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How to decide what to keep; Or, what to take with you to Assisted Living
My friends Jane and Bill and I were conjecturing about what we would do if we chose to live in one room. Deciding how to furnish it is a variant on the old conversational gambit: if you suddenly had to pick up and go, what would you take with you? The twist here being how you would array those choices in a compact setting.
Bill, an avid collector, imagined, I am sure in a contrarian spirit, a minimalist space with a lamp and futon. Jane, a collector of a more practical nature, sees a room filled to the ceiling with bookcases with paintings hung on top.
Cousin Carolyn at left in the big, black hat with her friends discussing the prospect of living in a single room.
In the end, what we select to take with us or, if you will, how we decorate is all about choices. As a decorator who helps people to set up and move into new places, I help with this type of decision making. Rarely do clients walk into a new place to live without parts of their tangible past. Hence, over the years I have developed a system for helping them to make choices about what to keep and what to let go.
The whole notion about this process of living in one room first captivated me when we moved our 90 year old cousin into a single room at Hollywood’s Kingsley Manor. We called it the old-folks home; now it is known as assisted living.
She was an antiquarian like me and treasured many things. After much winnowing down, we were able to narrow her collections to a single antique piece of furniture, a 19th-century secretary bookcase, and her few bits of utility furniture: a small table, a TV, a comfortable chair, many works of art, family photographs, books, and, due to the Kinsley Manor ban on drinking, a stash of Wild Turkey, well hidden, in urine sample bottles on the closet floor. There were a few other touches of whimsy, such as a tiny toy dog.
Carolyn’s 19th-century bookcase in Thomas Jayne’s first New York apartment. Her little dog statue on his desk.
I saw how wrenching it all was. There was a what the heck feeling of "just throw it all overboard." Our entire clan had a hard time helping to distill what to take. She was particularly irascible with the pragmatic administrator charged what as he phased it “transitioning into the manor.” Finally, after much seemingly polite back and forth, he said, “My Miss Baxter, you have a wonderful sense of humor.” To which she witheringly replied, “You would have to to come to a place like this.”
Later, I furthered my thinking about the process of sorting possessions working in the Estates and Appraisals Department at Christie’s auction house with the great executive guidance of Stephen Lash, now the chairman of Christies. In planning and at every juncture of our work, he said “always write it down and make a list of everything you have of importance, (a running last will and testament, if you will) or people will not know what to do if you die in a crash…”
I also learned more about what was important to keep with curatorial training while training as a fellow in the Winterthur Museum’s graduate program.
I started informally to frame a system of my own when Carolyn died at the age of 100 and a bit later when I had to empty our family’s home upon the loss of our mother.
Hence, I suggest taking a three part approach when sorting though your things, clearing an estate or really editing almost any group of material goods:
1. Sort out the things you absolutely know you do not want and discard them: periodicals, collections of paper bags, etc. It is an easy way to get started and helps make a large dent.
2. Identify what you cannot live without and if possible move them to a single room or storage. This is usually fine art and good furniture, but it might be something with attached memores that would only be valuable to you.
3. All that is left I describe as the middle ground. This is where the measured choices are made. The decision to keep or let go of things here might be based on comparisons with items that are already in the “I cannot live without” category. This will make you realize that those middling objects are not so significant or that in some way they are a duplication of the important things.
A snapshot from Carolyn’s collection of family pictures. I am the buttoned-up one to her left and my brother and father are in the back.
I have learned, by the way, that you need very little to be sentimental, which eases the guilt of parting with things. Plus, some of these middling things make great gifts or can be donated to charity. Having a good charity that will market or resell your donations serves as a good incentive. In New York, I give objects to Housing Works because of their approach to selling design and collectibles. They are very successful selling things at market value and even have an online auction to reach a larger public.
What is left of the middle ground you take with you or store for a year and then reconsider whether you want to keep storing. An important point—if you have any uncertainty about keeping something, store it.
Because this process is often fraught with emotion, having a third party, friend, or professional advisor at your side is really helpful. They keep you focused and can help with the mechanics of getting things to the right places. They also provide a clear eye—hearing someone else’s view of something you treasured can lead to a reappraisal.
Carolyn’s bookshelf in Thomas Jayne’s current New York loft.
In my case, Carolyn’s bookcase, desk, family pictures, and the toy dog continue to make the “cannot live without”category in my life. They moved to my first New York apartment, then to our New York loft; and hopefully, via this selection system, they will furnish my room in assisted living.