Real Life Minimalists: Ellen

Every Monday I post Real Life Minimalists, a profile of one of my readers in their own words. If you’d like to participate, click here for details.

This week, Ellen tells us how dealing with her grandmother’s possessions inspired her to embrace a more minimalist lifestyle.

Ellen writes:

My minimalist journey has slowly unfolded over the years, marked by a few distinct occurrences that have shifted my path away from the acquisition to deacquisition of stuff. As a child, I was constantly bothered by the piles of old magazines, paperwork, and junk mail that accumulated on every flat surface in my mom’s house. Looking back, I wonder how she managed to keep it together with six kids, much less to deal with excess clutter. At the time I was chronically frustrated and I couldn’t wait until I could move into my own place.

When I moved into my own apartment in my early twenties, I was so thrilled with having my own space to furnish and decorate that minimalism was the last thing on my mind. I did strive to keep my things organized, however, and cut back on junk mailings. When I married, my husband and I combined two apartments and I began working for a home furnishings retailer. Needless to say, stuff expanded rapidly and most of it I really didn’t like.

My minimalist breakthrough occurred two years ago when my grandmother passed away. She and my grandfather lived in the same house for over sixty years and she collected a lot of stuff. The stairs were impassible due to the boxes she could no longer carry into the attic. She was also the collector of family treasures and thus most of the items in the house had some kind of family significance. Before she died, she asked that we take everything in the house; she did not want things to be auctioned to the public. The burden of what she asked became apparent when we began unpacking the house—every closet, drawer, box, and cubby hole was packed full of trash. While the family treasures were carefully divided among family willing to take them, we were forced to resort to public auction to manage the piles and piles of excess belongings.

Dealing with my grandmother’s legacy transformed my attitude toward my own belongings. In 2008 we had began an extended transition process when my husband and I went back to graduate school. To date, we have moved four times in as many years. We are now preparing for a fifth move to a different region of the country where I will begin the last phase of training as an historian. We’re also downsizing from a three-bedroom home to 775 square foot apartment! In the last year, I have sorted and donated to local charities. We had a huge garage sale where we sold half our furniture and most of my husband’s CD collection (he uploaded all of his albums to digital storage). We purged our bookshelves and sold them online at Amazon.

As a historian, I appreciate a family’s careful stewardship of items like letters or diaries. They are the stuff my profession relies upon in order to craft our explorations of the past. These are items from my own life I am unwilling to part with—cards and letters from my grandmother and great-grandmother, diaries and journals I’ve kept since I was eight years old, and a few treasures from my childhood. I’m careful to distinguish between items that have little or no significance to who I am as a person, and those things that speak to my own history. That’s what I love best about the minimalist pursuit: it’s an individual expression, not a rote method.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

40 comments to Real Life Minimalists: Ellen

  • I really appreciated this approach – I refuse to part with family heirlooms because where would we be without history?!
    It will be a huge task to curate my MIL’s inheritence when she goes and it will pose many a conundrum – the family is not that big and the family history significant. We will have to use common sense to keep only what is really important, but we will find a solution! I cannot subscribe to radical minimalism and the elimination of all that has gone before, much as I enjoy a calm and uncluttered environment. We are but the keepers.

  • AussieGirl

    Thank you for sharing your story Ellen. I think you’ve done a wonderful job of handling so many possessions. I’ve long thought that a house chock full of possessions is one inheritence I wish to not pass on to my children.

    Keeping cards and letters from your grandmother and great-grandmother’s time is beautiful – They are items to be treasured. :)

    By the way, I still have my baby rattle, all the way from 1977!

  • Sara

    Your story brings forth a fresh point of view, Ellen, thank you for sharing! It made me remember the time when my grandmother died and I was there part of the time to see what she had saved over the years. I remember feeling overwhelmed, even if this was at a moment when I was a long way off from my own minimalist wake-up call.

    My father’s a historian, and when he retired, he started giving away mounds of books which could be useful to students and others still more actively in the ‘field’. He is an inspiration for me as a minimalist – even if my mother isn’t – in that he’s always been aware of excess stuff, both intellectual and physical, that’s gathering dust, so to speak.

  • Moving four times in 5 years has taught me to be a better minimalist. I love it though. Gives you a real sense of freedom not to be tied to things.


  • Getting rid of excess makes room for us to pursue our passions–and it looks like you’ve found yours! Thank you for sharing.

