Doni’s Old House Remodel: Drowning in Boxes

I wrote this Wednesday evening in a room filled with boxes. I sat in a chair in front of a TV tray that held my laptop beneath a ceiling fan that whirred on high speed. That breeze was appreciated earlier in the day when it was an unseasonably warm 95+ degrees outside, but after 9 p.m., it turned downright chilly inside.

I would have turned off the fan, except I could not find the remote. I would have moved to another room to write, but nearly every other room was so packed in boxes that the living room was the best place to be.

So I wore a thick bathrobe over my clothes. I would have worn a sweater, but I can't find one.

I'm in Unpacking Hell.

My container arrived Sunday, delivered by the uber-efficient Kevin Hafenstein, who owns Mobile Me Moving, the awesome Redding company that packed up my stuff in the end of June, stored it all summer and delivered it and unpacked the container into my house.

If you've never seen the way Kevin uses a remote control to maneuver the container off the truck and into place, it's pretty amazing.


Kevin had just one helper, and in just a few hours, those two guys unloaded and placed everything in the appropriate room inside my house, even a piece of furniture I affectionately call The Beast, because it's so big.


It was no small feat to get The Beast into my dining room, but the guys did it!

A funny thing happened while I was away from my stuff all those months. First, I didn't miss it. Second, I started forgetting what I had. Third, when it arrived, the sheer quantity of all those boxes and furniture seemed nearly obscene. I felt overwhelmed. What is all this crap? Surely it wasn't all mine?!

Seeing all these material possessions makes me think I'd never want anything else again, even gifts, unless they're in the form of massage gift certificates and dwarf fruit trees.

After a summer bouncing around from place to place during the most drastic part of my home's remodel, and living out of suitcases, and treating my Kia Soul like a little storage unit, complete with curtain rods and door hooks … after all that, I had learned to live small. And I liked it. I had just one coffee cup, and one French press, and two forks and two knives and two plates and two bowls. I loved the simplicity and the lack of choices.

Sunday, with each new wave of belongings that entered my house, I felt increasingly panicked. I was drowning in boxes.

My Garden Tract house was nearly 1,700 square feet, and my new/old west Redding home is 1,400 square feet. My last house had an attached single-car garage with lots of shelving and cabinets for all my catering stuff. In fact, one tall Garden Tract cabinet alone held nothing but cake pans of every variety: bundt, spring form, checkerboard, wedding, brownie, popover, tart, quiche, cupcake, angel food, corn bread, heart-shaped, loaf, roasting, French bread and even a pan for a beehive cake that I bought especially for one sister's birthday, which I only used that one time.

My new/old house has a rustic detached single-car garage that has lots of little holes, cobwebs and dark places. You know what I'm thinking, but I'll say it anyway: Rats.  You can bet that no cookware will darken the doorway of that little garage.

No segue, but I'm kind of weird in that I actually like to help unpack other people's boxes and put things in their rightful place, especially kitchens, which are my specialty. In fact, a few months ago sister Shelly and I traveled to a friend's house and spent four days unpacking Cindy's stuff in her new house. It was hard work, but fun and satisfying.

I can't explain why, but unpacking and putting away stuff in my house is not fun. It's frustrating. As a former husband put it, it's a situation of trying to put 10 pounds of shit in a 5-pound box.

I am facing the fact that I have issues with stuff. If I had time, I'd consult with a therapist to find the root cause for my excess accumulation, but I am pretty sure it's all tied to that childhood of deprivation, followed by decades of collecting to compensate for what I lacked.

I learned to justify my collections. For starters, I partially blame Martha Stewart, whose magazine I've read for years, and who often features some cool collection, such as vintage cake stands or hankies or white platters or carving sets.

I collect sturdy ware syrup and cream pitchers, assorted silverware, pasta machines, Swanky Swig glasses, white cake stands, and silver-plated trays and cake stands. To name a few.

Martha, she's a true curator, and all her collections are tastefully appointed and displayed in each of her homes.

Got that? Homes. Plural. I'm not Martha Stewart. I don't have a multi-thousand-square-foot Turkey Hill country home with servants and storage galore. I'm Doni Chamberlain in Redding, Calif., and I bought an 80-year-old modest home that has one tiny closet in each of the three bedrooms, and the hallway has one small linen closet and an extremely small cedar-lined coat closet that might hold about five coats. And that's it. We've already determined that the garage is out of the running.

I need to dump this crap, and I need to dump it fast. A storage unit is out of the question. I'm not that far gone yet.

Sister Bethany has downsized mightily, and she has been coaching me all week: Get rid of it, Doni. You'll feel better. Get out of your head. Don't over think it. Just do it. 

I believe she's right, but before I can get rid of it, I have to at least open the boxes, sort through them and see what's inside.

Don't I?

