Managing Our Mom’s Estate: A Home for Everything

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In 2016, our mom downsized from our childhood home to an historic row house in the same community where my sister and I live. We liked the idea of us all living within walking distance from one another in a neighborhood we all enjoy, but it was going from a four-bedroom split level with a cellar and attic to a two-bedroom row home without much storage. Reducing her possessions was difficult, but my mom did a good job of fitting necessary, nostalgia, and enjoyment into the much smaller space. It was weird but cool seeing the things we knew all our lives to be in one place and find beauty in a completely different environment.

My mom was a teacher, one of many generations of teachers and professors. She was an artist, a painter like her father, stylish like her aunt, and a world traveler like many of her relatives. We grew up knowing what famous folk we were related to (Margaret Chase Smith and Thomas Rogers) and what family member owned that chair or teapot or tablecloth or was featured in that oil painting or black and white photograph in the stairwell. We heard about who lost or gave up what money or status due to unexpected circumstances or love and how these possessions attached to stories were what remained.

Our mom met our dad when they both worked for the IRS in DC; they were big into recordkeeping as well as taking photos. Mommy loved color and cool jewelry, music and entertaining. For much of her life, she sewed her own clothes and, later on, Halloween costumes and clothes for my sister and me. She made us dresses to attend Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and even prom. Her possessions continued representing every aspect of her life and personality in her new, smaller home.

My sister and I live in this same community and in row houses similar in size. We both have lived here a long while; my husband and I have been in ours for over two decades, and my sister moved in the year our teenager was born. We’ve made these houses homes and have accumulated quite a lot of our own possessions we find necessary, nostalgic, and joy-bringing. We even adopted items from our childhood home when our mom downsized. Needless to say, there was little space left when our mom passed away last year.

I am glad my sister and I have such strong love, friendship, and respect for one another because going through our mom’s things has not been an easy task. Dude, I don’t know how she packed so much stuff in that little house!

I don’t want to say how many jewel-toned Supima cotton v-necks the woman owned (shout out to Lands’ End and Chico’s for keeping her chic, colorful, and comfortable for decades). She never spent a lot on a single handbag, but littering the floor of her bedroom closet were dozens of almost- but not-quite-right bags bought from Marshall’s, T.J.Maxx, and Amazon. College-aged me was thrilled she kept her old Levi’s and Wranglers from her bachelorette days, but midlife me needed to figure out what to do with piles of stretch jeans from Chico’s, J.Jill, Talbots, and NYDJ.

As a family, we would joke that if we needed to look up our car insurance policy, it might be under “I” for insurance, “C” for car, “S” for State Farm, “A” for automobile, or “T” for Toyota. This joke was based on fact. From our childhood home, Mommy moved with a four-drawer steel extra-long file cabinet stuffed to the gills plus several plastic tub-style file boxes. They were chock full of important documents mingled with 1971 tax returns, 1982 receipts for items we didn't own any longer, instruction manuals for appliances that sold with her old house, and dozens of Snapfish photo folders holding pictures of a caterpillar on the side of our own house or 1995 donations to AMVETS, ordered in triplicate.

There were items in her home that were easily thrown into the “recycle,” “shred,” or “donate” piles, but there were far more that needed a home. That home was often ours, which already felt crowded with items we couldn’t part with. But with our homes beginning to look like storage units, we needed to find homes for the rest.

We narrowed it down to that which needed more time to find proper homes or still needed to be sorted through (the number of photo albums will astound you) and filled a storage unit. We gave away items and sold items. We had an estate sale, which took place on a terribly rainy weekend and did okay, but we hoped more would have been sold.

Realizing that having another sale would likely earn us essentially the money it would cost for another month to pay the HOA/coop fee and utilities for her house, we decided it made more sense to donate and give away as much as we could as fast as possible. So, my sister and I hosted a “Free Sale.”

