Starting Fresh at 70

I just hung up the phone with a client who I helped move to Seattle from Oakland.  She called me to tell me she was walking around IKEA shopping and was going to be going to a party later that night for which she had prepared a dish to bring with her. None of this sounds particularly life-changing, but in fact it was.

Two months ago I met my client for the first time.  Carol (not her real name) is a 70-year old woman, divorced with no children, who had been living in her home on a quiet residential street in Oakland for almost thirty years.  A year before our first meeting, Carol had decided it was time to retire and start fresh. Unfortunately, when we met she was no closer to her dream than she had been a year earlier.

She told me she wanted to travel and and socialize more.  She also knew she had to “simplify her life” because she had already signed a lease on a new apartment in Seattle that was half the size of her existing home.

Carol was an accomplished artist, graphic designer and marketing specialist.  She also loved to travel and over the years had collected various souvenirs, books, nick-nacks and other memorabilia.  Her home was musty, and the smell reminded me of my grandmother’s house.  She still had not gone through the items retrieved from her mother, who had died some years earlier.  The house had more furniture than would ever fit into her new home. She had some hard choices to make.

Carol grew up in the mid-west and moved to California to pursue her design career.  She later went on to work for a large bank and then, like many others, watched a lifetime worth of savings practically vanish overnight, the result of people she put her trust in that turned out to be anything but trustworthy.

Raised by a take-charge woman, a pioneer of the women’s movement, who returned to school in her 60s to earn her bachelor’s degree, Carol had clearly inherited her mother’s tenacity. She found a new job that while, less than satisfying, enabled her to save and retire with enough income to never have to think twice about her decision to “start fresh” at 70.

The first time I met Carol (she got my name from her Real Estate agent), she was clearly exited about her new home, an active retirement community she had discovered while visiting her sister who lived near by.  Carol had already started furnishing it and would periodically go there to stay.  Meanwhile, back in her home in Oakland, she was struggling to motivate herself to empty her old house.  She had yet to hire a mover (something I ultimately helped her with)  and was baffled about how she was going to get her old car out of the garage so that the remaining items in her home could be stored there until they could be liquidated, donated or removed.   (I eventually got it hauled away and donated.)

Time and money were ticking away as loudly as the clock above her kitchen door. The resulting stress was causing Carol to feel virtually paralyzed by the long list of “to-dos” I knew we needed to get done if she was ever going to get to Seattle.

We talked a lot but while we talked we worked. Room by room, shelf by shelf, drawer by drawer, Carol and I took what I heard another organizer once refer to as “a reverse shopping trip.”  A deliberate and at times painful process (more for my clients, less so for me) of deciding what to keep and what to leave behind.

Along the way Carol bravely confronted a lifetime of memories, regrets, harsh self-critical voices, not to mention some interesting and albeit, curious collections of bags, bottles, baubles and boxes.

Our journey together was part support group, part-family therapy, part art history lesson and occasionally part-game show, especially when she cheerfully would take on my playful challenge to edit a collection of travel bags while I timed her. (In truth, I never really paid close attention to the time – it was just the idea of making it fun that mattered.)

One day I had an assistant of mine come to help us move some of the heavier items out of the garage. In the process we came across literally hundreds of Carol’s drawings, paintings, designs and sketches from her days as an art student and professional designer. They brought memories of her childhood home in the mid-west, stories about her art school teachers, and doubts about whether she really had talent or not. She did and I suspect still does. As I often told her,  “once an artist, always an artist.”

Our work together moved between the sublime to the surprising when together we found items she had thought had long been lost to the practical, problem solving challenges that frequently come when you are trying to empty out a home (and garage) filled with a lifetime of memories.

One day, while sorting her closet, I pulled out a beautiful, eggplant colored coat with a red satin lining. She told me about the designer and how she used to love to wear it out but added with some regret, it no longer fits me.  When I asked her what she wanted to do with it, she said, “I want you to have it.” When I told her how much I appreciated the gesture, but that I couldn’t accept it, she told me, “You’ve been almost like a daughter to me. I never had a daughter of my own but if I had, I would have given her this coat.” I thought, this was the real gift.

Just like Carol’s beautiful coat, for a time our lives can fit us until eventually we outgrow them – they no longer fit the lives we have or want now.  Carol didn’t want that coat and she was ready to let go of it. When she opened the closet to find it again, it was like she had opened the door to a new life.

She moved through that door, not without difficulty and not without fear.   Helping her move through that doorway and watching her come out the other side, into her new life, is what makes me do the the work I do.  And I love it.




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2 Responses

  1. Charming story. How hard it must be to downsize all those memories brought on by the beloved objects, some more so than others. I watch Hoarders just to keep my intake of stuff down to a minimum. Being 60 I have kept, but also donated and given away lots over the years, my mother always will say I haveto much stuff, not so much anymore now that I sell vintage on line, see mom, some things do have value. And, boy would I have loved to see the stuff your lovely lady had kept. Sometimes it is only the object that will trigger the memory and that may be worth hanging onto, memories are a precious thing when one gets older. I am currently working with a lady with dementia and am always amazed at how much I learn about myself when I work with different population groups.

    • lismckinley says:

      Thank you. It really is more about the memories that things evoke then the things themselves. I see so many things left behind by people that have moved on. The object is nothing more than an object because the people are not there to give it meaning. That’s not to say they don’t have “value” but it’s a different kind of value. It’s kind of like the question, “If a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound?” Things have meaning because we assign them meaning. Some things have value because the general public assigns value. We can have things that have meaning and no value or have value and no meaning or both. This is why it is so hard sometimes to let go. For your client with dementia, it must be interesting to see how her failing memory affects her view of the things she owns.

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