  • Thank you for your story!
    I think that family heirlooms and worth keeping, but only the ones with real significance and good memories attached. We have letters and photographs from the 1800’s that we would not dream of destroying. God thing for me, my sister is the willing family archivist. Or actually my aunt at the moment, but when she passes…

  • I hope when I die I will have given my kids everything that means anything to them long before my actual death. I have already given them most of the small amount of jewelry that I own. I would rather watch them enjoy it now. I also hope I have kept my home uncluttered enough that they don’t have to spend time disposing of my trash!

  • Very nice, Ellen. This really resonated with me: “As a child, I was constantly bothered by the piles of old magazines, paperwork, and junk mail that accumulated on every flat surface in my mom’s house.” My exact thoughts growing up and now when I visit. It’s the reason I’m actually afraid of adding surfaces (like coffee tables and the like) to my home.

    I appreciate your thoughtfulness in your purging and I like what you said: “it’s an individual expression, not a rote method”. I think we’re all very respectful of each person’s different version of minimalism. Moves certainly do help to re-evaluate your belongings even though it can be so difficult to do all the time. Our 3 domestic moves and 1 international move in 3 years have really helped us–as much as I would like to stay in one place for a little while!

  • maria

    Thanks for telling your story. We have an elderly relative who is going to saddle us with a house and outbuildings full of stuff after she dies. She keeps telling us it’s “our inheritance.” Yikes! I’m hoping someone drops a well placed cigarette somewhere and it all goes up in smoke.

    By the way, it’s illegal to copy your CDs to your computer or ipod and then sell the original CDs. (Or the copies.)

  • I wonder what future historians will make of all the cheap stuff we have nowadays. Almost seems like there won’t be a need to hold onto as many things because it’s now really just stuff. Our letters and cards have become digital too with emails and blogs chronicling our present day. Thanks for sharing your story Ellen!

  • Lydia

    This fits very closely to my experience when my grandparents passed. I sat and watched as the belongings were dished out and the last ‘free for all’ was announced. I saw all ages digging through my grandfather’s drawers looking for the last little ‘treasure’. It was mostly junk by then and it was through that experience that I viewed my possessions differently. I would never leave a mess for other’s to contend with.

    Now I will have to deal with my own parents house full of stuff. All encouragement to reduce is met with deaf ears, but my own minimizing journey will continue. I am bent on using what I have and stopping the influx of stuff into my home.

    I treasure the family books, histories and genealogy and that is what will be my contribution to my family now and future generations as I digitize and put it all in an organized fashion!

  • Muriel

    That’s what I love best about the minimalist pursuit: it’s an individual expression, not a rote method.

    Thank you for expressing this so beautifully!

  • What a great story, thanks for sharing. This line is resonating with me “That’s what I love best about the minimalist pursuit: it’s an individual expression, not a rote method.”.

  • Melissa Gilbert

    Your essay was beautiful. Thank you for sharing your story. Good luck with your endeavors and upcoming move.

  • I’m not a minimilist and am grateful that members of my family weren’t either. Thanks to their saving, I’ve written three books, made better by photos and letters from the past. I’ve given several workshops on ‘leaving something behind.’ I grow so passionate about preserving my family’s past. I wrote a book on my mother–“Dear Katherine,”–a book about the grocery store that was in my father’s family for 100 years, and have just finished a book about the farm in Nebraska where my mother grew up and where I spent every summer of my boyhood.
    If a fair amount of stuff hadn’t been saved I’m sure I wouldn’t have written any of them. On my office wall hangs a corn planter that my great grandfather used in the 1870’s to plant corn one seed at a time. I tell people not to throw anything away. Let someone else do it. I intend to follow my own advice.

    • AussieGirl

      I’m perplexed as to why you are on a minimalist blog if you profess that you are not a minimalist at all? No offence intended, just curious.

      • Bill

        I just want to present another point of view and get people to think carefully about what they toss out.

        • Really Bill? How about if you throw or give away all your old clothes, toss those holey socks, purge your crammed drawers, donate old broken furniture for others to work their magic on. Get in that garage and purge. Ditto for the kitchen. Doubles of anything………..give them away. Go through your entire house and stop hanging on to everything. When you’re done you will have the really important records and journals and book and corn planter that your family will aprreciate but not all the junk to deal with:)

          • Verry few things, including my comments, are to be taken literally. My sole aim is to encourage people to leave something of themselves behind. This includes information about their family. At the age of 70 I never guessed I’d get so interested in my family’s background. Thank heavens they saved things. My big motive came from my great-grandfather who came west from Kentucky at the age of twenty-four and claimed a homestead in south central Nebraska. If there is one person in all of human history I could wish back to life it would be Daniel Norris. I want to know so many things, i.e. why did he decide to leave Kentucky, how did he survive the first winters, how did he meet his wife, etc. The list is endless. Of course, he never dreamed that someone one hundred years later would want to know these things, just as we find it impossible to believe that someone one hundred years from now will be interested in us. Those who come after you may like your candlesticks, but they’d far rather learn something about you.