Our estate sale person was horrified when I shared our idea, but time is money, and the heart can only deal with so much of this nickel-and-diming while grieving. My sister and I never relied on getting a cent after Mommy died, and we both agree that if we have the privilege to let things go emotionally and financially, it is better for us and others, too. And why not have those folks also be our neighbors?

We did another once-over of the remaining contents in our mom’s house, taking a few more things we felt we could home. We then posted about our Free Sale in our city’s Buy Nothing Facebook groups. Just this one weekday, from 4-7, come on by and take whatever you wish. Bring your own bags and boxes, moving people, and tools to dissemble large furniture (socket wrench for the bed, Allen wrench for the IKEA shelving unit). No holds, no reserves. The house has a security system, and we do not welcome anyone before or after the time of the sale.

Folks were lining up at a quarter to 4. The first visitors were a husband and wife a decade or so older than us, armed with oversized reusable totes. They had a ball, checking things out, the husband chatting with me and my sister for a while, and his wife every so often exclaiming about an item and thanking us for inviting them. They took the bean pot as well as many other items of beauty and purpose. By 5:15, the house was so crowded I didn’t dare leave the screened-in porch.

Many of those who came by knew me, my sister, or our mom, but a lot did not. Some figured it out, introduced themselves, and chatted with us, but some came through on a mission or a sense of curiosity. Everyone was so respectful and considerate, and so many thanked us and/or shared stories of how the item would be used or enjoyed.

The rocking chair went to a teacher at the elementary school our daughter attended. The still-in-box humidifier went with a new grandmother who wants to make her guest room more comfortable when the baby visits. We had more than one person who came and shared how, for whatever reason, they were at a point where they had nothing and now felt more secure and comfortable with what they took with them. A young woman was so thrilled with the two laundry baskets of fabric for future sewing projects. She also took some “vintage” patterns and sewing notions, understanding their value and excited to put them to good use.

A person my sister worked with as an election judge for the Primary election came by and instantly recognized a broken wooden item in a tub was a damaged antique stereoscope. She used to play with her grandmother’s when she was a little girl. We were thrilled that she understood what it was. She also had a brother who did woodworking and could repair or replace the broken parts to make it work again.

Many neighbors came and picked a book from her remaining library, wanting to read something our mom read so they could share the experience or know her better. I thought that was such a beautiful act and hope others will do that with my library when my time comes.

My sister and I planned to camp out in the corner of the screened-in porch where we could stay cool, out of the way, but we were able to see both the inside of the shed and the inside of the house. We thought we’d get in some work and mainly act as security. We both arrived that day expecting to be sad. But we ended up being hostesses of the most entertaining party with the most eclectic guest list that Greenbelt has ever seen.

We went from room to room, hugging friends and introducing ourselves to strangers. We shared stories about the items they were considering and cracked jokes, keeping the visitors and ourselves at ease over the act. We talked about our mom and reassured them many times that we had already taken what we found important, and we were ready to let go of the rest. The sooner, the better for our lives but also our wallets. Please take it, give it another life, use it, share it, enjoy it, and pass it on when you are through.

Yes, we may have gotten a higher-ticket donation receipt if we gave it all to a charity, and maybe if we kept some of those things, after a few weeks, we could have sold them on Facebook marketplace or eBay and made more money, but this choice felt pretty damn amazing.

The remaining books were donated to the Friends of the Greenbelt Library. The remaining clothes, shoes, and handbags will go to Success in Style in Savage Mill. We used College Hunks, which donates before tossing any items they haul. 123Junk in Virginia also strives to donate as much as possible from their hauls.

It doesn’t matter the size and value of an estate; taking it over after someone passes is an arduous affair. I don’t think everyone realizes it can also be a costly affair. If you’re getting an inheritance, you don’t get it immediately, and in the meantime, the body needs to be taken care of, the residence needs to be maintained, and often professionals like attorneys, plumbers, contractors, and realtors need to be paid before a single estate payout.

