Sitting in my living room on a cool autumn evening in 2014, I was seized by the realization that the stuff I had accumulated over 35 years had calcified into dead weight, and the life I was living felt like a fading photograph.
I was startled by the clarity and intensity with which it hit. At age 66, I was facing a choice—change the script or gather dust and fade along with the detritus bulging in the cupboards and molding in the cellar.
Long talks in the evenings on the front porch tackled tough topics. My husband was facing 70; if he died before me, I couldn’t handle the demands of a large house, 15 acres, 3.5 miles of gravel road, and a driveway known to hurl cars into the cornfield. If I died before him, the house would be a burden, and he wouldn’t want to stay in it anyway. We needed to make big changes. We needed to down- size.
We didn’t know what the future would look like, but when you move from “can’ts” to “what ifs,” the vistas are full of fresh air. We could travel in a camper, set up a compound with our son’s family, find a small home closer to him, or build a house. That last idea initially seemed remote, but it had always been a dream. We decided to sell our house first, and then figure it out over time, playing it by ear and keeping options open. We’d be travelers, transients, vagabonds. It had a ring to it.
We spent the winter shedding anything that didn’t demand to be kept, jettisoning two thirds of our belongings. We gave things away, sold them, recycled, put out mountains of free-by-the-road mishmash, and emptied the cellar, attic, and shed.
And we cleaned ferociously, scrubbing, polishing, painting, and vacuuming. It took six months to get the house ready, but with the help of our realtor and a home stager we turned our 2,300-square- foot log home into a Vermont postcard.
The house sold in three months, and in August 2016 we put our remaining belongings into long-term, climate-con- trolled storage and hit the road. We ex- pected times of regret when we’d curse our choice, but that didn’t happen. We had a lot of fun.
We spent three months in a Bolton ski house, five on a quiet North Florida beach, six in Monkton, and a year in a condo on the Burlington waterfront, all the while looking for our next home. Ultimately we decided to build a house, breaking ground in October 2017.
In August of 2018 we moved into a beautiful, 1,350-square-foot, three-bed- room, two-bath, one level, super-energy- efficient home on five acres in Berlin with mountain views and great roads for walk- ing. Our new gardens are manageable for old folks, and there’s no cellar.
The aging-in-place home that we de- signed with the help of our builder, Mont- pelier Construction, has been featured in Green Energy Times magazine. Now we’re about 100 yards from hardtop; have a short, flat driveway; and can be at the grocery store, hospital, or interstate in five minutes.
When our stored belongings were de- livered to our new house, we wondered why we had kept a lot of things, so out they went. Why would two people need 36 towels, three teapots, and seven sets of sheets?
Lots of older people fantasize about downsizing, starting over in a fresh, small, uncluttered nirvana, and lots of people ask how we managed to do it. Here are a few thoughts I hope you’ll find helpful.
• Casually thinking it’s a “good idea” or “something you should consider” won’t produce the commitment and energy it takes. Redesigning your life is as much a mental discipline as a logistical task.
• Don’t procrastinate. If you wait too long, you won’t be as capable, and at some point, your kids will have to jump in.
• Ease into the process by starting in the cellar or a black-hole closet—some place that’s sure to be full of things you don’t need. The relief of shedding all that junk will inspire you to tackle harder areas of the house.
• Give yourself time. You’re going to have to touch and evaluate every item you own. Libraries and used book stores are picky about what they’ll accept. Sell- ing or donating on Front Porch Forum requires emails, look-sees, and photos. ReSOURCE in Barre was a godsend. • It takes organization, so if you’re not good at that, get help. I used a large binder to keep track of everything—leases, sales, contracts, promising short-term housing, names of service people, etc.