The Free Motion Quilting Project: Estate Junk Clean Up

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Estate Junk Clean Up

You might have been wondering where I've gotten of to this weekend since Josh has been posting for me since Saturday.

On Sunday I took off to Asheboro, NC, where I've been helping my dad clean out a huge house full of junk.

Well...not really junk...most of it is just plain trash.

The house is my grandmother's, who lived in a ram-shackled farm house until she was 87 years old. She's still alive, just moved to Texas to live with family because this house is anything but accessible. For one thing, there was no bathroom on the first floor, and to reach the second, you had to climb an impossible set of steep wooden stairs, which I know for a fact she fell down several times over the 50 years she lived in that house.

Now the house is empty, except if you count a lifetime worth of stuff accumulated in every nook and cranny.

What makes this already huge mess even bigger is the extra load of stuff my Dad brought over from his house, the house I grew up in. There's another lifetime, or at least a 30 year marriage and 3 daughters worth of stuff to add to the pot.

When I'd spoken to Dad on the phone about it all, I thought I knew how much stuff it was. In truth, I had absolutely no idea.

Every single room of the sprawling two story farmhouse was filled with bags and boxes of china, silverware, pots, pans, pyrex dishes, stuffed animals, coat hangers, keys, light bulbs, and lamp shades.

Going through all of this today, I'm struck by so many different things.

The first - is this really all that is left behind?! Seriously, I'm struck by just how much volume and space this stuff takes up, but just how little all of it means.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about my grandmother over the last two days, how many days I spent hanging out at her house in the summer because even though both our houses were not air conditioned, Grandma's house was partially underground and always 10 degrees cooler.

She also always had the best peanut butter cookies in a bin next to the refrigerator, and when I got older ice cream sandwiches and Pepsi Colas, all treats we never had at home, or if we did they were inhaled so quickly it didn't count.

But none of this is left behind in the stuff of Grandma's house.

All I'm learning from cleaning this out is the fact that Grandma never threw ANYTHING away.

Judging from the number of keys she changed her locks once a week, but never threw away the older keys, she bought every gimmicky TV kitchen unitasker (veg-o-matic, eggstractor, citrus fresh), and apparently loved to vacuum, considering the number of vacuum cleaners (some that look like they date from the 70's) that are left behind.

It was amazing just how many multiples of things I found like 10 identical 9 x 12 pyrex baking dishes, 5 Tupperware dome cake bins, and a countless number of mixing bowls.

From the kitchen alone, you'd expect my grandmother was feeding at least a ten member family for every meal, when in fact the last 15 years, she rarely cooked for more than two - herself and my ailing grandfather, and for the last 5 years, just herself after he passed away.

I just found it shocking that the kitchen was never downsized. That she never took a look at all of it and picked her favorite items, and laid the rest out to get rid of.

Keep in mind that it was during this time that she stopped cooking much, my two sisters and I all moved out and started families of our own, a time when we could have really USED a solid 9 x 12 Pyrex baking dish!

I hope I don't sound selfish with this rant. I'm not begrudging the fact that my grandmother didn't hand her kitchen items over when I went to college, I'm instead marveling at why a woman with a 5,000 piece kitchen set would buy me NEW silverware and a new pyrex set for my wedding, when she had great pieces she wasn't using and could have given me for free!

So that comes to the point of this whole ramble - are we so obsessed with new things that we don't even think about the old? We don't even remember we have it?

This actually happened to me the other day. I was in Mary Jo's Cloth Store and saw this gorgeous print fabric. I HAD to have it! I didn't know what I was going to do with it, but I knew I would regret it if I walked out without it.

And what did I find when I got home? 2 yards of that exact same fabric. I didn't even remember I'd bought it earlier this spring. Oops!

The other thing I'm wondering about is space. My grandmother's kitchen was unusually large, taking up more than 300 square feet, possibly more. She had huge cabinets and long counter tops to fill to the brim with every possible kitchen item in existence.

Had her kitchen been smaller, had her cabinets been narrower and better organized, would she have stocked away so much?