A lot of major decisions need to be made, and often on short notice. You may know exactly what to do or have no clue and be racked with guilt and fear that you made the wrong choice. Each day brings a new challenge or a moment that has memories and tears (and sometimes laughter) flowing. And while this is going on, you need to continue your everyday existence like nothing has changed.

Women are often the ones picked to manage an estate, and if the estates belong to parents, caregivers, and older relatives, there’s a good chance those women are in midlife. Nothing like menstrual cramps, hot flashes, lack of sleep, lack of time, lack of control, and lack of money to hit you all at the same time while trying to keep your job and your relationships. Good times.

I will pay for a massage after an especially stressful or strained experience. I will pay for a getaway where I can stare at water or mountains or sky and not set an alarm. This “Free Sale” was paying for a quicker and easier release and in the process, we had this really exhausting but cool experience with our community. I’d like to think our mom would find it pretty cool, too.

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. I think this is an amazing and healthy idea and I’m so glad it was a good experience for you. I try to comb through my belongings at least once a month and sift out what isn’t being used and just taking up space. I sell clothes in a local consignment shop, I donate clothes and items to Goodwill, and I also offer various things on my local Buy Nothing facebook page. It makes me feel good and I know it helps others and therefore, a win-win. Congratulations. I know this was a big step.

  2. After moving my Mother’s Estate Sale in 2022 I know you made the right decision with the Buy Nothing/Free Sale, plus it was an enjoyable event! Given the terms of our agreement with the people who ran the Estate Sale it had to clear a certain dollar amount or we was going to have to pay the Estate Sale crew. Dad’s old truck was included in the sale and that one item enabled the sale to clear the minimum dollar amount. The proceeds from the house wouldn’t have done it. Nobody bought the piano, but the Relator managed to give away to a neighbor someone who stopped in to see the place when it was being sold. That was a HUGE relief!

    My guess is that you saved money by giving it away over putting the stuff into storage to try and sell it over time.

  3. I held an open house “sale” in mom’s retirement apartment that was a win-win-win. It was during the pandemic so only staff could come through, no outside visitors, plus the facility had rules against staff receiving items from residents. The creative workaround: the staff had a team for the Alzheimers walk and I got approval that they could “shop” and donate directly to that effort. As I continued clearing and cleaning, people would come through, find treasures, tell me sweet stories, and feel good about helping a cause. The cook, a new dad, took a long low dresser to paint and repurpose into a changing table. Housekeeping ladies bundled up clothes to send to family in the Philippines. The onsite hairdresser took all the towels, the gardener cleared off the balcony, and dining room servers each chose a special teacup to remember a special British lady. For me, it meant less to haul out and comforting closure.

  4. Thank you for sharing this – sending hugs to you both. I definitely need to downsize and this was a reminder of how important it will be if I do so while I am still alive and able to do so! I don’t want my children to be faced with such a painful task. Now at the top of my Things to do List!

    1. I think if you own things that you know have value and you no longer use them it’s best to sell them off even if you aren’t moving right away. My Dad had shop equipment, a compressor, a sand blaster, and untold numbers of tools that he’d ordered for specialized projects. After he passed my Mom had a sale just for those things. The nature of the sale attracted people with similar interests who were looking for second-hand equipment. No need for a Buy Nothing approach !

      It freed up space in the house and she got the workshop painted and made nice long before we had to think about putting the place onto the market.

    2. My mother has been downsizing and “cleaning up junk” since 2020 when my dad passed away. Every time I call her, she’s just cleaning up (as she puts it), but now I realize that she’s intent on whittling down the house to only essentials so we don’t have to do it (I have two brothers, so more than likely it’s ME who would do it). She was the one who was with my dad when his mom passed away and had to go through HER estate, and since then, she always said she’d never leave closets filled to the brim or a garage full of junk for us kids (when the time came). To my eye, the house is already minimal – but in her eyes, there’s still work to do – and it keeps her busy in retirement with a constant task list. I guess we don’t realize how much stuff we really have until someone else is left to go through it all.

