When I turned 70, it had been 20 years since my husband had died, ten years since I had had a heart attack and five years since I had recovered from breast cancer.
I had no partner, no pet, no car, and no mortgage. I could work from anywhere – so why was I living in Hackney, East London?
My daily life was predictable and boring, my friends were either busy with grandparents duties or with new partners. My closet was filled with London black and the light in my flat was driving me crazy.
My three children – ages 40, 36 and 32 – all had paid jobs and I needed to get their hair out and have an adventure before I lost all my marbles and the use of my legs.
I needed color and excitement. I decided to sell my flat and rent a furnished accommodation in Seville, southern Spain – a city I had fallen in love with many years before, when I commuted from Stansted to organize writing vacation north of town.
My daily life was predictable and boring, my friends were either busy with grandparents homework or with new partners
More sunshine, cheap sherry and a Zara on every corner. And who knows, maybe I’ll meet a nice local who wants to improve his English.
Going abroad seemed like the perfect opportunity to put my affairs in order. I’m a Virgo, I like a tidy ship, and with my medical history, in addition to watching my husband Jerry die at 53, I was all too aware of my own mortality.
I decided to clean the decks for my offspring in case I had a bad fall one afternoon while alone in Plaza De Espana.
Despite their age, I felt guilty for leaving them and striding merrily into the sunset like a gap year OAP.
I wanted to make it as easy as possible for them if the worst were to happen. In Sweden, there is a name for this type of decluttering – dostadning, which means “death cleaning”.
It may sound morbid, but I believe that getting rid of a lifetime’s possessions is the ultimate act of love toward children. Pictures of Elaine Claire’s house
The best-selling book on the subject, The Gentle Art Of Swedish Death Cleaning, by artist Margareta Magnusson, has even been made into a TV show narrated by star Amy Poehler.
It may sound morbid, but I believe that getting rid of a lifetime’s possessions is the ultimate act of love toward children.
I want to do this for them so they never get stuck with the “sadmin” (sad admin) themselves. I am still haunted by the emotional upheaval of downsizing from a semi-detached house in Brighton to a smaller terraced house a year after Jerry’s death.
I hate to throw anything but it felt like a release
It took four months to distill our worldly goods into heaps of “save”, “give to friends”, “auction”, “charity shop” and “dump”.
Friends and neighbors lent me a helping hand while my children stood confused, horrified at how quickly I dismissed their family history.
In hindsight, I should have stayed in the family home and not disrupted their lives so soon after the loss of their father. The youngest was only 11 years old and the middle one was leaving for a new boarding school. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and regretting a bitter pill.
I wanted to do this for them so they never get stuck with the “sadmin” (sad admin) themselves. Pictures of Elaine Claire’s house
My parents both died before the age of 80, three months apart, after a long marriage. I helped my two younger brothers clean their Cornish home.
It’s amazing what you can fit in a three bedroom bungalow. It was a colossal, heartbreaking and hilarious task, cutting through all the confusion and clutter that was, at times, intimate bordering on blushing.
There were 50 empty boxes of Steradent tablets and two sets of false teeth each. But we also discovered a treasure—a shoebox with invitations and responses to my mother’s 21st birthday party; love letters; their Union GPO diaries written during and after World War II, recording in tiny handwriting how delighted they were both after their first meeting in 1947.
I also learned that my mother had been engaged to a Canadian airman, who happened to have a wife, and that she and my grandmother had both contracted scabies. Good.
It took four months to distill our worldly goods into heaps of “save”, “give to friends”, “auction”, “charity shop” and “dump”. Pictures of Elaine Claire’s house
There was so much sentimental value. I learned more about my parents than I ever learned while they were alive.
They never shared their inner hopes and fears with me. I was their child, forever spoken to as such. I developed more empathy with their lives and was able to forgive, even forget, some difficult childhood experiences.
A few years after clearing out my parents’ house, I moved from Brighton to Cornwall to share a new man’s house, so my family’s large furniture and appliances passed to new owners.
Death doesn’t have to cause rancor and resentment
When we parted ways five years later, I found myself in Hackney, a town I had left 32 years before. There I was, back at Ikea, replacing everything I’d dumped along the way with a flat, featureless pack.
So now, nine years later, at 70, it was surprising that I had anything of value left to sort through when planning my escape to Andalucia.
But in addition to treasured family photos, children’s clothing, Lego, Sylvanian Families, Playmobil, Star Wars figures, stuffed animals – all reserved for distant grandchildren – there was a ton of artwork framed art, a tottering stack of magazines, mountains of kitchen utensils, and the fabric and balsa wood model airplanes lovingly constructed by my husband.
I am still haunted by the emotional upheaval of downsizing from a semi-detached house in Brighton to a smaller terraced house a year after Jerry’s death. Pictures of Elaine Claire’s house
It was hard to suggest to children that it was time for them to take their personal story home.
My daughter from North London received Le Creuset, cutting boards, a coffee table, a mattress, an armchair and my olive tree in a pot which she helped move. Sons sharing in south London received the vinyl, books, desk, chairs and a much-appreciated lamp. And those flipped magazines.
I hate throwing anything away. I had done way too much in the past, but it felt like a release: to both lighten my load and benefit them.
And, after all, isn’t that what would happen when I died? Much better do it now – save them the pain and give them the use of my stuff!
There were years of my notebooks and journals, many of which my daughter had already read. Nothing has ever been “off limits”. Unlike my relationship with my parents, my children know about my life – perhaps too much – and most of my escapades during my 30 or so years working in fashion.
They saw me at my most vulnerable. I’m not afraid of them discovering a different Elaine when I die, or solving my life story. I just wanted to make it easier for them from a practical point of view.
They also got a copy of my will and power of attorney.
I wanted to arm them with information, which they appreciated. My parents left financial chaos, but death doesn’t have to cause rancor and resentment.
I’m not afraid of them discovering a different Elaine when I die, or solving my life story. I just wanted to make it easier for them from a practical point of view. Pictures of Elaine Claire’s house
A few years after my husband died, my daughter asked me what music I wanted at my funeral, “because we don’t want the same problem we had choosing Dad’s.” God, I’m so proud of my kids.
And now we are three years later. If I’ve learned anything during my difficult but exciting time in this one-bed apartment with six flights of steep stairs in an old house in Seville, it’s how little I need to flourish. I came with two suitcases and a small hand luggage.
Sometimes I visit the children and affectionately caress my possessions in their home. It gives me great pleasure to see them still in the family, but I don’t really need these objects.
Maybe apart from that big Le Creuset orange…
- Elaine organizes writing, walking and meditation retreats in Spain (write-it-down.co.uk/spain)