The first time G.M. and her family evacuated, ash from the Thomas Fire fell around them. She packed up three cars and they headed for a friend's house in Monterey.
"I hated selecting amongst my art, my silver, my personal files, my clothes, my jewelry, and my son's little school ceramic presents. I thought I might come back to nothing." She writes that the moment she drove away from her Montecito home threatened by the largest fire in California history, she almost hoped she would find nothing when she returned. "I kind of wished for a simpler way of living. I realized I had too much stuff."
Thus her email to me: "Dr. E., do you have suggestions for lightening my load?" After re-hanging her art on December 19, she found herself 'doing it all again,' evacuating in the rain on Jan. 9.
G.M. spent years furnishing her home. I came to visit and offered her the following suggestions based on "object class" categories, an appraising term that acknowledges both the type and market level of collections. My suggestions are here not for homeowner's insurance purposes but are simply a few hints for less painful decisions around treasures. The past couple months we have been faced with two wild races around our homes to pull together what's "important." I suggest that although the objects seem important, we can diminish the tenacity with which we hang onto them.
Start with your storage unit. A colleague of mine is helping a client go through a mud-soaked locker right now. G.M., like 10 percent of American homeowners, has a costly and not often visited storage unit. G.M., take a weekend, hire a crew, take photos to accompany your IRS form 8283 for donations and donate things. Take along some fresh boxes for the keepers and label each with photos of what's inside. We used a little portable printer that attached to a digital camera and printed out photos right there. Contract with the facility for a smaller storage space in advance. That way you'll have to declutter.
Next, have a good look at the art in your home. Divide the art into "can't live without" and "valuable." You'll be surprised at the difference. Hire someone like me to assess the valuable art. Hire someone with a great camera and good lighting for the "can't live without" group. Shoot so that you can reproduce that group into giclees (really good reproductions) in the event of a total loss. In the event of an evacuation, take only the expensive stuff.
On to the kitchen! Keep one good set of china, and one everyday set. You kitchen is not the place to make time-consuming decisions. The market value for anything once called "formal entertaining" is minimal. Miss something you donate? It's dirt cheap to buy it again.
Next, check your sentimental objects, letters and photos. Nothing in this category is useful, except for what it says about you. Therefore, make this group into real, live stories. Hire someone who can take good still photos or a video, spend an afternoon reciting what those objects and letters mean. I had a client whose late husband used Noxzema in those cobalt blue jars; he saved each empty. She had five boxes of jars she couldn't dispose of. The color and smell reminded her poignantly of her late husband. I had our staff photographer John make a lovely composition tower of those jars, light it beautifully and make an art piece for her.
Losing everything is a turning point, whether it means rebuilding or restoring. But after a disaster, we think differently about possessions. Thus, think in advance, for next time, about innovative ways to keep the stories those objects tell and let some of those objects go.
A good example is your large collection of books. A client of mine, an avid reader and collector, today has a library buried in 4 feet of mud. The books remain on the shelves, looking like someone had painted them brown. All 700 volumes are toast. My suggestion? Photograph all covers. Hire a knowledgeable dealer to explain which of your books are rare or first editions. Keep those; donate the rest, because you now have a photographic record of what you have read. Check the price of used books you can always buy back a title.
Facing a chaos is one thing. Facing a chaos of memories is another! My final word: Prepare yourself for creative ways to focus on the memories before you are forced to say goodbye to the objects.
For more advice from Dr. Elizabeth Stewart on how to downsize and declutter watch her videos on the subject.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter