t be sold, even by the Salvation Army or charity used goods stores. But don’t trash them. Instead, tote them to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum’s animal rehabilitation hospital in Walnut Creek. Your parents’ worn towels and blankets can help warm and comfort injured wildlife. 1931 First Ave., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-1978, wildlife-museum.org.
Mom’s old clothes may be vintage, and taking them to a chic boutique where her best stuff will be fetchingly displayed on pretty hangers with hand-lettered price tags feels better than dumping her duds into a Goodwill bin. Young fashionistas who love vintage will cherish the clothes and work them into stylish new outfits.
I brought my mom’s clothes to Pretty Penny in Rockridge, and while I didn’t get much money, it brought me a lot of joy. A young patron stepped forward and offered me $5 for a floral skirt the shop’s buyer had passed on. The girl’s eyes lit up when I told her my mother had made it herself in the 1950s. I felt wonderful knowing Mom’s skirt would live on. 5488 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 594-9219, prettypennyclothing.com.
Odds and ends
Once you’ve distributed the pots, pans, and everyday dishes, you may be left with a hodgepodge of stuff too weird or worn to donate, but too cool to destroy: Dad’s collection of gas station road maps, Mom’s disease and affliction pamphlets (the precursor to WebMD), those funky webbed lawn chairs, and sixth-grade woodshop projects your brother doesn’t want back. That’s where the wacky, wonderful world of the nonprofit East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse comes in.
It’s a colorful treasure trove for art students and teachers sifting for project supplies, but anyone and everyone can and does shop there. The day I brought in a bunch of my parents’ ephemera, standouts in the store were a six-foot-tall white wire Victorian birdcage and a giant glass jar filled with plastic feet stamped “Birkenstock,” all priced to sell. Pull your car around to the garage in the back, and workers will help unload your stuff. 4695 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-6470, creativereuse.org.
Not everyone’s made the transition to e-readers. Many people, even young ones, still read books on paper. That’s where you come in. From Orinda to Danville to Livermore, all area libraries include Friends’ bookstores, where tomes are donated, and most are sold for $2 to $3. Proceeds raise much-needed funds for new library materials, which means your parents’ books find their way to new readers and help out libraries.
It’s best not to trash your parents’ outdated computers, printers, TVs, stereos, power strips, and other electronics. It’s illegal to dump electronic waste in the trash because it can contain toxins like lead, mercury, and cadmium that leach into the soil and water aquifers. Instead, take these items to Walnut Creek’s free e-Recycle On Us. Open six days a week, e-Recycle offers free green disposal for every electronic gadget Dad ever bought, and the nice guys there will even heave the heavy stuff out of your car for you. 1271 Boulevard Way, Walnut Creek, (925) 934-1515, erecycleonus.com.
Meds, toiletries, cleaning products
Don’t flush the folks’ medicine cabinet or under-the-sink contents. Most towns offer a free collection site for prescription meds. Look for them at police department headquarters in Contra Costa County, during scheduled drop-off events in Dublin and Pleasanton, and in the lobby of the Water Resources Division’s administration building in Livermore. Visit centralsan.org for your nearest drop-off location.
Gather kitchen cleansers, shampoo, lotions, and hemorrhoid creams, which need to go to the county Household Hazardous Waste Facility in Livermore or Martinez. They also accept those old cans of paint gathering rust in the garage. 5584 La Ribera St., Livermore, (800) 606-6606, stopwaste.org, 4797 Imhoff Pl., Martinez, (800) 646-1431, centralsan.org.