In the movie Sisters, when on-screen siblings Tina Fey and Amy Poehler learn that their parents are planning to downsize to a condo, they start screaming: "Mom and Dad sold our childhood home! This should have been passed on." They are equally horrified that their parents also purged all the family mementos: "Each one of those objects is a puzzle piece in the story of our lives!"
The Sisters rant might not be typical. Still, many young adults don't exactly cheer when they find out that their childhood home is on the market. At a recent informal dinner gathering, several of my grad students mentioned that their parents were considering downsizing. While they understood, all agreed that it was a painful process for both them and their parents.
That was also the experience of Kathy and Brad Scheller, 64 and 60, respectively, who will soon move from their four-bedroom dream house in a Connecticut suburb to a nearby two-bedroom home. They raised three sons during the 27 years they lived in the house, built on land deeded by Kathy's late father. It was her father, a builder, who first suggested that the couple consider moving into one side of a two-family house that he was renovating just before he died. "My dad would get these visions that morphed into reality," says Kathy, a recently retired school nurse.
Kathy's first concern about the move was that her three sons — Christopher, 31, of Denver; Brian, 29, of New Orleans; and Kevin, 25, of New York — always have a place to call home. So as the renovation continued, she eked out every available space, adding a pull-out couch and a Murphy bed. "The biggest struggle of downsizing is that I can't tolerate the idea of my kids staying in a motel when the whole family comes home," she says.
Her sons showed no interest in the furnishings lost to downsizing, except Brian, who wanted the baby grand piano. Her kids are typical of the young adults who nix their parents' treasures, having little use for mahogany dining room tables or overstuffed sofas.
To expedite clearing out their stuff, Kathy sorted through "every piece of paper my children ever drew and all the Mother's Day cards." Deciding what to keep was wrenching. She filled several boxes with hard copies, photographed other items for digital storage and threw out enough to fill three dumpsters and a pickup truck for 18 trips to Goodwill. She also set aside boxes for each son and begged them to decide what they wanted.
The hardest part of the whole process was staging the house for sale. "I found depersonalizing the house very difficult," Kathy says. "I get why you do it, but putting away Grandma's quilt, taking down photos and putting up mirrors, and painting everything beige made it seem like a hotel, not our house anymore. In the end that made it easier to leave."
The bittersweet process was leavened by the excitement of moving to a new house, within walking distance of shops, restaurants, church and the train station. And, most of all, there's room for her boys. "A huge driver in any decision is to factor in the kids. You're always a parent, no matter their age."
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at http://Mothering21.com