The reason this bothers me is that if you lump together the two rooms I have devoted to quilting, I have a really huge space, and just like my grandmother's kitchen, it is filled to the brim with stuff.

If, god forbid, something happened to me, it would be left to Josh and James to try to figure out what in the world to do with 5 years worth of accumulated quilting supplies.

While my excess is easy for me to explain, how can I expect them to possibly understand? Will they be shaking their heads at my multiple machines just as I shook my head about the pyrex baking dishes?

I now know the reality of dealing with a left over estate. I was sad to see my Grandmother's house so very different from the last time I'd been in town, but this emotion easily turned bitter as I began to see all that she left behind for my Dad to deal with.

It was simply overwhelming, and it has been overwhelming him since she left a year ago. When I finally realized how bad it was, I decided to make a special trip and organize help to make a dent in the mess.

First I found a local consignment store in Asheboro, Consigns & Finds, whose owner Cindy was willing to look at the estate and make an offer for the items she could take in her store. Together we agreed on prices while her helpers hauled each piece to the truck.

As far as the cash went, yes, we could have probably made more if we'd held a yard sale, but yard sales are really time consuming, a pain in the neck to prepare for, and with this volume of stuff, absolutely impossible to consider. Selling directly to the consignment shop was far easier, and it worked well for both of us.

After a long day of work, we'd made a 16 ft trailer sized dent in the mess, but what to do with the rest of it?

There were still some decent items - nice china, indestructible metal baking dishes, my grandfather's hand turned wooden bowls - all these will be donated to the Salvation Army.

But for the most part, the house was still filled with bags and bags and bags of garbage. The house was still very full and very overwhelming. I decided to stay an extra day to see if I could put a bigger dent in the mess.

The trick was finding a garbage service that would do what's called a One Time Haul. This is where the guys come with an empty truck one time to take everything they can in one go.

Before yesterday, I didn't know this service even existed! After this experience, I know a company could easily be employed full time just doing this type of work. After a lot of calls and some negotiating, I managed to get an awesome company called M&M Garbage Disposal to come over after their usual run.

The owner Mark and his son came out and hauled away everything - over 60 bags of garbage, four full sized mattresses, several pieces of small furniture, a washing machine, and a couch!

This photo was taken before Mark arrived and this is only 1/4 of the stuff he hauled away!

After the dump truck pulled out, we went back in the house and I could really see the difference this time. Two solid days of work, and the house is now manageable. It's cleaned out to the point that very soon my dad will be able to close the door, lock it, and hopefully pass the keys on to a buyer.

While we don't like to think about these things, chances are you will either have to deal with a left behind estate at some point, or you may leave an estate behind yourself. Having a plan is essential for dealing with this situation.

When she lectured for my quilt guild back in February 2010, Pepper Cory advised everyone to bequeath their quilting stashes to someone in their will.

Having just watched two sewing machines go into the back of that garbage truck, I can definitely see her point.

Note - I know I just admitted to committing what is probably a grievous quilting sin, but I just couldn't take on these two sewing machines - they were in terrible shape and I was hot and super tired by that point and didn't stop my dad when he threw them down the front steps. By then, it was WAY too late.

Your family may have absolutely no idea or desire to deal with $1000 worth of cotton fabric. If they don't know anyone that sews, they might make the mistake of donating fabric to Goodwill. This is a mistake because all items that don't have an immediate use get thrown away. Fabric doesn't have an immediate use, and it's hard to price it properly. When in doubt, most places just throw it out.

Also consider the confusion and heartache created by UFOs. I remember a chapter in Mason & Dixon Knitting where a photo of a half finished Aran sweater was shown, along with a lament about what to DO with this project, which had been left behind when the original knitter died. Finish it? Throw it away? What? The daughter was left with questions her mother certainly couldn't answer anymore.

Your machines may stay in the family for sentimental reasons, stuck away in the attic or the closet (unless you really luck out and get a kid or kid-in-law that actually sews), but aren't machines meant to be used and enjoyed by people who know how to take care of them?

