There’s a difference between heirlooms and junk

There are certain tasks most of us will face, assuming we have the good fortune to live long enough.

One of those is cleaning out the house of our parents – perhaps the house where we grew up.

My mother, Louise Farmer, died in October 2015, and I have put off dealing with her house for almost four years.

The property was in good hands. Honest, loving people who had helped to care for my mom as she declined through the years with Alzheimer’s disease, were staying there, and they had moved her stuff to a storage room in the basement.

The delay wasn’t financial. There were no nasty battles over her belongings or questions of the estate. It was completely emotional. I didn’t want to do it. So I didn’t.

Until now.

I traveled to my hometown of Abingdon, Virginia, about a week ago to undertake the job with the help of my wife and two kids, 15 and 13. As you would expect of the South in the summer time, it was hot and the work was both emotionally draining and physically difficult.

Items to be sorted through in the basement of the Farmer home in Abingdon, Virginia. Photo by David Farmer

Some decisions were easy. We knew which pieces of furniture we wanted to keep and which ones we would donate or haul off to the dump.

But the sheer enormity of the job came as a surprise.

I soon discovered that my mom and dad (Dad died in 1997) had never fully undertaken the job when their own parents – my grandparents – had died.

There were reams and reams of old papers, boxes of odds and ends, thousands of pictures, letters, artifacts that I never knew existed but suddenly cared deeply about.

I was limited to just three days to finish my work, so I was a person on a mission, moving fast and dreading a mistake I might not even recognize.

In a box of bobbles – sewing machine parts, buttons, thumb tacks – I luckily found one of my dad’s dog tags from when he served in the US Army. I’d never seen it before and didn’t know that it existed. I was so glad to have it.

I also found parts of his military uniform. His coat was so badly moth-eaten that it couldn’t be saved – what would I do with it anyway? – but a uniform shirt was OK. I kept it for no really good reason except I couldn’t part with it.

I found two passes from his time in Germany, signed by his commanding officer, which helped me to identify his exact unit, and where it was stationed. I kept those.

Somehow, I found my locker combination from high school, which I hope finally puts to rest the recurring nightmare of not being able to remember it.

But in the boxes and boxes of papers, I also found every credit card receipt my dad ever had, dating back to the early 1960s when he worked in New Jersey as a journeyman. Those I tossed.

And I found out that while he was there, he owned a Whizzer motorized bicycle. From the way I remember the stories, he’d always described it as a motorcycle. Not exactly.

There was a jar with my baby teeth (I’m 48); both me and my kids were freaked out – they probably didn’t consider that their mom and I have theirs as well.

There were family artifacts: my grandfather’s business licenses when he owned a grocery store and gas station and his log book when he was justice of the peace. An invitation to the Nixon-Agnew inauguration. Bible after Bible after Bible.

My mother had kept every thing, it seemed. My childhood “art” and toys (I’ll probably be rich from the original Star Wars figures she kept). Christmas, birthday, graduation cards and love letters. Baby clothes. Old light bulbs and jars of buttons.

At the end of the day, we kept one moving pod of stuff, threw away 56 garbage bags and made more than a dozen trips to Goodwill to donate the things we didn’t feel like we could keep but hoped might live on with another family.

I’m glad the job is done, and I feel like I know my own family better than I did before. But while it’s fresh, I’m going to offer some advice.

Label your pictures – hard copy and digital – with names, locations, dates. That cool photo of you and your friends, your grand kids want to know who they are and where you were. They won’t realize until they see it just how cool you were.

Don’t keep every piece of paper. Save your kids or whoever is coming behind you. You don’t need the 1947 Texaco receipt from Paterson, New Jersey. Really. Throw it away.

Toss the all those greeting cards, but keep the letters.

And for the love of all that is holy, you don’t need several boxes of 1950s-era fuses, broken furniture you’re never going to fix, vegetables canned decades ago or notebooks from when you were in high school or college.

The physical ties to my hometown and the house where I grew up are gone now, condensed down to a few relics. But that’s OK. It was never the stuff that was piled in the junk room that made it home anyway.

It was the people, the experiences and the memories. And I still have at least two of the three – and they are fresher now than they have been in years.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at