            • jenifer

              I think that this speaks to the value of keeping journals, something that I do not excel at. In fact, I keep no journals at all. Most of my family doesn’t.

              I have one aunt who does, and i am set to inherit her diaries. because they are so personal, she wanted me to destroy them after her passing, but I suggested an alternative, which is to put them by and wait 50 years. By then, anyone who is written about in those journals should be well-passed, and from there, if I’m in them, I’ll likely be old enough not to be hurt by what might be said of me.

              She agreed, and it’s written in the will that such is the case. They’ll go into a safe deposit box in her home town, which we can then pick up sometime later.

              A friend of mine is a women’s studies archivist, and she is very excited about the prospect of a woman’s life-long journals from age 8 to death (when that will be) — which spans starting form 1947 to the present. It’s a landmark time for many women, and she was active in the civil rights and women’s movements, too.

              I think that, say she passes in 30 years, we’ll have nearly a century of journals, all chronicling one woman’s experience. Imagine, then, that 50 years after that, an academic getting ahold of them, to archive and chronicle what it must have been like? We’re talking about a gem being uncovered in 2092 — of a woman’s life in 1960? 1970? 2000?

              Yes, certainly, there are things worth saving. But not all of us are so skilled, to be honest. The best I can do is parent my son well, and hope that he passes on the best of our values, I think.

    • Dinah Gray

      I see the merit in keeping stuff with family significance. I have treasured stuff like my grandmother’s art glass banana dish, my husband’s grandfather’s letters and pictures from world war I, some rocks and a crystal my dad gave me on my 5th birthday, all the love letters my husband and I exchanged while he was in the Navy, etc…

      But I know from experience that leaving your family property filled to the brim with possessions is horrible to have to deal with. As a teenager I helped my family deal with my grandparents estate and as an adult I helped with my father-in-law’s who was nothing short of a hoarder. I can not express how stressful it was for all parties involved over extended periods of time. My parents are planning to do this very thing to me too and I have tried to talk about it with them. There is no possession they own that is worth the kind of stress I will have if I have to deal with their current accumulation of stuff.

  • Even though I’m only 28, seeing my mom deal with a family friend’s estate 7 years ago after her death was quite an eye-opener. My mom could harldy bear to part with much of what had belonged to this friend, so much of that is now in her house. My brother will be the one to inherit the house and contents when my mom and stepdad are no longer around, but Mom has tapped me to be the family “handler” — I will have full access to everything and decide where everything goes. She keeps a great deal of family stuff — heirlooms in the form of furniture, artwork, decorations, jewelry, etc, that belonged to that friend, my grandmother, her grandmother, great-aunt, etc. It’s simply overwhelming, and I don’t have the heart to tell her that most of the stuff means nothing to me or my brother. :/ Still, inshAllah (God willing), the day I have to “handle” things is far in the future.

    • Oops, I forgot to finish!

      I have to add that 5 years in the Army — and returning from a tour in Afghanistan — have given me a need to have less stuff. If something were to happen to me — and there’s nothing like being faced daily with your own mortality to make you fully aware of it — I wouldn’t want my mom or my brother to have to deal with an apartment full of stuff on top of grieving.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. Handwritten personal historical letters are one thing to share and archive for the family and piles of magazines are good things to perhaps not pile around the house.

  • Interrobang

    Hi Ellen,
    Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to it, although in my family every generation was a refugee or relocated to a different country/continent. That taught me to treasure only items which have become part of my personal identity and to leave comfortably with only few things. I came here for grad school with two suitcases containing few clothes, but all my papers and a few family pictures and journals. I didn’t ask myself why at the time, it just felt right.
    Maybe I use big words, but what I mean is that old journals helped me understand why I really made life changing decisions years ago. Hindsight is a gift I should use more often :-)

  • Liz H.

    I’m a historian too, and I empathize with the desire to save everything. But let’s recall that every time there’s destruction, a space opens for something new.