So consider making a plan for your stash. I know I'm not only going to start making a plan, I'm also going to do some serious downsizing on my own home.

I have unfortunately large closets in my house. It's unfortunate they're big because they just get filled with lots of junk that really only sticks around because I have the space to store it.

There's so much stuff that I keep because "I may need this someday..."

Well, someday has come and gone, and if I haven't used it in a year, it's obviously not needed!

So that's it for this random experience post about cleaning up my grandmother's estate. It was sad and exhausting, but in the end I feel like I made a huge difference for my dad, and that's what matters. Hopefully I've lightened his load.

Let's go SLEEP!



  1. (((hugs))) Great blog subject! I watched Katrina destroy much of my parent's possessions, and know my dad pretty much had to take each and every bit of it to the curb, soaked, soiled and ruined. I helped my mom a few years later go through what was left after my dad passed. It's so true that we often leave a huge burden behind for our loved ones. What you did for your dad was incredibly helpful! I'm sure he appreciated it very much. I certainly have pared much of my "stuff" down, as has my mom. Give me the simple life!!

  2. I had a similar experience when my Mom passed away--it took my sisters and I weeks just to go through the house and "inventory" everything to figure out what we each wanted to keep and what could be otherwise taken care of. Then we hired a company named "Moving Memories" who came in and sorted, purged, and dealt with the estate sale--took them about three days. My Mom was a quilter so part of working through her stuff was dealing with her stash/machines/etc. As a quilter myself, I took some, but after spending so many weeks going through her stuff, I was terrified of ending up in that situation myself! I was therefore very selective about what I kept and, even so, doubled my own stash. I think you're right--you grow to your space. Mom had an entire basement--I keep myself confined to part of one room. I've already told my husband, "If I get hit by a truck tomorrow, call my friend to take whatever she wants and help you deal with the rest." Your blog post got me a little choked up as it brought back some memories, but it also made me smile and nod as I sympathized with you!

  3. A fantastic piece ......but one that should be submitted to a magazine, Leah. I too have recently downsized and given so many things to relatives. I decided I wanted to see people enjoy and understand (history) some of my treasures. As to my UFOs etc. , I always keep everything in one project box and leave paperwork in an ANTIQUES file that shows their worth etc. I also have donated, donated and donated linens, dishes etc. I hope I keep it up.

  4. Bless you for helping your Dad. I know what it is like from my own grandmother's homes. (yes, 2 of them)

  5. Certainly alot to think about. I like my stuff but I need to start organizing for the next chapter..... as like your family has had to do.... my "lovelyies" will just get tossed..... my kids are not interested in $40,000 worth of fabric.... and come to think of it.... when put in $$$ after the fact I don't want to be responsible for that much fabric.... Like I started to say.... a whole lot to think about..... and some action would not hurt either.... Thanks Leah

  6. It was awesome you went to help your dad with his overwhelming task. I have been on an organizing binge the past month & your post inspires me to keep going. The first room I tackled was my quilt room because it was in such disary I didn't even want to go in there and do what it is I love. And damn, if one of the things I had never used and threw away is something I needed a week later. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on something we will all face someday in some form or another..

  7. Leah,
    I so understand. My mother lived in Switzerland and I am the only child. When she unexpectedly died 6 years ago, I had 3 1/2 weeks to empty out an apartment in which she had lived for over 25 years. The Swiss don't have estate sales or garage sales, so I had to find people who wanted the stuff. Some things I shipped home, but the rest of it went to a dump. After that I became much more unsentimental about "stuff" and did a major purge of my own things.
    I have gone to a few estate sales that included fabrics. Bought 13 yards of fabric for 3$ recently. Score for me, but sad to see all these people rummaging through what was obviously the deceased's passion.

  8. Nice to have you back Leah; Josh did a great job with his recipes...nice Sewing machines; some things just aren't worth the time and money's too bad, but you can only do so much...

  9. I helped my parents and in-laws move to smaller homes and have to decide with to do with all the "stuff" they had accumulated and vowed to do something with all my junk. That was over 5 years ago and here I still sit on stuff I will never use. Maybe you have given me a jump start to get to cleaning out the closets and basement in my own house.

