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The Downsizing Marathon

Packing up the family heirlooms lets everyone involved relive great memories.

When I was a girl, I had a yellow Easter dress with a matching parasol purse. Hand-me-downs were a way of life for us, so it was exquisitely special to have a dress that was all mine from the time it was new. I wanted that dress to remain mine—forever. I would squeeze myself into it like a sausage into its casing while proclaiming that it still fit, hoping to avoid the dreaded act of passing my favorite along to my younger cousin. That's a bit how The Big Move has felt—as if we were trying to squeeze all my parents' treasures from a large, four-bedroom house into a two-bedroom apartment. I think my parents really thought they'd be in their house "forever," just the way I had felt about my dress.

The decision to move and the process of choosing my parent's new home were physically and emotionally exhausting for all of us. In hindsight, however, they were nothing compared to the downsizing process. There were myriad decisions to make, including sorting through a lifetime of precious keepsakes from my parents' travels around the world, clothing, antiques, family heirlooms, furniture, and books. It was a daunting task—overwhelming to me (and if I felt that way, you can imagine how my parents felt about it). Just contemplating the need to part with a lifetime of acquisitions was exhausting for my parents, and I wanted to spare them as much of the strain as possible.

To make matters more intense, other responsibilities had forced me to delay my arrival in Arizona to the week before moving day. A downsizing marathon in a week? Crazy? Yes, indeed.

What Happens to the House?

Determining the fate of the house was crucial. That decision would, in part, determine the time line and flexibility in packing and moving. It's not a great time to sell a house in Phoenix right now, and I've wanted to be near my parents to support them in the coming years. So I've decided to try cross-country living for a while.

I will have a base in my parents' home and will travel back to Washington, D.C., as needed. For many years, I have lived in Washington and traveled quite frequently to Phoenix. I want to help my parents with this transition, to ensure they receive quality care and support, and to spend as much time with them as possible during, as my dad has jokingly referred to it, their "golden years."

What Goes and What Stays?

Many families going through The Big Move hire consultants to help with sorting. It's difficult to part with that favorite set of dishes or item of clothing, and even with mementos that may not look like much but have sentimental value. Sometimes an objective person rather than a family member makes the process faster and easier.

However, because I am a glutton for punishment and like to organize, I undertook this process mostly by myself, as my sister's time during that week was eaten up with other responsibilities. This was a money-saver but also a time-consumer. While the abbreviated time frame made the process stressful, I had worked with my parents bit-by-bit on organizing and weeding-out projects for several years. I was exceedingly grateful I had initiated those projects, as we had less work to do in the home stretch.

The review-sort-pack process helped ease some of the grieving as we laughed, tried things on, and found "ancient" treasures, some of which my niece had never seen. The artifacts helped us relive family stories, such as:

  • Mom's wedding dress that my grandmother made but hadn't quite finished on wedding day—instead of putting in a zipper, she'd sewed it on my mom! I'm afraid this set a precedent for many not-quite-ready episodes for our family.
  • Dad's wedding shoes, shiny and barely worn since that day in 1950, still fit perfectly. A spontaneous reenactment of the wedding took place as we packed, of course.
  • Dad's infant sweater and cap, hand-knit by his mother, did not still fit perfectly, although we tried of course.
  • A porcelain doll my mom remembered making, adorning with painstakingly handmade clothes and booties, still had its perfectly hand-painted eyelashes.
  • Scores of hats included a red polka-dot floppy hat worn by my mom in the '60s, a little cap worn by my dad when he was a kid, and a beach hat with a bright orange tie (my mom had worn it so stunningly that I thought she looked like Jackie Kennedy). All of us packers tried on hats, and silly-hat photos were a must—a great way to break the packing tension!
  • The pièce de résistance was my dad's letter sweater from Riley High School, which still fits him, 68 years later. He put the sweater on and, a bit choked up, heartily sang his high-school fight song. I captured it all on video, to create a new family treasure. How many of you can still sing your high-school fight songs?!

There were many surprises. As we sorted through clothes, filling 10 bags with items to give away, I discovered my dad had 20 short-sleeved white shirts. Yes, a score. We pared the number down to about 14, a major triumph. No, he said, he was not contemplating a career in a bakery; he just likes white shirts. "They go with everything." So true.

To determine what furniture would fit into the new apartment, I used large, flip-chart paper pre-marked with a grid. That enabled me to count out the square feet and create a huge floor plan of the apartment. I used the gridded paper to cut out proportioned representations of all my parents' current furniture. We tried all the alternative arrangements and narrowed down which of their treasured antiques and practical favorites could make the move. This helped us decide what had to be packed.

The goal was to give the apartment as much of my parents' current setup as possible. I observed their everyday routines and tried to arrange things so they would feel as few disruptions as possible. For my parents, there would be many unpredictable new things, so minimizing the extent of change was essential:

  • We recreated the setup in the family room and dinette area.
  • The key things in my mom and dad's bedroom would be set up the same way—such as the cedar chest at the end of the bed, where my mom sits to put her shoes on each morning.
  • The phones would be placed in similar spots.
  • A cabinet with a counter-height top would strategically adjoin the table so their calendar and other items they kept on the kitchen counter would be easy to reach.

The layout chart greatly reassured Mom, who thought she'd have to leave more behind than she actually needed to in the end.

It all looked good—on paper anyway.

Preparing the Apartment

To ensure all would be ready on moving day, I made lists on flip charts and posted them where we could all see them and track our progress. Organization was crucial for our sanity—especially seeing the progress. When the lists seem unending, it helps everyone immeasurably to plainly see that we have been racing, or more accurately, inching, forward.

I created and updated four lists as we progressed: 1) "The Big Move" Master Plan; 2) Decisions to Make; 3) Things to Do; and 4) Shopping.

We chose paint colors and got a contractor to build the fence for my parents' dog, Jackson. We shopped for a new refrigerator with a water dispenser in the door, because that was what they were accustomed to at home (hydration being a major issue in Arizona). Only after trips to several stores did we discover that refrigerators do not come small enough to fit into the new kitchen. So instead, I arranged to have a reverse-osmosis water filter installed.

We bought outdoor carpeting for the patios to help prevent slips and falls. I bought handheld showerheads to make bathing easier and checked to make sure the new faucets would be easy to use, even for people with arthritic hands. Details, details, details—and of course, none of the home accessories had simple, one-step installation; each one came with its own adventure.

We struggled with what would make the apartment feel like home. Their familiar furniture would work, but we wanted to add a few other touches. Besides, it's exciting to get new things. Before the move, we settled on a new sleeper sofa, recliners, and new towels, shower curtains, and other bathroom accoutrements.

Shopping for the bathroom accessories late one night after a long day of packing went something like this (I wish I'd had a video camera):

: Stare at one shower curtain for 15 minutes, then at another one for another 15 minutes. Repeat four times. Choose the first one she found. (She is more like her mother every day.)
Dad: Spend two minutes looking at shower curtains. "That one is blue. I like it. Anything blue is good." (It matches his eyes.) "I'll get that one." Done.
Mom: Stare at each and every color towel in the store (she picked a white shower curtain so any color towel would work). Repeat four times. Finally decide on a color. Look at each type of towel in that color at least twice.
Dad: "Those towels are blue, and they are on sale. I like them. Get those towels." Done.

It was hilarious, and an extra dose of drama was thrown in as the store began to close around us. It was reassuring to see that some things never change. As we age, we are who we are—just more so.

We were assured all would be ready by moving day. We believed the promise and therefore didn't call to check before we loaded the moving van. That was our first mistake…

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