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Cleaning Out the Basement: Acting as a Professional Organizer and Daughter at the Same Time

(Author's Note: This post is a mix of narrative and how-to, different from my usual how-to-organize summaries, so grab a cup of coffee, read on, and take notes if you desire.)

Before beginning this project, I debated if and when I would disclose the identity of my client. Normally, I use pictures and videos of my clients' homes without disclosing any of their personal information, but this time was different for two reasons: I certainly wasn't going to put in a week's worth of organizing work without letting my audience in on the process, and the client was a special one.

My mom.

It was the perfect mix of personal ties and professional work: a week of decluttering and organizing my mother's basement, filled with piles of accumulated papers, memorabilia, and items long forgotten, waiting in haphazardly piled boxes and plastic bins. We had been talking about it for months, and finally found the perfect time for me to be away from my own family for a week. I had no idea how it would go, as I usually do before any new organizing project, but not because I didn't know the setting, the client, or what we would find. I had no idea how it would go precisely because I DID know everything about the project, and held the result with an open hand. I was both professional organizer and daughter, experienced professional and child, excited to clear out the space but also relive some memories and discover some more.

If you're going to undertake a project that involves any of the following:

  1. clearing out a deceased loved one's home,

  2. going through items in a loved one's home due to moving or other life stage-changing circumstances,

  3. or sifting through items from your own childhood,

I beg you, before you begin, sit down and answer some questions. How do you feel going into the project? Are you grieving a loss? Resentful this has fallen on your shoulders? Or joyful that at the end of this project is a new start? What do you hope to find? This can be literal or figurative - special long-lost items, or simply an appreciation for who your loved one was. And what are my guiding principles? Do I keep it all or just what's useful? What resources do I have for disposal and donation? What would/does my loved one value in disposal/dissemination of items?

(For help on what to keep, check out my previous post on The Only Phrase You Need To Use When Decluttering, and for help on donation resources, check out But Where Do I Donate My Stuff?)

It's also helpful to know the backstory of the space. You made know some it or all of it, but it's ok to ask questions of others. How long has the space been occupied? How many years of belongings are here? Who lived here and when? And lastly, where is it all going to go? If there are people not present who may want some of the items, that's good to know!

For my mom's project, we started by taking a tour of the space, asking my usual questions about the contents of the boxes and bins, and what the end goals my mom had in mind. Once I had a general idea of categories I would find (memorabilia, decorations, papers, kid's stuff), we cleared out one of the bedrooms and set up two long tables to serve as a sorting station later. While our primary goal was to clear the space and make it usable (finished basement with two couches beneath the boxes), the time we had would not allow us to completely sort every box. We would need to open each box enough to discern it's category, then place it in a designated and labeled place for later perusal.

We generally worked side-by-side 6-7 hours a day, starting once we had our coffee, pausing for lunch, and depending on the day, ending in time for dinner with other family in the area. Working side-by-side gave two set of eyes to each box's contents: one set, a professional who has multiple categories in her brain at any moment but also knows the handwriting and history, and the second, one set who's memories of history are dim but can be awakened with a glance of recognition. I was delighted to learn my client/mom was able to decide quickly whether:

  1. she wanted to donate/dispose of/recycle all the items, or

  2. she wanted to set aside and decide later.

As we worked through the piles of boxes, we would waver between making a quick decision about a box + putting it in it's category in the sorting room and lingering over a box with especially entertaining or endearing memories. Some notable items we found were: a piece of curved card stock with string and REAL HAIR glued to it to form a "beard," my mom's baby book, tax returns from as far back as 1989, a Sears catalog from 1982, and yes, we did in fact find my mom's marbles, which she had lost 2 years prior.

After 6 days and 30 hours of sorting, what began as 155 boxes was reduced to 115, with 40 bags and boxes of donations, 2 loads in a Prius of cardboard boxes, and 8 bags to recycling. We spent a whole half day driving around town, dropping off donations and recycling! The visual result is excellent as well, check it out:

There were a few parts we didn't finish, like the holiday decorations closet, which I had intended to categorize and containerize further but just ran out of time. But for the most part, this was a HUGE step forward. Not only for my mom, who was now set up to continue the sorting journey on her own, but also for myself and family, as we can now enjoy the large basement space to hang out, play games, and cool off.

I know not everyone's experience cleaning out a loved one's home will be like mine, and I completely understand that my situation was ideal in its joy and circumstance. However, no matter the situation or emotions surrounding it, a little pause for reflection and resource finding before the project starts can go a long way, whether your loved one is with you or not.

Revisiting the items and documents that represented my past forced me to rewrite several parts of my story. You know those parts of your life you have rehearsed in your head as going one way, but then you find out more information and change the narrative? If you're brave enough to be open to it, it can become a kind of healing and mending on its own, filling in gaps where there were questions, and joy where you may have forgotten it. I came away from my week in the basement physically sore, but fulfilled and just that much more whole than when I came in.

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