How to let go of sentimental things & inherited keepsakes that don’t feel like you

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Sentimental Things

My father died when I was twenty-three. We buried him quickly, following Muslim tradition, and at some point after the relatives and friends had gone, my mother and my eldest big brother worked to sort through his things. I don’t know where I was; I suppose I had returned to work in London (he had passed away on my first day at work). I remember asking my brother what it was like, to have gone through all our father’s belongings. “Everything just smelt of him,” he said.

Later my mother asked if I wanted to take anything of his back to London with me. I took a jumper and a bottle of his aftershave. In the very raw beginning, I sometimes wore his jumper when I was alone in my then-flat. I wore it for comfort and warmth and because it smelt of him. The jumper was red, the colour of plump cherry tomatoes dotted in summer salads, bright like his cheeks after mowing the lawn. It was warm, cosy, a v-neck, as I recall. I also kept his aftershave. I don’t remember the name now, but it was in a deep blue glass bottle with a gold lid. When he was in hospital, I learnt to shave his face for him, gently trying not to let the razor scrape against his papery skin, and afterwards I would spritz this in the air to dispel the stale dullness of the ward.

I kept both of these things, his jumper and his aftershave, from the time of his death to the time that I married; I kept them for about five years. At some point I stopped wearing the jumper and instead folded it neatly and put it away at the back of my wardrobe, the bottle of aftershave next to it. But when I was about to be married, and I forced myself to sort through all my own belongings and simplify my life, I decided I didn’t need to keep these things to remember him by. I can only assume the jumper went to charity, the aftershave - a bottle opened for far too long - in the bin. My point is that I don’t remember the act of parting because I didn’t need these insignificant things to remember him by.

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My mother and father came to England from Pakistan. He was here before her, to establish his medical career, and when she arrived they set up a small home in the upstairs rooms of a large period house. While they lived upstairs, my father, a medic, saw patients and worked downstairs in reception rooms converted into a doctor’s surgery.

Since their first home was so small, my parents didn’t come to England with very much by way of belongings, out of practicality and necessity. For what, exactly, do you pack for a new life, when you have a luggage allowance to consider? So it is not as if they filled their limited suitcase space with family heirlooms or art or books. They started from scratch. No room for sentimentality.

By the time I was born, my parents had moved to a more modern suburb, where the houses looked the same but different, and over time they filled our family home with pieces that, I suppose, reminded them of Pakistan, pieces they brought back with them from the long, extended family trips we made there together. Handmade rugs, intricate wood carvings, ceramics hand-painted with calligraphy, one or two photographs of their parents, long since gone. But nothing of their childhoods, nothing of their own family homes.

The inheritance of things

I see people, on social media and in real life, with homes filled with history. Not just secondhand pieces, but treasures that have been passed along, telling stories through their family. A wooden trunk which once held a grandmother’s wedding trousseau and now holds a child’s toys. A painted armoire in a hallway, stuffed with football boots and hockey sticks, but which originally came from an ancestor’s home. A dear friend of mine has countless tea sets, inherited from her mother and her mother’s mother; her (also inherited) dining table is surrounded by old pass-on-down antique chairs. There is a charm to her kitchen that comes with all of this.

But in our family, a family of migration and journeys, there are no pieces of family furniture that have been passed along, no heirlooms that have stood the test of time. Even if there had been, it is unlikely that they would have travelled this far. Not across countries, continents and oceans, not all the way to England. Because this is what happens when your roots are rambling and overgrown from one country to the other in a tangled, wild nest.

This kind of history can be confusing. When I first set up my very first home, a tiny studio flat, my mother gave me cushion covers, embroidered with rich red and rust silks and inlaid with tiny glass pieces in the shape of diamonds. I could have sworn she told me they belonged to her mother, my grandmother, and so I took such care over them - only to discover, years later, that they didn’t belong to my grandmother at all, that my mother simply couldn’t remember where she got them from at all. After that, they didn’t mean so much at all and I felt free to change those covers, long since gone now, according to my whims.

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But do I miss this? Do I miss this inheritance of things? A small part of me would love to know that the stories that seep all old things were, in a way, my stories - not just something that belonged to someone else once upon a time that I happened to chance upon in a market or a vintage store. It would, for instance, be charming if my boys’ vintage writing desks were not just desks I ordered online, but desks that belonged to someone further along in the family tree.

My friend with the inherited tea sets has more than just tea sets. She has a whole house of curious heirlooms, but she finds it too much. There is no room for her aesthetic, no room for her to bring the meaning she wants for her own home and her own family. So I see her struggle and the burden of all this inheritance - things she cannot give away for fear of upsetting older relatives - hanging on the walls and hidden in cupboards.