  • emma

    I am just going through boxes of letters from penfriends I had 25 years ago, some of these people I still know, others I don’t. After years of moving them from place to place, country to country, I am now getting rid of them. After a quick flick through them, I realise that they are not my letters at all, just accounts of other people’s lives. At the time they served a great purpose and having contact with people from all over the world changed the course of my life, but now I see no need to keep them. Perhaps I should offer them back to the senders, but to be honest, if someone offered me my teenage letters, I would say no.

    • Lulu

      I’ve actually mailed back letters to their original senders 15 years later for fun. People get a kick from reading a letter written by their former selves. My cousin hugged me and cried when she read a letter she had written to me from a country she no longer lives. She said it was like coming home.

  • Henny

    I work with historians (I am not one myself) and several of them are very elderly and most definitely HOARDERS! However, some really do have the ability to carefully edit what they keep and prune and weed and look after just the best bits.

    I loved reading your story. I think many of us can relate to the “inheritance” triggering off the realization that stuff is a burden in the extreme, and I have pondered what my trigger points have been since reading your story.

    1) moving country at age 8 (with just a bag of essentials) – I loved it!
    2) moving house about 10 times within 4 years…packing hauling stuff all over the place really makes you think hard about it!
    3) my father passing away when I was 24, and having to go back to the farm and help my poor mother donate pretty much everything, and prepare the place for sale…it added layers of pain onto the trauma and shock of his death at a time when my mother really should not have had that burden. I still feel bad for her going through that. By brother could not help, because he is a hoarder himself, and would just keep it all, adding more pain and worry to the lives of everyone around him.
    4) moving country again at age 35…we got rid of so much stuff, but we still brought many boxes of supposedly precious things at great expense…many of which have now gone to Goodwill!

    I think moving house (often) really is a good cure for hoarding. If you have to move 2 or 3 times in as many years, the experience can be so traumatic it is just about enough to make you reassess your belongings and life. It is very stressful to reach minimalism that way, however. Much nicer to take the time to arrive at it in a philosophical way instead.


  • Thanks for sharing your story Ellen. I’ve been a minimalist for all of 1 1/2 weeks and will also have to sort through my baby pictures and old photos of my parents soon. Reading made me realize that I want to keep them in photo albums rather than scanning them.

    It’s 7:55PM in NYC. Have a great night everyone!

  • It can be difficult dealing with the possessions of a loved one passed. However, it’s the memories everyone has together which is really important. It sounds like you did the right thing,with no regrets.

    Thanks for sharing Ellen.

  • Tina

    My mother(88) asked me why I got rid of her boxes and boxes of magazines. I told her now, people look things up on the computer instead of saving stacks and stacks of papers. I saved awards, letters, photos, newspaper clippings, and anything I thought could be useful. I have a tote bag full of interesting things and my son scanned several boxes of photos. No one needs junk mail, old magazines, or the odd phone number written on the back of an envelope. I am happy to live with much less and when junk mail comes, it gets recycled. We only get 2 magazines, both of them my husband’s. They go to the library when he’s read them.

  • Tina

    I am visiting a dear relative. I opened a cupboard and found expired coupons back to 2006. Since it isn’t my house, I didn’t do a complete declutter, just tossed a handful. Thank God I throw things out.

  • Tina

    I like to declutter. I guess it’s a reaction to my Mom’s inability to throw out anything. My sister, who also saves a lot of papers, says she can’t decide what to throw out and what to give away. We had a cousin who was found dead in his hoard recently. He didn’t throw out anything including food wrappers and other trash. I want to give away more china but my husband says I have to ask his brother because it belonged to his mother.

  • Tina

    I gave away a lot of china because it wasn’t my MIL’s. There is a lot more china and silver I can get rid of. I am saving the serving spoons from the silverware sets, because I can use them.

  • I keep getting more china from family members who are downsizing. I put some big bowls under my plants and I am giving away a big boxful. I have a stack of books to give to the library and another to pass to a cousin.

  • Tina

    I had put my Mom’s Holocaust papers away and now I am going through them. Most of what I’ve found are Xerox copies of newspaper clippings from US newspapers. I was hoping to find original documents to donate to the Holocaust Museum in Skokie. I know there are original papers in there somewhere.

  • Tina

    We found some original documents. No one in the family reads German. My son took pictures of everything and will send the pictures to the Holocaust museum to see if they want the objects.

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