  10. What a GREAT reminder to "deal with it now". The group I do charity quilting for gets large donations of fabrics from time to time, from people who have decided they aren't going to sew any more and they don't want to leave the mess for their kids to clean up someday. I know how hard, physically and mentally, the labor of love was that you just undertook for your dad. Bless you.

  11. I've dealt with this twice - with my mom (not too bad) and my MIL (the house from hell). At some point in the future, we'll be dealing with my FIL's house. It is not uncommon for older folks to hoard items, especially those who lived through the depression and WWII. It can be a monumental task! With my MIL, who suffered from dementia, we had to go through every paper and flip through every magazine because we never knew where we would find money or important papers (like the pink slip to her car hidden in a Family Circle magazine!) My husband and I are determined that our children will not go through this. We routinely clean out! And my granddaughters are getting my sewing machines!

  12. I am dealing with a similar situation, even though my elderly parents are still alive and I have been sorting, throwing away JUNK, and YES! It is overwhelming! I just moved them into a small apartment, so I could be closer and be their caregiver, and it is a constant stuggle to get my mom to throw TRASH away. She keeps EVERYTHING. UGH! I so totally understand!

  13. Hey Leah,
    My mom is still alive and lives in much the same situation as your grandma. At 88 she still has toys we played with as kids. I am also in the same situation as you are with my studio. Lots of storage space and all of it totally full. It's a sickness. I love all my stuff, but enough is enough.
    I am starting in July to be the VP in charge of programs. Are you interested in coming to California to do a lecture and workshop based on your experiences with your blog and your machine quilting? I would not be booking until the latter half of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. Let me know if you are interested and we can talk.
    Thanks for your comments. I find in you a kindred soul.
    my email address is
    Ranell Hansen

  14. Hi Ranell - Thank you so much for the offer to come to CA, but I've decided to focus solely on teaching online. It's a full time job just to blog daily, deal with email, and help Josh pack orders, and traveling away from my home and family is just not fun for me.

    It was a hard decision and is still hard to say "no" especially because I love to teach so much, but I've gotta set limits or I'll end up burnt out and hating quilting - and that is NOT what I want to do!

    Thanks again and good luck with your personal cleanup. I'm off to work in my studio myself!



  15. Great post... it should be sent to a magazine as suggested. I'm doing all this, downsizing and have put my stash, machines, etc. in my will. When mom died, she had saved things too, and it was so difficult to deal with it all. Don't want my kids to experience that!

  16. Oh how true, how true. And I agree, don't accumulate what you can't use.

    When I first moved out on my own after school, my family had me make a list of things I thought I'd need. Everyone got a copy, routed around in their homes, and when all was said and done there was nothing I had to buy but a sofa. Sure, none of it was brand new, but it all worked and I replaced what needed replacing when I could afford to do so.

    This past year, we have been cleaning out my Great Aunt's home. She never had children so it fell to her nieces and nephews to take care of things. Fortunately, one of my cousins was moving out on his own so he got a lot of the furniture and things. Everyone else claimed what they wanted (I got her featherweight and the currier and ives dishes that held so many dear memories) or needed. As others found things I could use, they were set aside. I got all the brand new packages of sheets (must have been two dozen), pillowcases (another dozen) and handmade linens (hankies, dresser scarves, etc.). My family knows that I am the only one who makes handmade items and they are glad that someone could use them (even if I am going to cut them up and put them in quilts).

    I guess what I am saying is be discriminating. Don't get rid of that old sewing machine that you used to sew your kids' halloween costumes to hastily - it might mean something to them when you are gone. You never know which memories will be treasured by your children, so always ask before you give something away.

  17. Thank you for a great blog. This has been on my mind for the last couple of months. I was thinking about this with the floods in the midwest. I asked myself "What would I take if I only had 24 hours to pack?"

    I know that this problem is coming with my parents and my husband's parents that is why I am trying to spend some time this summer cleaning out my stash and making quilts to give away. At least they will be going to someone who will need them.

