February 24, 2024
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February 24, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Shepsi, puppy. Jan. 2019.

“Ellen, how do I deal with all my kids’ artwork from years past?” or “What do I do with piles of family photographs and albums?” In response to the first question, I often suggest they photograph the artwork and put it on a flash drive or in the cloud and toss the actual object. Sometimes that is the way my clients decide to conserve their memories, but sometimes they wish to possess the physical remembrance.

A young mother asked me to help clear an area that included piles of her children’s artwork and love notes. Just holding them in her hand made her smile. She nixed the photo idea because she wanted to keep the originals. We discussed how to organize and store the art and notes. Rather than stop and search for a box or folder to store memorabilia, we continued working, hoping a suitable container would find us. As we went through her hat boxes, we saw that each was in great condition, with beautiful patterns throughout. My client realized a hat box would be perfect to house her memories. As we carefully placed the artwork, notes and T-shirts with meaningful sayings and logos inside a large box, she remarked that using the hat box was special because it was a gift from her mother. Thus, the box holding memories was itself a happy memory.

One of my clients was downsizing to a condo in Florida and needed to make countless decisions on what to keep. She had an abundance of memorabilia and vintage items from her childhood that she was having trouble giving up. As we purged each of the rooms in her home, we moved items that were causing her to feel stuck into her garage, to revisit later. As the weeks passed and our work continued, my client chose to donate the items. Her one caveat was that it would make her happy if I would take her vintage rocking horse for my grandchildren. I was glad to oblige.

I have observed that when clients move items that they cannot disconnect from to an unrelated place, they are able to disassociate and say a fond but final farewell. Just like Marie Kondo, I encourage my clients to hold an item before parting ways and thank it. Many years ago, I was fortunate to attend a shiur given by Rabbi Dovid Orlovsky at Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park. One of the things he said that stayed with me is that it is a very Jewish concept to have hakarat hatov, thankfulness, towards your belongings by keeping them clean and in good shape. What a meaningful concept.

Sometimes a whole family feels sentimental about the same things. Currently I am helping a family with tweens and young teens move to a new home. When it came to packing their very large library, they were having difficulty giving up their favorite childhood books. While there will be plenty of space in their new house for bookcases, the mom had no problem including baby books, however, she saw no need in bringing them all. She wisely suggested they vote on their favorites. As a result, the number of books going to the new house was controllable. When I playfully said she could keep them for her future grandchildren, she said she plans to be living in Israel by then and can’t see packing them on a lift to Israel. True that!

When you think about it, all our photos represent memories. Each photo album represents a bundle of memories. When placed together with other albums on shelves they create a continuum. If you are of a certain age, your photos are still stored in their original envelopes from the photo lab and always accompanied by negatives, those thin, dark plastic strips with miniature pictures that appear as shadowy figures and otherworldly scenery. When organizers are going through collections of photos, what do we do with the albums, loose photos, and negatives?

A few years back, I cleaned out the home of a woman who was a part-time genealogist. Her albums and documents were of epic proportions, but she had scrupulously labeled and documented everything. After she passed away, her family used her instructions to distribute the photos and particular bits of family history to other relations.

Passing on photos is rarely easy or welcomed. Last summer I worked with a widow who had over 30 photo albums. She was a realist and recognized that her children did not want them. She directed me to throw them all out. The majority of her albums offered scenic views shot in exotic locations and excluded people. My client said it took her years to realize, no matter how beautiful a picture of scenery may be, it is much more fun to look at photographs that feature people. “Leave the scenery for the calendars,” she advised.

My husband recently took on a project to go through boxes of photos spanning our lifetime together that didn’t make it into our albums, in order to solve the great puzzle of whether these photos need to be preserved. Maybe they have been waiting to be put into albums or maybe they are duplicates or maybe they didn’t make the cut. These photos sit, as if frozen, in case a photo would be needed for a project, or in case a friend or family member would request a copy, or for some other reason attributable to a memory. There was a time when we made multiple copies of our favorite photos to give to friends, grandparents and doting aunts. Now we simply WhatsApp them. Just as I mentioned is often the case, most of our loose photos were in their original lab developer envelopes, along with the negatives. While the final destination of some of the photos is still uncertain, whether they be given to the loved ones in the photos or tossed, the negatives have now been purged.

When it comes to parting with our memories, it is a difficult process. Like any process, it is slow and requires patience. I had a client who couldn’t follow through with the process because she couldn’t say goodbye to anything, except for me. Each week we would work together, moving piles from one place to another. I would try to encourage her to work in a certain cluttered area, and she would say it stirred too many memories and was too painful. We mutually decided that she was not yet in a place where she could make decisions to part with her belongings.

If you have the head space to be able to part with your things, even if they hold memories, and you want an organizer to help the process go forward, please contact me.


Ellen Smith is Central Jersey’s Kosher Organizer. For over 14 years, Ellen has helped people restore order and create calm in their homes and souls. Ellen believes “Clutter Clogs, but Harmony Heals.” See Ellen’s work on Instagram @ideclutterbyEllen. Contact Ellen for a complimentary phone consultation at ideclutter407@gmail.

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