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Personal Essay: Honey, I Shrunk Our Home!

Though many people resist the idea of moving to smaller digs, this writer is looking forward to the pleasures of downsizing.

By Bill McCoy

Much as my wife and I love our children, we can't wait for the day when they're launched in the world and we can go back to being a couple. We already talk about it—a lot. And we agree on at least one thing: for us, it will probably mean living in a city. We want the access to museums, restaurants, shops and people..

For my wife, the major sticking point is our house. She loves it. I do too, but we come at the matter of home ownership from very different perspectives. A city girl who grew up in an apartment, she always wanted to have more room, and now she does. We're comfortable here. We've worked hard to make it reflect our taste. Our children have grown up within its walls. There are few things we enjoy more in life than sitting on our porch on a late spring evening and talking with our neighbors. Still, I'd give up all of those pleasures for a little townhouse overlooking a square in the heart of the city. I have no reservations about downsizing.

"When my wife starts expressing reservations about downsizing, I remind her of how much time my mother had for her grandchildren, and how much she saved, by living her simpler life."

I owe this perspective to my mother—the most fervent advocate for downsizing you could ever have met. She did not do it willingly the first time. Newly widowed in her early forties, she decided to take the financially responsible but emotionally difficult step of selling our home and moving herself and her children into an apartment. My sister and I dreaded leaving our house, even though we were only moving a few miles away. Our focus was exclusively on the negatives. Our neighbors were no longer going to be our neighbors. Not all of our furniture was going to fit in the new place. I wouldn't be able to keep all the toys and books I'd accumulated over the years, even though I'd outgrown most of them.

But once we moved into the apartment, we all found something curiously liberating about living there. The family cleanup on Saturday mornings was over in no time. We could walk anywhere we wanted. We kept our friendships with the former neighbors who meant the most to us, and got to know other people in the building. Inside our apartment, the greater physical proximity somehow translated to another kind of closeness, which we all needed in the days after my father died.

The Uncluttered Life

It's not surprising, then, that my mother came to embrace living modestly as a guiding principle. When she followed a new job to a new city while I was in college, she found an apartment with fewer bedrooms. By the time she was ready to retire to a sunnier climate, both my sister and I were out in the world, so she downsized again, this time to a one-bedroom. Several years after that, she moved to an apartment that was even smaller, though better appointed. Each time she scaled back, she bragged about what she had let go in the move. At some point in the process, I could always expect to receive a parcel that might contain carefully packed family photos, souvenirs from our trips, or a thick envelope containing 12 years of my report cards. Downsizing became kind of a cleansing ritual for her.

Unexpected Benefits—and Lessons Learned

I was grateful for her embrace of the simple life when, after my mother's death, my wife and I took on the job of clearing out her last apartment. Through her incremental editing of the material things around her, my mother had spared us having to deal with massive rooms full of stuff. It made us respect her even more, and not just because she had made our task easier. It became clear to both of us that hers was a life lived with precision and purpose. Everything she owned had either a specific function or an important meaning in her life.

I must have caught some of her spirit during the cleanup, because I found myself keeping only the things that felt essential to our family—the wooden washbasin my great-great-great-uncle had made well over a century ago, the cherry table on which we had eaten dinner for so many years, the Waterford champagne glasses I had given her for her 75th birthday. The rest of her belongings went to family, friends and the shop at the local women's shelter. She would have approved of my ruthlessness, I'm certain.

So when my wife starts expressing reservations about downsizing from our home in the country to an apartment in the city, I remind her of what we learned about my mother from cleaning out her apartment, and the way we came to admire her clear and deliberate way of living. I also remind her of the freedom my mother had in her last years, how much time she had for her grandchildren and for us, and how much she saved by living her simpler, less cluttered life.

Then I remind my wife that our kids aren't the least bit sentimental about our house. And I promise her that we will remain close to them even if we don't keep all of their report cards. In fact, they'll probably be grateful to us if we don't.


Merrill Lynch client Bill McCoy is an editor and author of Father's Day: Notes from a New Dad in the Real World.

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