    I love your website.

  18. Thank you for this blog entry. We dealt with my mother-in-law's house last year; she had lived there over 60 years and was a great believer in keeping everything. One thing I will say--she WAS organized, so that helped. Still, not a job I'd wish on anyone. I have been trying to downsize my things for years, but have watched my husband accumulate and change our lovely basement family room into a warehouse of computer parts, etc. This is a sick society based on materialism and it has made it harder and harder for people to let go of THINGS. But it CAN be done. I figure if I just concentrate on downsizing my own stuff, maybe my husband will get the bug, too. Thanks again for sharing, and for the validation of my sentiment that simpler is better, and very freeing.

  19. We cleaned out my grandmother's house a few years ago and encountered the same thing. Often older people accumulate things by way of gifts, they are thrifty and don't want to throw things out, they get too tired or infirm to try to get rid of stuff, and they don't dare give used stuff as gifts. It is hard.

    I had a change of heart with my quilting supplies about 18 months ago and have only purchased exactly what I am going to use - current project only -, have donated some stuff, and trying to sell a few pieces. We accumulate for lots of reasons but I think quilters have all these ideas and projects and it is a kind of optimism.

    It was very considerate of you to help your dad and hope you had some good memories.

  20. Oh, my goodness. I am going thru the same thing with slightly different circumstances. 4 years ago my 89 year old mom was run over in ASHEBORO, NC! She recovered pretty well but never went back home to leave. For the last year or more, my sister and I have spent a day a week dealing with stuff, cleaning and finally getting the house on the market. Mother is in assisted living in Ashboro.

    There were many things that we had wanted as young homemakers, but now have no interest at all. My dad's hand made wooden furniture or accessories, as you say, hand turned bowls. Neither of us want the sewing machine--we each have several. We have sent load after load to the dump--mattresses and garbage.

    My husband is dealing with the same thing at his parents home. Even less that anyone wants but his dad saved every ball cap he put on his head in 90 years on the earth!

    So far, I have not undertaken the purge for myself. There is a sewing stash. Art stash. Art materials stash. Pottery collection. Glass collection. So much. Too much to saddle my daughter with.

    I don't know whether to laugh or cry as I read your post! It is too close to home and you are preachin' to the choir!

  21. Old sewing machines - no problem if in working order. Give them to refugees. The children and men get taken care of with sports groups, classes and employment, but the women are left at home.
    I know my old machines are getting a fresh life and a real workout.

  22. Everytime I am about to declare our 3 bedroom home too small for our family of five, I have to purposefully remind myself that I like my small home. I have to be vigilant about what comes into the house and pretty regular about culling items too. Since my 8x12 sewing room doubles as the pantry and has 2 doors to hog space, I really have to edit the stash and shopping impulses. I also decided last week that I only make wall quilts, crib or lap quilts, or smaller projects. Anything bigger is just too hard to spread out and see.

    Now if I could only teach my hubby a thing or two, since his garage is so full of man-junk you can hardly walk in it.

  23. Two years ago I went to a lecture at the book store by Julie Hall, "the estate lady". She actually lives here in Charlotte. I bought her book,THE BOOMER BURDEN, and read it cover to cover. It opened my eyes big time. She said that when she goes into a home, about 90% of the things in the attic go directly into the dumpster. I still struggle ridding myself of things, my mother's things, my grandmothers things. But after reading this book, I am trying. Thanks for a great blogpost.

