Pass It Forward Now Rather than Make Your Heirs Do It Later
I live alone in a charming two-story frame vintage home, originally built in 1797 with an addition completed in 1865. The bills keep mounting. It’s not unlike the scenario in The Money Pit, a movie starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long about a couple who buy an old house that needs so much work it sucks their money like a parasite. I can relate and frequently joke, “I work to maintain my adorable home with its picket fence at the front, hydrangeas all around and pretty backyard.”
Many of my generation are in the same boat. They get hit with soaring property taxes, lawn mowing and snow plowing bills, and anything else that is required for that dreaded “M” word—"maintenance.” I never knew before I moved in that you might need a bat person to be sure there are no holes in your roof or walls after one was spotted three years ago flying across my bedroom, a ground-hog guy to remove these critters that love vegetables and appeared late one afternoon burrowing under my shed, and a tree person to remove dead limbs and prune my maple and pear trees and lilac bushes as they grew mightily with so much rain in recent years.
Yet, after nine years living in my home, it still makes me a newbie relatively speaking since my village dates to 1686 with many locals having lived in their vintage homes for decades if not multiple generations. Ironically, I feel I’ve lived here forever. It’s the first home I purchased on my own as a single female--after my divorce. And now, just as I’m getting comfortable and entrenched in my home, many of my closest friends, including my writing partner Margaret, are in the process of downsizing to one-story homes and condos, or have recently done so. Or, they are talking about doing so soon--before their aging hips and knees give in, or they have them replaced. I am questioning whether I should leave and where to go, though I’m not yet ready to do so yet.
My friends and I are of that age—upper 60s, low 70s and 80s--when our children—if we have them—are grown, living on their own, gainfully employed and may also have kids of their own. They, too, have houses where many are beginning to host the holiday and other celebratory family gatherings. Why retain our family homes with big footprints—antithetical to our and their belief in saving the planet, large dining and living rooms and multiple collections of china, stemware, cutlery and too many small appliances, from toasters to coffee makers and standing mixers?
Furthermore, most in my age group don’t need large entertaining rooms or so many. Rarely, do we host dinner parties—even despite Bon Appetit magazine Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport’s September editor’s note, which encouraged readers to invite friends over for a dinner party now that Fall has arrived. I think he really is addressing a much younger cohort of thirty- and fortysomethings.
In contrast, most of my friends think they have cooked enough meals and hosted enough parties after decades of doing so. Few want to stay up past 10 p.m. washing crystal by hand and putting away the silver or even loading everyday stuff in a dishwasher. We’re just as happy with an early dinner or happy hour at a restaurant and tucking ourselves into bed by 9 p.m. Some of us are even getting crabby and happy not to go out at all when there are so many good TV programs to woo us—The Crown, Mrs. Maisel, A Place to Call Home.
Some who are retired are also busy traveling—figuring they maybe have 10 to 15 good years to hit all the places on their bucket list that involve long airplane rides, thin air which older lungs can’t always handle, crowds, long lines, steep climbs up and down mountains and stairs and exotic foods that might disturb sensitive, aging digestive systems. In addition, many are migrating West during the long winter months while others are moving down South for full-time sunshine and lower estate taxes.
That brings us back to the reality of whether it’s prudent to trade big homes for smaller ones or for gated senior developments where there’s an option to move into assisted living, sometimes in the same building or next door when more nursing care is needed. We cringe at the thought, but we know the truth; we’re aging and becoming—if we haven’t already—the older, senior generation.
One set of friends shared on a recent visit to their lovely three-story condo on a lake that they had plunked down a hefty sum to get on the list for a nearby continuing care retirement community, known in short as a CCRC. When a unit is ready, they’ll be notified and can say “yea” or “nay.” They have three chances to opt in or they will have their deposit returned.
As I looked around their spacious condo, I wondered what they would do with all their brown wood furniture, paintings and t’chokes. Even a large two-bedroom that they may occupy someday won’t be able to accommodate all these belongings and room for guests.
And the idea of making lists, taking photographs, asking my daughters which pieces they’d want and trying to sell or donate all the rest is anathema. Some pieces are so important, including the baby grand piano I inherited from my parents. Yes, that’s not enough reason to stay but a good reason to delay the decision and decide which daughter can find a safe loving place for the piano.
Then, there are the two lovingly crafted dollhouses filled with furnishings that can’t just be put up for sale. Is there a buyer for the tall townhouse-style with a ground-floor doctor’s office in memory of my dad or the smaller log cabin with countertop crowded with pretend Maine lobster dinners and blueberry pie in memory of all our visits to that state and its treats? I also have a collection of antique quilts. You can’t just toss aside passions at a dumpster, or can you?
Maybe, my local library or nearby schools might want some of the extra copies of all the books Margaret and I have co-authored since 1988. At least in the worst-case scenario, the books and thousands of my newspaper and magazine articles I kept could become good kindling for a fire to burn them and roast s’mores. But then again, I don’t have a working fireplace or outdoor firepit.
Inspired by Margaret who carefully discarded and sold possessions for months in preparation for her downsizing move to New York City, I began going through each room and studying stuff, also using author Marie Kondo’s spark-joy test as a good measurement. I try to give myself five minutes to decide rather than laboriously debate: keep, sell, donate, give away. However, I know I don’t have the energy to attack all the boxes in the attic that hold my daughters’ American Girls collections, high school yearbooks and mementoes or one friend’s 25 boxes of books that she asked me to safeguard after her own move from a New York City apartment to a condo in Southern California. Maybe, when I must move I will, though I’ve seen how much energy Margaret has expended to do so, so the sooner the better.
I do reach an important decision after starting this process, however. When you near the 70 mark, it’s time to stop buying almost anything new for your home. It’s really time to enjoy and use what I have and pass the remaining possessions onto family who will treasure them or donate to those in need. When a friend visits who loves antique malls asks me to join him, I say “absolutely not. I need nothing.” I’m firm and mean it.
As I debate about this and that, I remember that it’s only stuff, and realize I’m really not that attached to most of my possessions. Most don’t make me deliriously happy or terribly sad. Having the memories is different and that nobody can take from me, unless the ravages of age do. Instead, I think of most of my belongings—the sofas, chairs, rugs and even some favorite books and artworks--in the same way that luxury watchmaker Patek Philippe instructed us to think about owning its gorgeous time pieces in its iconic advertising campaign, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe….” Same goes for all that brown furniture, those crystal vases, punch bowls (never used) and CDs. We think we’re owners, but we’re only really caretakers, which makes letting go a bit easier.