I am lucky I don’t have this sort of burden, of things being too much, of not feeling like I don’t have my own space, to bear. I am grateful for the clean slate. I have the chance to make my home my own way without obligation to a certain person or a past I had no part in. I feel like we can live lightly.

As for my children: they once found my old toys in my mother’s loft and they picked out the ones they liked most. A rabbit, which I dearly loved, and a tiny bear. They brought them home with them. And it pleases me that they have something small of mine, something of when I was a little girl.

Will we keep them forever? Most likely not. But for now, they like to take care of these things for me. “You can sleep with your rabbit tonight, Mama” they sometimes declare, thrusting it into my hands at bedtime as I leave them. More than once, I have gone to bed to find my little childhood bear tucked underneath my pillow. Looking after my soft toys is, I think, my boys’ way of looking after me. There is a kindness and a thoughtfulness that I love about that, about them doing this for me.

My boys may have nothing of their grandfather’s to hold. But they have me, and I have memories that I can put down in words, and I trust that those stories, on their own, may be enough.

A minimalist’s guide: five ways to let go of sentimental things and inherited keepsakes

1) Leave it a while It’s hard to let go of anything that reminds you of someone you love. So take your time. You don’t have to do it all straight away. Wait until that day when the clouds don’t feel so dark and you can see and think with clarity again. Put them out of sight, but not so much that you forget about them entirely. Because you’ll have to deal with it someday and you’ll need reminding of that.

2) Take a philosophical approach Things are just things. People aren’t made of stuff. We are all more than that. When you part with something sentimental or inherited, know that though the item may be gone, the memories remain

3) Once you’ve made the decision to part with it Then part with it - and quickly. Don’t dwell on it. When it’s gone, it’s gone and there is a lightness that comes with that.

4) Don’t take it to a landfill, if you can avoid it Donate to charity instead. Someone else will want and need the thing that you don’t. That’s purposeful.

5) If you inherit something from an ancestor you never even knew and don’t even like the item (or even if it’s someone that was close to you but you still don’t like the piece) or it doesn’t fall in line with your values Then stop the process in its tracks before guilt gets its grip on you and before it starts to happen again and again. You can say you simply have no room. Or consider if you can have an honest but gentle conversation with the relative doing the off-loading. This New York Times piece includes this mantra: ““My taste is different. Why don’t we pick out someone in the family who would love to have this?” which is clear and concise but also kind enough to suggest giving it to someone who will appreciate it. Feelings may be offended, but it won’t last forever whereas the clutter will, once you open the door an inch.

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A tiny, tidy kitchen for five: how we maximise space in a 70 square foot kitchen

A tiny, tidy kitchen for five: how we maximise space in a 70 square foot kitchen

Our kitchen is a little rabbit hole, or perhaps more appropriately, the entrance to a rabbit hole, tucked away below ground in the basement. It is hidden at the bottom of a flight of pokey stairs, indirectly lit by a skylight; at 70 square feet, there is neither room for a table nor for chairs. When there's more than two grown-ups down there at a time, we dance inelegantly around cupboard doors. It's cosy.  Add three little ones into the mix, and our dance is more of a bump as small people weave between our legs. Our slim fridge with its barely-there freezer compartment squeezes into an alcove - perfect for the food shop of a young couple, perhaps. Not quite what you'd expect for a growing family of five with very hungry children.

I have dreams of a large, light filled kitchen full of windows, perhaps overlooking a garden or a sun room. There'd be a big table and a bench where the kids could do homework or paint or drink milk after school. In these dreams though, it's not more storage space I'm hankering after (the idea of more space, more storage and more things makes me itch); it's mostly just the light I dream of, and the room for us all to move and flow comfortably enough in the same space at the same time. Oh, but I've seen these kitchens! I tell myself we'll have one, one day.

Meanwhile, I don't hate my kitchen either (for what would be the point in that?). She is petite, but she is neat and she is all we have. On the best of days, we high-five and we tell each other we don't need a bigger place at all. This is how we make it work and how perhaps you can too, if you face the same challenges of small dimensions too.

Finding my still

Finding my still

Sometimes, I don't always take my own advice. Sometimes, I am not grounded or rested or calm. Sometimes, I snap at the kids. Sometimes, we all get upset. Sometimes, I get swept up in late nights stuck in front of my computer screen, trying to finish a blog post or put the finishing touches to my course and when this happens, I wear myself out. My eyes throb from the tiredness of it all, from all the conflicting emotions going around as I try to figure out a million things, from how to be a better mother to how to figure out what I'm doing with my career to what to make for dinner tomorrow. Sometimes, when I'm pushed right to the edge of my energy levels, I crave more space than I can find in our little home, space I feel I need to breathe, and then, when it all gets to this point, when I feel like the walls are closing in, that's when I can't sleep. 

