Declutter Sentimental Stuff with Story

June 17, 2019 Deborah Wilbrink

Save Stuff or Save the Story?

Sentimental stuff can unlock memory, becoming helpful prompts for writing memoir and family story. Looking at photos, digging through boxes can be worthwhile, touching the points of pleasure and pain in our past, unveiling wisdom. But sometimes, the weight of sentimental objects becomes oppressive. I have helped people declutter sentimental stuff with story by creating a book about the family heirlooms, with photographs and stories. Could this free a person from the responsibility of storing the keepsakes, yet keep the memories? I turned to an expert in decluttering for help with this idea. Susan Gardner of Nashville is a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization, CPO-CD®, MDiv.

“Taking a photograph does not preserve the memory behind the object,” says Gardner. “If you take a picture of it you will also need a place to store and display it, whether it’s a collage, a photo mosaic, or a personal memory book you create on a site like Shutter Fly, with room for narration. If the kids don’t want grandma’s china and you’re not using it and need to get rid of it because you’re downsizing, take a picture of the table set with the china. Put those pictures in the book, make copies of the book, give those to the family.” But a book will not hold the memory to share with others without the story behind those photographs of objects. So make the narrative an equal partner in this book: how the dishes came as a wedding gift and were used only on Sundays or holiday dinners at Grandma’s home.

I have my shawl vault – they’re all in temperature-controlled storage. I’m trying to give my shawls away, but there’s thousands of them. If I ever write my life story, maybe that should be the name of my book:

There’s Enough Shawls to Go Around.

From the Stevie Nicks interview, Rolling Stone,March 2019

With her business, Clearing the Way Home, Gardner helps many people fight free of clutter and habits that can be harmful to the inherent joy in life. She’s an expert on sentimental objects! “There are some people who collect sentimental objects from the beginning. They have every concert ticket stub from every concert they’ve ever been to… they start out by being stuck around the frame of a mirror and expand to boxes full! Then there are some people sentimentally attached to an object from a memorable experience.”

“Some sentimental objects are received from a death of loved one. The first question to ask is:

Whose memory am I holding?

Am I holding a memory of someone else that does not connect to me? Whose memory is being held in the object?” If you have been given many objects, it’s important to choose an object to keep that reminds them of that person. And when a person chooses an object, that’s different from when they are expected to take everything that this deceased aunt, for example, left behind that had value to her,” advises Gardner.

“One family had a lot of paper things that they needed to memorialize but not keep. Letters that had been passed for generations. They had a letter-reading dinner and each collected letters they wanted, that they felt told their family story. The other papers they bundled and had a small fire. They had an event, gave thanks for it, and let it go. This is sacred work. Grief and healing happens when you let go of things, and are able to be thankful for it. Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and who hosts the TV show Tidy, is popular because she understands the sacred nature of things.” In her workshops and consultations, Gardner also advises where to place your precious but discarded objects where they will be useful and valued, finding them new homes.

In The Sentimental Person’s Guide to Decluttering, Claire Middleton suggests simply scanning letters and diaries before removing the originals. But who will read these later? She used an example of a family who found 70 letters written in the 1920s and 1930s under a floorboard in the family home. The great-granddaughter of the letter-writer posted the scanned letters to a blog for family subscribers! Middleton suggests paring down to the most special items, not an easy task, and boxing those up for special review times – “Or whenever you feel like it!”

If you have more than letters in your sentimental stuff, you may sympathize with Middleton, who writes,

Ultimately, heirlooms are nice in theory, but most are a burden in reality.

She offers creative suggestions to display your best mementos. An end table, a shadow box, even a large bowl or decorative basket with a lid are places for sentimental stuff.

In theory, record your memories and you will be able to let go. But professional organizer Gardner warns that the recordings can become a clutter of their own. “I work with a lot of people who hoard. They hoard information, they hoard emotions, they hoard ideas, they hoard memories. When we get them captured in something, then that becomes one more object that we add to the collection instead of letting go of it. One solution is that these records could go into a book specifically designated for mementos.”

A coffee table book of those photos accompanied by short stories is one that will turn bulky mementos into events: new memories of easily entertaining times. How much easier it is to have a book on hand!

Clutter, Organized Records, or

a Beautiful Book to Share?

If You Care to Keep the Last Letter

Deborah Wilbrink is a personal historian, editor and ghostwriter specializing in producing family history and memoir books. She also teaches workshops and speaks professionally. Susan Gardner, Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization, in addition to consulting and offering workshops in the Middle Tennessee area with Clearing the Way Home, is featured on the Tennessee Family History Resources page on Deborah’s website,

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“The Best Book is Your Own Story.”
Deborah Wilbrink

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