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On throwing out law books and wedding dresses: Downsizing after 40 years

Woman standing smiling wearing a raccoon coat
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Marilyn Skoglund wearing a raccoon coat, a gift from her ex-landlord. The coat will not be making the trip to her new home.

Vermont is not an easy climate for growing old. There are months of ice and snow and long dark months, and growing old in big old houses has its challenges.

Marilyn Skoglund was an associate Justice on the Vermont Supreme Court for 23 years, and retired in 2019. She’s lived in the same house in Montpelier for 40 years, and just recently, she’s decided to downsize. Reporter Erica Heilman talked with her about what it’s like to shed four stories of furniture and mementos, and what it’s like to move on.

Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio, but have provided a transcript below. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Marilyn Skoglund: I've lived in this house for 40 years, raised two children. I can't manage this house and it's too big for one person and a dog. And I thought, "Let's, let's get a one level house with a garage and give your knees a break." I mean, I'm 77 years old. So let's get my knees a break from all these stairs. So I'm downsizing to a little house. And I have to get rid of 40 years of accumulated living.

Marilyn Skoglund: Oh my.

Erica Heilman: OK, so here we are in the attic.

Marilyn Skoglund: My God, this is my old landlord, Walter Smith, dead wife Mertee's raccoon coat, which he decided I should have. And now— it's massive. I mean, how many raccoons gave their life for this coat? I can't even imagine.

Marilyn Skoglund: In the attic were 74 puzzles. You know, 74 puzzles. I'm downsizing from four floor-to-ceiling bookshelves to one.

Erica Heilman: What books are gonna make the cut? I guess all the Penguin Classics are out the door.

Marilyn Skoglund: What's funny is when I called the state and said "I'm tired of all my law books, my Vermont Statutes annotated, I want to donate them to whoever needs them." And they said, "Well, we don't need them. We're all online." So the books have been interesting to cull through and I'm not done. 

Erica Heilman: What are you going to do with the law books?

Marilyn Skoglund: I threw them away.

Erica Heilman: Oh!

Marilyn Skoglund: What could I do? Nobody wanted them. So there are things that outlived their usefulness.

Erica Heilman: So there must have been a moment at Casella’s, when you hauled a bag, a construction bag, full of law books into the trash. What was that moment like?

Marilyn Skoglund: I was so certain in my mind that I was not going to use them anymore. I'm never going to sit on the bench again. I'm done with the law. I just feel liberated, liberated! And that's a lot of what goes on when you downsize. I'm liberated from things and accumulations. And my grandmother's wedding dress, my mother's wedding dress, my wedding dress and one of my daughter's — two of my daughters' wedding dresses. And I said, you know, 'Why am I carrying these around and moving them my whole life?"

Woman looking through old family photo albums
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Marilyn Skoglund looking at old family photo albums while working on downsizing.

Erica Heilman: When you were just talking about the law books. There is also an unburdening, that, I imagine, you don't anticipate and but perhaps are surprised by? 

Marilyn Skoglund: I didn't anticipate how light, how good it felt, to actually make the decision. "I'm not going to need these." And it was a statement about, "I am done with that part of my life. I am done with that."

Erica Heilman: So on to a life of crime. 

Marilyn Skoglund: On to a life of crime. Exactly. And now I know how to get away with it all. Wear gloves at all times. That's all I can say to criminals is just wear gloves at all times. And don't spit. Don't spit.

Marilyn Skoglund: Here's the wedding dresses. Here's a cradle with some dolls. Oh, there's about 17 Barbies up here. Oh my God, where are they? I think this might be the Barbie bag.

Marilyn Skoglund: You got to feel guilty about being a single woman with a dog rattling around in a house with three bedrooms and all this space and yards for kids to play in. And I don't need this space. But other people do. There's a housing crunch around here. And this is a great family home for kids. So let's let someone else start over. The problem is I think, we're all, my friends and me and probably your group of friends, we are all so passionate about our privacy. Privacy: That's the problem of downsizing into a communal unit. Privacy. So this place I'm moving to is a three unit condo. One of the people that owns has been a friend of mine for like 40 years. And she is equally rabid about privacy. So we're thrilled to be sharing the same roof. But we're also thrilled that we have two separate units. Two separate living spaces. So we're not going to be in each other's faces all the time. And I think that's the problem when you get around to communal living. You know, "Let's all share one kitchen!" Oh God no, no.

I just feel liberated, liberated! And that's a lot of what goes on when you downsize. I'm liberated from things and accumulations.
Marilyn Skoglund

Erica Heilman: So you know, in a world where there are no easy exit strategies, you can spin around in circles a lot thinking about this and not get any traction and not be going anywhere at all and then one day you actually do it.
Marilyn Skoglund: I broke my back in June. I was a vigorous person, hiked in the woods all the time and all of a sudden I've broken my back. So it was facing, not so much mortality, I'm not afraid of dying, but infirmity. So to do whatever I can to live a pleasant, lovely life, because I don't think of myself as old but I can, I accept the fact that my bones are not as strong as they used to be. And so I needed to do something. So I did it.

Erica Heilman: What do you say to all the people in their houses, who are anticipating older age and wondering how to move on?

Marilyn Skoglund: While I certainly cannot give a pep talk to aging, it sucks. No matter how healthy you've been in your life, the body deteriorates, and it sucks. It's acceptance of the reality of the body wearing out. But it's also, at this point, I’m done with this house, fixing it up. I want to move on and have a new canvas to work on. All the artwork will go with me, but it'll be in different places. Right now I can walk through this house blindfolded and know where all the light switches are. So there'll be new things to learn. I think of it as a way to be invigorated, curating a new house, fixing it up to make me comfortable and to provide the sanctuary I need at this time of life. And that's what I need. I need a one story sanctuary.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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