Mary Potter Kenyon is a grief counselor and the author of seven books, including Called to Be Creative and Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief. She lives in Dubuque, Iowa. For more information, see MaryPotterKenyon.com.
Read my full interview with Mary and many others. Get the Kindle version of The Naked House for 99 cents for the next three days on Amazon.
Mollie: Have you ever significantly reorganized and decluttered your home? What led to the decision and what did you change?
Mary: In April 2018, I was offered my dream job an hour from where I lived. I made the decision to sell the four-bedroom, two-story house where my husband David and I had raised the last four of our eight children. David had died in 2012 and my seventh child was poised to leave the nest, leaving me with one daughter and a huge house. Not only did I need to declutter in order to sell my house, the house I purchased in my new town was 760 square feet. I had to do some serious purging, with less than two months to do it.
I began by deciding which furniture could come with me, and my heart sank when I realized my four bookshelves, my huge solid oak desk and my mother’s kitchen table would not fit. The owner of the house I was buying agreed to leave a folding IKEA table in the kitchen, the only kind of table that worked. Two living room chairs would need to be sold. A beautiful closed cabinet that was filled with office supplies and photo albums. A kitchen shelf. The one thing I knew had to come with me was a shaker-style cabinet I’d inherited from my mother, but it would need to be emptied of some of her things to make room for the single shelf of books I would keep.
I went through closets of clothing. As I pulled things off hangers, I priced those I thought would sell. I even had a box of my husband’s shirts stashed away, which my sister Joan agreed to take off my hands and make into Christmas stockings for my children. I wasn’t just dealing with stuff, I was dealing with memories, and I shed tears through the process. I went through thousands of books. The first two boxes sold for $150 at a bookstore, alleviating the distress a little. By the time I held my first garage sale, I’d whittled down my possessions drastically. The most daunting task, though, was the paper: a file cabinet and a trunk filled with letters, college papers, photos, and even scrapbooks from high school. I handed my son a bag filled with twenty daybooks (daily diaries) to burn because I couldn’t bear to dispose of them myself.
After two garage sales, several trips to a thrift store, and even filling my front lawn with items I advertised for free on a local online giveaway board, I ended up with less than half my original possessions. By then, it felt freeing to have dealt with years of accumulated clutter—to have made decisions about which things meant the most and gave me pleasure and joy when I looked at them. I would come to regret only the loss of the desk and the daybooks.
While I no longer have a separate office, I do have my own space, a back room that spans the entire width of the house and serves as both bedroom and office. Everything in it was consciously chosen to survive the Great Purge of 2018. The bedroom portion is sparse: an end table and a twin bed topped with a mockingbird quilt that matches the curtains. Outside of a washer and dryer in the opposite far corner, the rest of the large room is designed around the comfy brown recliner my children gave me for Christmas. When I sit in it to write or read, I’m surrounded by things that bring a smile to my face.
There is the Shaker-style cabinet I inherited from my mother, filled with things I treasure: my collection of autographed books, a hand-blown glass turtle my son Michael made, a toy sheep from my childhood, and bricks my daughter Rachel painted to look like the covers of my books. My grandmother’s trunk is topped by one of Mom’s quilts and her hand-carved Saint Michael statue, his sword upraised in regal glory.
Walls are adorned with paintings by my mother and daughter Emily, along with photographs taken by my son Dan, one framed and another on canvas. A rustic wooden rack is attached to one wall, the wire baskets holding stationery and greeting cards. Wooden letters with the cover designs of my six books on another wall spell the word “writer,” handmade by my daughter Elizabeth. Finally, there’s a book-themed lamp atop an end table Katie painted to look like book spines. I love my smaller space.
Read my full interview with Mary and many more. Get the Kindle version of The Naked House for 99 cents for the next three days on Amazon.