Some stuff I'm donating to non-profits like People of Progress. Other stuff I'm taking to Oregon Street Antique Mall, where Shelly and I have a booth. Overflow furniture went to the Home Consignment Depot where my furniture will be priced, sold, and I'll receive periodical checks until everything's gone. Other stuff will go out on the curb on Nov. 1 for pickup to benefit the Western Neuropathy Association. I got an orange card in the mail asking for donations for this company.

No, I cannot vouch for this organization. But if they will pick up my crap things for free, and take it off my hands, I really don't even care what the organization is about. It could be going to the Western Poison Oak Society for all I care. Just take it. Take it all. Please. Don't make me beg.

Finally, I'll keep the remaining stuff, only things that bring me joy, or that I find useful, or that are sentimental. Dang. Almost everything I own can fit in one of those categories. I'm screwed.

But I must be ruthless. I must have the courage to look at a bin of 1,000 utensils and cull with total abandon. I must catch myself when I start justifying why I'm keeping multiples of something when I really just need one. Or two. Three, tops.

I did catering gigs for a season of my life, which explains why I have a lot of kitchen boxes. But I decided last year that big catering is not my cup of tea. In fact, neither is small catering. All I really want to do related to cooking are wedding cakes, but come to think of it, even the idea of making a wedding cake doesn't appeal to me. For that matter, after going without my kitchen all summer, cooking doesn't interest me now much at all.

Who am I and what happened to Doni?

Meanwhile, I have some good news, I mean, other than the fact that guys from Nor Cal Granite and Tile tiled the back bathroom tub surround, and it looks beautiful! (I'll take a photo during the day and post it.)

But the best news of all happened Saturday, when Corey was among a group of artists featured at Enjoy the Store's Makerie, a pop-up event of sorts. His willow furniture was there for sale.

I stayed all day, and was so happy to see people genuinely appreciate Corey for his artistry and craftsmanship. He sold a few chairs, and the Enjoy folks have the rest of Corey's willow furniture for sale at Enjoy the Store.

Corey and Doni hung out at Enjoy's Makerie event Saturday.

That Makerie event was the highlight of my weekend. I loved seeing Corey interact with the guests and fellow artists.

Then it was back to work on the house, where daughter-in-law Kat kindly painted The Beast the same color as my walls, Natural Grey by Behr.

Kat Domke, Doni's daughter-in-law, painted The Beast and only got one little splotch of paint on her.

This was one monster piece of furniture, and not very pretty. After the paint came wallpaper, leftovers from the hall bathroom.

Now it's ready to cram appoint with dishes.

Longtime friend George offered to help, too, and rather than follow my typical inclination, which is to say, No thank you, I've got this, I said yes. I accepted his help. He put all the knobs and pulls on the cabinets. They look so pretty! What a luxury to use a knob to pull open a cabinet, and not my fingernails, scratching under the doors for opening leverage.

One box at a time. I can do it.

In the process, maybe I'll find the ceiling fan remote. Eventually. Before winter.

Until then, I'm going to go look for another bathrobe. I know it's in some box. Somewhere.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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31 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    “Solon, too, was perhaps sketching well the happy man when he described him as moderately furnished with externals but as having done (as Solon thought) the noblest acts, and lived temperately; for one can with but moderate possessions do what one ought.”
    – Aristotle

  2. Randall R Smith says:

    And Thoreau living at Walden encouraging simplicity while his Harvard classmates were collecting…

  3. Adrienne says:

    What an enlightened approach. Moving from relationships with “”stuff” to relationships with people. YOU GO, GIRL! …, if I could just apply that lesson myself…..

  4. I hear you. While my daughter is living here, I’ve given her full rein to purge the kitchen of all things we don’t need. She is ruthless and smart. When she and her little family move out next month, we’re giving them our living room furniture — after 20 years, 3 kids and 3 bouncy grandchildren, it’s time for an update. I’ve been haunting the Home Consignment Depot almost daily – so maybe I’ll end up with your castoffs. 🙂

    • My daughter helped purge my office supply stash as well as my makeup collection before I moved, and I, like you, appreciated the younger, wiser eye.

      Re living room furniture, for years I’ve relied upon Best Price Furniture and Mattress on Bechelli Lane in Redding. Pat Buckley is its owner, and if he doesn’t have what you need, he can order it. (We went to high school together.)

      But I also love the Home Consignment Depot, and have bought a lot of furniture from it over the years, mainly dressers. It’ll be interesting to see if you end up buying some of my purged items.

      Happy replacement!

  5. Beverly Stafford says:

    You’ve had an epiphany! I hope it rubs off on me. Thanks for the video of Kevin moving the container. A work of art! And Corey doing what he loves and being appreciated. That must blunt some of the pain and frustration off that our-taxes-at-work genius lobbed at him. Keep on truckin’, er, unpackin’.

