Real Estate

Siblings empty family house, find what matters

By From page HS4 | February 28, 2014

Up there in the category with death and taxes is this inevitability: At some point everyone will likely have to clear out a parent’s home.

I’m not going to soften the blow. It’s like having open heart surgery without anesthesia.

“It falls into the ‘most stressful’ category,” said Peter Brenton, of Medford, Mass., who with his two older sisters cleared out their childhood home this past year, after their mother, and last living parent, died. Having gone through this myself last year, as many of you read, I felt an instant rapport.

“Our parents weren’t classic hoarders,” said Brenton, who is 47 and among the most clear-headed people I have ever talked to. (When I learned he worked as an administrator in the nuclear engineering department at MIT, that made perfect sense.) “But they hung onto a lot of things they saw no reason to throw away.”

“Tell me about it!” I said. I think of the dozens of gift bags Mom had stashed, all the vases from every floral arrangement she’d ever received.

“Financial papers and receipts that went back 30 years,” he said. “Wedding gifts they received in 1955, which they didn’t like and never opened, guns and ammunition.”

“Wait. Guns and ammunition?”

“I don’t have a gun license,” he said. “In Massachusetts it’s illegal for me to carry even a bullet. What was I supposed to do with this?”

“The memorabilia was the most excruciating,” said his oldest sister Anne Brenton Isenberg.  “We opened box after box marked ‘miscellaneous.’ They would have black and white photos of people I hadn’t thought about in 50 years, along with birth announcements. Every box was like a time capsule.”

“My parents had the exact same boxes!” I said. “You open one and fall into the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

Because every family moves through the process differently, some better than others, I’m always curious. The Brenton siblings began last spring and dedicated most Sundays to the task.

“As the executor, Peter felt the weight of the job,” said Isenberg, who’s 55. “He was the practical one and kept pushing. My sister and I would have let things sit for a year.”

“Sometimes I had to be more firm than was polite,” Brenton said.

The first two Sundays, they filled two Dumpsters. That was the easy part. “Here’s where it got sensitive,” Brenton said. “Most Sundays we worked six to seven hours, except when we got in a stupid fight.”

The day they spent sticking their names on items they wanted “ended in a horrible argument,” he said. “None of us was blameless.”

“I love my siblings,” Isenberg said, “but we had to pull away.”

“We fought not over any thing, but because of the emotional weight of sorting through it all,” said Brenton. “We all had this huge burden.” They made a rule: Nothing would leave the house without all three agreeing.

Then he nailed the heart of the problem: “While we wanted to hold on, we knew we had to get rid of 95 percent of the stuff,” he said. “None of us has a huge house. We all have our own objects that have sentimental value.”

They didn’t need to explain to me. I wanted to cling like a barnacle to every remnant of the lives that were slipping from me, but I also did not want to add to my load.

“There were the Christmas tree decorations we grew up with,” said Brenton. “The green glassware that was my great grandmother’s. The tabletop statue of a moose that our parents bought in Germany. Every object had a story.”

“And separating from each item feels like giving away a finger,” I said. I know.

However, like me and my brother, and like many brothers and sisters before us, the Brenton siblings have crossed to the other side. For those who still have this coming, here are some guiding lights that helped them through:

  • Keep the end in mind. Whenever the siblings lost focus or their spirits lagged, Brenton reminded his sisters of the goal: To empty the house so they could sell it. The house was costing them $1,800 a month to carry. It would serve them all to clear it and sell it.
  • Know what you want and why: “I looked for things that I remembered the story from, or remembered my parents really valuing,” said Brenton, “but also that I had room for and would use.” One item is a monogrammed keybox his father’s carried in his pocket so the keys wouldn’t poke holes in his pockets. It’s small, personal and useful.
  • All in the family. When two antique clocks became a little contentious, because Brenton wanted both and so did his sisters, this realization helped. “I really didn’t want both clocks,” said Brenton. “What I really wanted was to keep them in the family. It wasn’t important that they were in my house.”
  • Hire help: Although I chose to sell most of my parents’ belongings through an estate sale, that’s not for everyone. “I knew from the start we  wouldn’t be able to do that,” Brenton said. After they sorted the personal items, they brought in professionals. MaxSold, a company their Realtor recommended, has 50-years of auction experience, which the company combines with the wonders of social media to swiftly liquidate households.
  • Reverse sticker shock.  “Like many people, we thought there was more money in stuff than there really was,” said Brenton. “We weren’t out to get the highest price, but MaxSold helped us see that the pricing was appropriate for the goal.”
  • Price of peace. In two weeks, MaxSold, which gets 30 percent of the sale, grouped, photographed, cataloged and auctioned off everything.  “It was a dramatic clean sweep,” said Brenton.For people in our situation, who were paying the costs of holding onto the house, this was absolutely worth the money.”
  • Listen to your parents. When Isenberg catches herself thinking of items that got auctioned off that she wishes she had, she banishes the regret. “You can get caught in that spiral thought.” But instead, she summons the voice of her mother. “She would tell me, ‘You have to let that go honey. It’s gone. You have what’s important: your memories, your children, your life. You have to live your life.’”

The Brenton family house went on the market in November, and sold in January — 11 months after their mom’s death.

Join me next week as MaxSold founder shares tips on how to clear a house and how much the average household of stuff is worth.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through

Marni Jameson

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