  5. This is so lovely. My mom and her brother did something similar many years ago when my grandmother died. From what you’ve said about your mom I think she would have appreciated such a community “event”! Best of luck to you and your sister, I’m glad you have each other. Take care. I’m sorry about your mom.

  6. My sister and I are about to downsize my Dad for the 2nd time and I am DYING at “1971 tax returns and photos of Amvets receipts ordered in triplicate.” My Dad has not only tubs of his own stuff like this, but his own mother’s! Thank you for a much needed laugh.
    What a fantastic idea to do the free sale! A lovely tribute to your mom.

  7. What a great idea. I’m sure your mom would have agreed wholeheartedly with what you and your sister did. What a nice way to honor her and pass around a little bit of her memory to friends, neighbors, and strangers alike.

  8. This post made me feel so much. You and your sister made a practical choice that yielded so much more than money in return. And your writing is brilliant —it was like a scene from a novel, where the heroine (your mom) was hosting one last party, filled with human connection and possibilities. Wonder what that fabric will make…

  9. Gosh, I loved this post. What a beautiful tribute to your mom and an entertaining read, as well. I think you and your sister picked the perfect way to both honor your mom and deal with a difficult task. Thank you for sharing and I’m sorry for the loss of your mom. This post made me feel like I knew her, and she was an awesome lady. <3

  10. I’ve never seen the idea of a free sale before, but I absolutely love it. What a great tribute to your mom, and what a great community-building idea. I’ll keep it in mind for my own family needs.

  11. Love this! It sounds like people were appreciative, happy to participate, and it was an all around fun day. What you’ve written about your mother makes me think she would have loved the idea. Spreading joy!

    Those of us with homes filled with stuff, who are late middle-aged or older, should do our families a favor and start getting rid of stuff now. Google “Swedish death cleaning,” read, think, then start. It’s a gift to your family to not burden them with stuff. In addition — I am finding it surprisingly rewarding to pare down to meaningful essentials. (Although — shredding decades of paper is a real pain. Again, do it for your family!)

  12. I love this! What an amazing tribute to your mother and community. The image of people taking books made me teary and happy.

  13. What a beautiful tribute to your mom and a wonderful way to honor her memory through generosity instead of, as you said, nickel and diming. So often grief unfortunately brings out the selfish side of some. I’m so glad you and your sister are able to work together as a team and grieve from a place of generosity with yourselves and your neighbors.

    I attended an event like this once where a neighbor was moving for a job on another coast and invited our Buy Nothing group to come take her stuff. It turned out we had the same dress size, shoe size and love for books–I wished we had had the chance to become friends before she moved! Getting the chance to see someone’s life up close like that is an honor and now the circle of who will remember and be grateful for your mom’s life is so much larger.

  14. I’ve been meaning to send you my condolences, ever since I saw that your mom passed away. And then my own mother passed away a few weeks ago. She was 97 and her health was deteriorating over the last six months, so it was not a shock, but a difficult loss nonetheless. My sisters and I have not yet begun the process of going through her things, other than the paperwork we needed right away, so this post was really helpful and thinking about how we might approach it. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  15. My continued condolences. It is hard. My husband and I have lost all four of our parents and have so participated in the “great cleanout” of two houses. It is remarkable what our parents kept, but I came to realize they weren’t keeping things for us, they were keeping things for them. Every scrap meant something to them. And it was okay if it didn’t mean the same to us. Donating was healing and necessary for anything that didn’t come home to one of the siblings.

