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Say goodbye to everyone else's clutter

AKRON, Ohio - Mary Topper jokes that she needs lessons in saying no. The attic of her South Akron, Ohio, home has become a kind of storage center. So have parts of the house left by her late sister in Firestone Park. Some of the items Topper has ...

AKRON, Ohio - Mary Topper jokes that she needs lessons in saying no.

The attic of her South Akron, Ohio, home has become a kind of storage center. So have parts of the house left by her late sister in Firestone Park.

Some of the items Topper has squirreled away were inherited from her mother and sister. Others are things she's agreed to warehouse for friends or relatives who said they just needed a place to keep things for a little while.

But somehow, little whiles have turned into long times.

"If you have a big house," she said, "you get stuck."


Luckily, Topper isn't bothered by the accumulation. Many of the original owners have died, so as needs arise, she's been giving their things away - furniture to the victims of a house fire, for example; household items to a priest when he returned to his native Ghana.

"One of these days, someone'll tell me they need a size 16 dress," she said, looking through the clothes that cram a bedroom closet in her late sister's house, "and I'll say, 'I've got one.'"

Topper is hardly alone in being overrun by other people's possessions, although her tolerance is probably an exception. Many of us have become weighed down by stuff we've accumulated from others heirlooms willed by relatives, household goods handed down by well-meaning parents, boxes of memorabilia left by children who've fled the nest.

It's a problem that professional organizers Nancy McGarity and Bonnie Krueger see often.

McGarity owns Real Solutions for Living in Canal Fulton, Ohio, and facilitates chapters of the Clutter Club, an organizing self-help group that meets in North Canton and Green. Often, she said, club members will complain of feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff they've gotten from others, be it furniture, household goods or paper.

The problem is made especially vexing by the emotions that often accompany the hand-me-downs, said Krueger, who runs Organize Everything in West Salem, Ohio.

Sometimes it's grief over the loss of a loved one. Sometimes it's guilt over the thought of parting with someone else's things. Either can make dealing with the possessions all the harder, she said.

If Krueger had her way, those problems wouldn't arise in the first place. She often urges clients, particularly older people, to ask their family members what they'd like to have before it comes time to divvy up the goods. That way, no one gets stuck with things he or she doesn't want or can't use.


Your family members' responses might surprise you, she said. They might show little interest in the things you think have worth, yet they'll attach great meaning to items you find insignificant. For Krueger, it's her grandmother's bread bowl, which she displays in her home. Every time she sees it, she fondly remembers her grandmother baking bread, she said.

Unfortunately, that kind of foresight is all too rare. More commonly, someone downsizes or dies, and his or her stuff ends up taking up space in the garage or basement of one or more relatives.

So if you're on the receiving end, what do you do?

That depends on how you feel, the organizers said.

For some people, McGarity said, excess stuff just isn't a concern. Maybe, like Topper, they have the room to store it. Maybe they're just comfortable with clutter. Whatever the reason, if it's not hindering your life, you shouldn't feel pressured to deal with it, she said.

For others, especially those who've inherited things after losing a loved one, emotions may simply be too raw, Krueger said. "Give yourself enough time for everything not to be an emotional disaster," she counseled. "Give yourself some time to get some distance."

When it does come time to cull through those things, start small so you don't feel overwhelmed, the organizers say. Go though one box, one closet or one drawer. Or perhaps deal with all of one type of object, McGarity suggested all the shoes, perhaps, or all the vases.

If you need moral support, ask someone to help you, she said. But make sure it's someone you trust and who appreciates and understands your relationship, so that person can help you be objective.


As you work, sort the items into piles perhaps one for things you want to keep, one for things you want to sell or give away and a third for trash. You might even have piles for things that need to be appraised or things you can't decide about, Krueger said.

The I-can't-decide pile can be sorted further when you feel up to it, she said. You might even put those items in a box, label it with a date three to six months from now, and then put it aside until them. If you're still not emotionally ready to make decisions when that date arrives, set another date.

If you're waffling out of a misguided sense of obligation, however, that's another matter.

When people get things from family members, they often see themselves as a sort of caretaker, McGarity said. "That really trips people up" in their efforts to let go, she said.

In those cases, Krueger recommends asking yourself a couple of simple questions: Does the item make me happy? Does it make me smile?

Or try McGarity's approach: Imagine yourself in a store with cash in your pocket. If you saw the item on a shelf, would you pay full price for it?

If the answer in either case is no, there's no good reason to hang onto it, the organizers said.

Don't confuse your feelings about an object with your feelings toward the person who owned it, Krueger cautioned. Just because you don't love Grandma's pink-and-violet quilt doesn't mean you didn't love Grandma, after all.


Maybe you can ask other family members whether they'd like to have the item, Krueger suggested. Maybe you can sell it to someone who would give it the love it deserves. Maybe you can donate it to a historical society or a charitable organization that can use it or resell it.

You shouldn't, however, hold onto something just because you feel you should, Krueger and McGarity said. The person who gave you the object cared about you, Krueger said. He or she wouldn't want you to feel guilt or stress over it.

Letting go is easier if you know there's some redeeming value in your action, Krueger said. "Maybe you can (sell it and) invest in your kids' college education," she said. "And Grandma would have loved that."

Remember that what's important is the memory, not the object, the organizers said. You might even take a picture of the item before you get rid of it to put it in an album, along with information about whom it belonged to and how it was used. "That way, you're also passing family history," Krueger noted.

Or consider keeping just a few special, small objects and having a shadow box made to showcase them, McGarity suggested. Clothing or other fabric items can be turned into quilts, pillows or stuffed animals, perhaps one for every family member. You'll keep the memories closer that way than if you packed everything away in a box, she said.

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