Deciding what goes with you when you make a major move

If you made the life-altering decision to scale down and move to a retirement home after decades in your own house, what would you take with you?

What would you give to the kids; what would you leave behind?

How would you decide?

Virginia Goddard tossed her lace wedding dress and held onto the Tupperware when she moved to Brookdale Place in San Marcos, near San Diego.

Leona Plummer pitched all the family slides and purchased enough toilet paper to see her well into her ninth decade when she headed for White Sands of La Jolla.

During the two summer moves, these retirees confirmed what many have learned from experience: Moving, at any age, isn't easy.

For some, a last move can be downright paralyzing. Sifting through a lifetime of possessions, paperwork and cherished clutter is traumatic, not to mention exhausting.

Older people who have strong reasons for moving and make the decision on their own, without much prodding from family, usually fare best.

Even with the inevitable range of emotions, those such as Plummer and Goddard and her husband — with optimistic personalities, a lifelong zest for adventure and a materialism kept in check — often end up thriving.

Plummer, a recent widow after a 55-year marriage, was more pragmatic about the move than most. The reason for swapping her three-bedroom house of 50 years for a one-bedroom apartment: "I became 80 in September and decided I wanted to move while I was still in good health."

The facility will care for her for life, and "I wanted to get my money's worth."

Besides, the former teacher said, most of her old neighbors have already sold to younger families. "And I'm too tired to watch a new generation grow up.

"I'm looking forward to my new lifestyle. I didn't enjoy cooking or eating by myself and eating leftovers."

She donated most of her furniture — it had traveled to San Diego from Pittsburgh by way of the Panama Canal — to a thrift store. She didn't even shed a tear when she traded in her marriage bed for a twin.

She held on to only one of her cherished pots of orchids and found homes for the rest.

Unlike Plummer, Virginia and Cecil Goddard have downsized several times during their 67-year marriage. The 17 years they spent in the just-sold three-bedroom is the longest they've lived anywhere. And though they made the move with determined optimism, they did so reluctantly.

"We would not have left if my legs weren't going," said Virginia Goddard, an 85-year-old former airline reservationist. Cecil, a 90-year-old retired industrial engineer, said his legs aren't great either. "Eventually, we would have had to move. My wife decided that eventually was now."

He added with a wry grin, "There's no point in kicking and screaming if that's the way the cookie crumbles. You better go with it or you will go hungry."

Though he counts on his sense of humor to get him through tough situations, he admitted it wasn't easy giving up the lush flower and vegetable garden he tended for years. "The sweetgum tree was a sapling when we moved in; now, it's more than 40 feet tall."

He fretted about which of his garden and workshop tools he should keep. He chose a few, then divided the rest between his son-in-law and the bachelor who bought the house.

"It's been a good life," he said. "It's not over, but we're sure closing a chapter."

One of the Goddards' most difficult decisions had been what to do with Rocky, their beloved cocker spaniel mix. They worried he wouldn't have enough room to run at the new place, that he'd bark, or get rambunctious and jump on one of the frail elderly residents.

They almost left him behind, before deciding to give it a try and see how their playful pet would do in a one-bedroom apartment.

The night before moving, Virginia Goddard panicked and almost lost her nerve about leaving the old house.

In spite of their qualms, the couple stuck to their plan: Move early with the essentials. Then take a few weeks to retrieve anything they couldn't live without.

Their king-size bed stayed for the new owner. Daughter Carolee Warden gave them a queen she didn't need.

Since there wasn't room for Virginia Goddard's china cabinet, filled with antique dishes, she gave that to her daughter.

They kept their '92 Oldsmobile, which Cecil still drives, she said, crossing her fingers.

The couple held onto "tons" of old photos. "When I closed my poor mother's house," Virginia Goddard recalled, "I pitched all the pictures, because I had no idea who the people were. I know these people."

Virginia Goddard's tattered wedding dress sat in a heap on the sofa. "I never cared much about it. Anyway, you can look at our wedding picture and see it."

With the moving men already carting things to their truck, Cecil picked up two of his old trophies. "These are the first I won for golf 40 or 50 years ago. I'm going to leave them."

Plummer made sure there was room in her new place for her computer, which she uses to write a newsletter for retired teachers.

Though she dumped all her family vacation slides — "I didn't have time to go through them; I had to be heartless" — she took the framed family photos from her walls. She stored her albums on the top shelf of her new closet; now, she wishes she could reach them.

With characteristic good cheer, Plummer said, "I don't keep track of where I've been, only where I'm going. As far as I know, I'm not going to miss a thing."

Now, after settling into her cozy new digs, Plummer said she's busy with community activities and still can't get enough of her ocean view. Incidentally, she didn't need her own toilet paper after all.

Meanwhile, as the clock ticked down to their move, Virginia Goddard struggled to remain stoic. "This is no vacation. I feel like I'm leaving my life behind."

Then she smiled. "As long as I have Cecil, I'm OK."

The two kissed. "You'll be all right," she said to her husband of more than six decades.

"So will you," he assured her.