  16. What a joyful read, Ali. I’m so glad you took this as an opportunity, and what delight it turned into. We did a similar timeline when we moved to Denmark from our 4 bedroom home on a Seattle area island. Our Buy Nothing day was a wonderful way to meet neighbors and ensure less stuff went into the landfill or was dropped off at Goodwill. We both felt better for contributing to someone else’s life–some folks even came back with thank you’s–food, or books for our son to enjoy during the long plane flight.
    I hope more people have the space in their budgets and time to experience this kind of event. Thank you for sharing yours.

  17. Wonderful idea. I love the creative re-use and community building coming out of your sale. So nice you were able to find loving homes for things like sewing patterns that not everyone would be able to use/appreciate. It sounds like you have honored your mother’s spirit with your approach. I wish you some restful days ahead following your busy month.

  18. “Money is something we choose to trade our life energy for.” I think that you and your family made the choice that was absolutely perfect for your situation. And there is no price that can be put on helping members of your community with items that can fill an immediate need in their homes or schools. You don’t need my validation, but BRAVO.

  19. This was amazing. And wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

    My mother died just a few weeks ago, but she had moved a few times before her final move (house -> in-law-apt. -> assisted living ->memory care). Phew, lots of downsizing at each step. So hard no matter what, and in the end it’s all just stuff. Wishing you the best as you grieve, too.

  20. What a wonderful idea y’all had, and it’s so nice to hear how it made you feel. My mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly about 21 years ago. I’ll never forget all the things my husband ended up having to take care of after her death, in addition to having to clean out her home & plan a funeral. It was hard to grieve at times because of all the “business.” Just thinking about it makes me sad all over again & sad for you & your sister. So glad this experience was helpful to you.

  21. This is inspired! What a great story. Thanks for sharing it. I agree that your mom would love it.

  22. I did a “free” yard sale a few weeks ago! I was just clearing out stuff of my own. It was way too much stuff to keep posting on my Buy Nothing group individually. I didn’t want to bother with pricing each item, & I wasn’t looking to earn money, just to clear space. I did have one small table of things with prices, not very high, just slightly sentimental things — & I donated that money to charity. A ton of folks came out, friends brought donuts, a neighbor with chickens gave me fresh eggs, & within 2 hours, all my stuff was gone. Plus people had added to the charity pot! I hope this idea spreads around 🙂

  23. What a great idea! I’ve saved this, because sooner rather than later I’m going to be faced with the same thing & my parents have So. Much. Stuff.

    And most of it isn’t valuable. I don’t even know if an estate sale would be worth it. But free to a good home instead of the landfill? Yes, please

  24. This is a lovely way to deal with all the stuff left when we lose a parent. My father was the last and was something of a hoarder. Despite several downsizes it was an enormous job. Like you I worked to keep stuff out of landfills and in the hands of people who could use it – it felt like honoring his memory and the way he lived. And you’re right – settling an estate is an enormous job that takes an emotional and physical toll. I hope you can recoup a little now that the dust has settled and your election judge duties are done for the moment! (I do election protection work and deeply appreciate anyone who serves to make our elections run smoothly).

  25. What a wonderful idea! I love that you and your sister valued your time and energy and were able to make so many connections and help your community.

  26. The Free Sale is brilliant! I am glad that so many people got to help you clear out things that they will get to enjoy. Peace of mind is often worth more than cash.

    I had to clean out by my in-laws and my my childhood home my mother still lived in, so I know from experience how difficult it can be.

  27. My mother-in-law passed away suddenly a few years back, and our process was very similar to yours. It is a tremendous amount of work, and at the end of the day houses are built to contain stuff! Everyone has stuff, even the most organized and minimal amongst us. Congrats to you and your sister on making it through together. I hope this helps you both find greater peace in the midst of the grief.

  28. What a beautiful idea! I am sobbing picturing your afternoon. I do a fair amount of estate work as an attorney and the work load of those left behind is arduous. The solution you found worked for you on so many levels and allowed you to move forward. While it might not work for everyone, I applaud you for finding what worked for your family. As always, I am sending my warm thoughts to you during this difficult time because, frankly, it continues for quite a while.

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