And that's where, I'm sorry to have to admit it, I've been lately: staring into the blankness in the middle of the night, the street lights seeping in through the shutters. I generally try to be intentional in the way in which I balance the stuff that makes up my daily life, especially when it comes to my kids, but when I get to this point and I can't sleep - which is hardly ever, incidentally, but when it does happen, it is still quite distressing - then it's the big, loud, screeching wake up call I need to slow it right the way back down. It's when I need to remember to breathe. It's when I need to find what I call my still.

Finding my still is sort of like my mind taking a nap, my soul curling up under the covers. It's the way I retreat into myself. It's the way I find calm and balance. It helps me in everything I do, all the roles I hold from wife, mother and creative, writer, too.

How I maintain a calm and tidy home with children

How I maintain a calm and tidy home with children

There's a magical moment that comes every day, around 7pm, when all my children are in bed and I step down the hallway, alone for the first time since morning, and tread lightly down the stairs so as not to stir any little boys that are not yet in a deep sleep. I pass into our lounge and there I sit in silence, waiting to make sure they are asleep, listening for shuffles and mumbles and those little sighs. While I wait, evening shadows pass like clouds over the wall and the sky shifts across the skylight, the light softer and gentler now. 

The last thing I want to do in this magical moment is be on my hands and knees, picking up building blocks and tidying toys away. And so in a roundabout way, I don't, because I've taken steps to keep that at bay.

After years of neglecting my own well-being for the sake of bylines and deadlines, I have come to value clarity and calmness and being kinder to myself. This is what I want our home to feel like - calm, uncluttered, loving and warm - and I try to infuse these feelings into our home because as a family, an immediate sense of calm grounds us and helps us be kinder to each other too.


Simple holidays and tips for finding somewhere lovely to stay

Simple holidays and tips for finding somewhere lovely to stay

When I was little, holidays with my parents were full on, jam-packed and whirlwind. We did all the touristy stuff, where ever we were, walking across big cities, spending hours inside museums and stopping outside every monument for photographs. While I'm so grateful to them for all we saw and did, I wouldn't describe the holidays I remember as restful. We'd be woken up first thing, dressed and ready to fill our plates at breakfast buffets that started with the sun, and then we'd be out the door, all day on our feet. Not for us holiday lie-ins. Not for us lazy beach vacations of doing nothing.

The places we stayed in, hotels and apartments, were simply sidebars, incidental practicalities. Just beds for the night. There was no need for them to be pretty - though they had to be clean and tidy - because we would hardly be there at all. Besides, holidays were (still are) expensive as a family of five. I know that now too.

These were the eighties and the nineties. The days when a travel agent would point at tiny pictures of hotels in brochures for customers to choose from. You hardly had the option of selecting your preferred holiday accommodation based on its interior style. I get why my parents prioritised holidays as being about places to visit and see and take in the noise and culture of a place and not about the accommodation. I guess that's just what most people did, and still do, even though it's so much easier to find so many different kinds of places to stay in now.

Later, as a young 20-something journalist, I used to get invited on press trips. Sometimes, I was put up in suites bigger than my first flat, suites that took up entire floors of whichever luxury hotel I had been sent to. I had never, ever stayed in hotels like this before, where people offered me whatever I wanted to eat, where I had a sauna in the middle of my room or a huge four poster bed or a direct lift straight down to the swimming pool. I'd arrive and text photos to my mother followed by exclamation marks. I couldn't believe my luck. Although now I look back with cynicism at the wasteful way in which this world used to work, at the time I felt dizzy, a little like Andy from The Devil Wears Prada. But once the gloss had worn off, I realised how I really didn't like staying in these big, showy places at all. I'm not really a hotel or resort-kind-of-girl. I find them claustrophobic, unreal, stark and not at all cosy or restful. 

Rediscovering the pleasure of reading fiction and some favourite summer reads

Rediscovering the pleasure of reading fiction and some favourite summer reads

A girl with her head always in a book. That was who I was, growing up. I've written before about my childhood spent reading, the books I shared with my father, my reading companion. I've written about how reading is what made me want to be a writer - longing to make other people feel the way I felt when I was touched by a heartfelt, beautiful, devastating story.

And so I am slightly aghast to admit that it's been over a year since I've read any fiction. I have never not read fiction, certainly not for this long. So this is something I feel terrible about. I feel like apologising to all the books I failed to read.

Perhaps surprisingly, my lack of fiction reading has nothing to do with having children or being busy. I've always read around the children, making time in the evening and also early in the morning during those sleepy dawn feeds, the  daybreak diffusing through our bedroom shutters casting the first shadows upon my bedspread. A baby nestled into me, warm and drowsy in my arms; a book in my hands.