  6. cheyenne says:

    As a custodian at Redding high schools I would clean out classrooms of retiring teachers. It is unbelievable how much a teacher can collect in a single classroom over the years. There were spots that had not seen the light in years. Years ago I subbed at Sequoia and the principal would move the teachers to different rooms every year to prevent the buildup of “necessary” items.
    Love your ongoing DIY series.

  7. Ginny says:

    Oh, honey, you ought to try four (4) I-5 moves to Western WA and back to CA…… The last trip had antiques and two beds and one dinette table, dish & utensil sets, and a TV! Oh, three cats and one dog made the last trip…..also……. ;o)

    I do feel for you, though……… AND so much good luck in your new home. I am sure it will be the show case that your Garden Tract became! ;o)


    • Yes, I have no doubt that those long-haul moves would force a person to get rid of only the most precious belongings.

      I can do this. It’s not a trauma, but a good problem to have. I’ll be able to share the castoffs with people who need it. That will feel good.

  8. Denise says:

    It’s in the consciousness: minimalism. One trick I have is to intentionally box something up for give away but don’t actually give it away for 6-12 months. Only once did I bring it back in the house.

  9. Joanne Gifford says:

    Love your latest chapter, Doni. Boy do I need to purge —

  10. Rita Panike says:

    I went through this about 10 years ago when I downsized from a big house to a small condo while going through a divorce. Because I felt like my life was already in chaos, the thought of parting with my familiar and comfortable items was just too much….so I rented a storage unit to hold all the things that didn’t fit in my condo. I filled that sucker to the ceiling and insisted that I NEEDED every single thing in that unit. Over the course of a year I went back a dozen times or so and retrieved a few things (Christmas decorations, an end table, etc.) but I most of it I never missed. A year later when I was moving to California I had to make some decisions and realized I didn’t need any of it. I literally emptied that storage unit into a dumpster! And most of the items in my condo that I knew I couldn’t live without either, they never left Ohio. It was definitely a “freeing” feeling!

  11. ViviAnne Thompson says:

    I’ve forever been thinking about doing this, but on a more minimal scale. I need real help, though, and maybe psychologically. It would be great if my kids could help me weed out the cr-p, but they’re always too busy and far away.
    Maybe someday I can hire your sister. ?

  12. Lyn. says:

    I understand completely. I likened this process to trying to fit a huge butt into a tiny girdle. Our new house is about half the size, and I’ve shifted things a few times to make room for more important items. We had an in house vacuum at our other home, so I was excited when Jack bought a new vacuum today. Then..where to put it?!? I may make it an outfit and put it in the living room. Good luck!

  13. conservative says:

    By taking out a wall or walls to open up the floor plan and de-cluttering by getting rid of stuff, the 1400 square foot house may become functionally more spacious than the 1700. I like smaller bedrooms, often found in older houses, because I think kids should not be on a computer or watching TV in their bedrooms. Larger bedrooms often become storage rooms for stuff which doesn’t add to quality of life.

  14. Laura says:

    While I am naturally a minimalist, I learned a very cool trick from a friend who is not naturally one. Once a year she purges anything that she has not touched or used in a year unless it has sentimental value. She is a teacher and does this over Christmas break when she has time to devote to this project and is reminded that she needs to do it. This has lead to some entertaining last minute game nights so she could keep a particular game. I think the benefit is two fold: first it reduces that amount of stuff that accumulates, and second it is a chance to revisit and appreciate what you already have. When doing this myself I have found forgotten treasures that I appreciate and use again (sometimes often) once I remember how much I enjoy it.

  15. Canda Williams says:

    Wow Doni, no catering? You really are into a new chapter of your life, aren’t you? Can’t wait to see the finished photos of your completed decor. I know it’ll be so cozy. How fun to see George in your kitchen. Hi George! We had to get rid of a ton of stuff too when we moved from Cottonwood with lots of storage, to our house here in Kalispell with very little storage and no shed. You’re right, it’s a good feeling to purge and loose things you never even knew you had. Enjoy getting settled in! xoxo

    • Yeah, I don’t know what it has been about this process, and being away from a kitchen all summer, that has changed how I feel about catering. (Yes, George was so sweet to install all the pulls and knobs. I’m grateful!)

      You guys are a good example of people who’ve purged, and I’ve not met one person who’s done that and regretted it.

      Hugs to you and Don in Kalispell Xo

  16. Eleanor says:

    Hi Doni – big thanks for the inspiration about decluttering. I have to get rid of stuff without my husband knowing, or he suddenly decides this is something he uses ‘all the time’ (as in ‘never’!) Also, my admiration as always for you – we are in the midst of just a moderate kitchen remodel (started in July, hope to finish by Christmas) because people just don’t do what they say they will, which is hard for me to comprehend. Had a truly horrendous experience with a local flooring/tiling place. Beyond rude and unprofessional. Sarcasm and lies!! So glad you didn’t use the same tiling guy. Will continue to follow along with fingers crossed for both of us!!

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