  24. wow! I do know how you feel. We owned a few businesses over our almost 29 years of marriage, and there was a lot of stuff! I won't go into details, but the decision to sell our home and the building for our business was made, but first we knew we had to clear the business stuff out. I remember moving my brother a couple of times. He's single and had so much JUNK you would not believe! And for what? He had all this brand new stuff that was never used and he wouldn't give it away. I knew then we'd have to deal with our things now, before anything ever happened to us, because I knew our kids would not appreciate having to deal with all that someday. Having the ability to sell stuff on craigslist over time was a blessing for us, and some of it we just gave away for free to somebody in need. When it was time to sell our home, I started out by going through holiday decorations that I'd had for years. I figured I can always buy new ones. Financial constraints have put a halt on me purchasing large quantities of fabric, quilt magazines and such. I have been very diligent about either recycling things, bringing unwanted quilting items to our quilt guild's sharing table, and the rest goes to charitable organizations. A friend that lost her mother recently, donated her mother's clothing to a shelter for battered women. Homeless shelters appreciate donations of quilts that maybe no longer please us but are still in great shape. Excess quilting supplies and sewing machines or craft supplies are welcome at senior citizen organizations; they use the items to make new things to sell in their gift shops to pay for expenses and such. I have alrady told my DH that our girls (daughters, DIL and granddaughters) can have first pick at any of my sewing/quilting/crafting stuff, the rest goes to wherever they see the best fit for it. In the meantime, I've been really keeping things pared down to a minimum so when that time comes in the FAR future, it will be simple for all involved. But of course I will be sure to leave behind at least some quilt tops for another generation to complete!

  25. I'm assuming your grandmother came from the generation of the depression - or at least children of that time - When it was unthinkable to throw away something of even mean use! My parents were the same when we downsized them, though, I think, in more modern times, they were better at giving away things - from a renewed involvment in charity themselves. Another thing - they grew up learning to NEVER ASK for help... from family or friends. If you couldn't do it yourself - you didn't DO it! - In our area, it is very common to have estate sales - and to just let people in to buy the things that may seem worthless to you, but have value to others. It's good that you have had this exposure at this age - rather than in middle age - when many of us learn the terrible truth about too much stuff!

  26. Thanks so sharing your experiences. I will be dealing with the same thing some day. But I'm afraid that 10 16-ft trucks will be needed to be even be able to make the dent to move and see what's there. Feel free to follow my experience as well. It's strange how it affects us and makes us take such a hard look at ourselves isn't it?

  27. I love estate sales, not only do you pick up great things from time to time (for love or profit!), but you learn more about our time here on earth, and how NOT to spend it! My folks have been wonderful, now in their late 80's, they have been getting rid of their "stuff" over the course of the last 10 years... their house now looks a bit bare compared to it's earlier "cozy clutter"... but they did it knowingly, and told all us kids that the last thing they wanted was for us to have to deal with their "stuff"...

  28. "What We Leave" has been a topic on the Yahoo group Stashbusters recently. Many of us joke that we have enough stash (and nations and sewing machines and, and, and) for several lifetimes. I have reread this entry and shared the link with the group. Thanks for sharing your experience. I hope that 3 years later things are settled - and you've written a codicil to your will for your sewing/quilting things. Aloha, Jo

  29. This post was mentioned on the Stashbusters list today (July 28, 2014). I have my own "dispossession" stories (my parents died in 2002). Though I think I have my stuff under control, when I really think about it, I know I am long over-due for a serious, in-depth sorting-out -- not only in my studio but also throughout the whole house. My husband is a minimalist and I am a maximalist.

  30. Even though I'm reading this post almost FIVE years after Leah wrote it, I can say she's absolutely right and I appreciate her sentiments! It's never too late to have a good clean-out of your 'spaces' wherever they may be and whatever they have hidden away in it. We ALL hoard way too much STUFF and generally forget we even have it. That "one day I'll need it", tends to NOT happen. No one can be that organized to remember every item they have 'stashed' away in a closet, empty corner, or bottom drawer. IF you think you're hiding it so no one sees you have it, then you probably won't see it to remember you HAVE it, either! So, GO FORTH and minimize your 'clutter'. You'll feel lighter, cleaner and happier when you've reduced the EXCESS - I guarantee it. We'll never call it junk, 'cos it MAY have a use, well, perhaps - but, it'll be in another lifetime. :) In the meantime, you'll enjoy the newly cleared space around you - and be able to SEE what you have, so you won't end up buying 10 Pyrex baking, I'm heading off now to the Salvo's to drop off 'goodies' for someone else to hoard! Hurray!!!!!


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