‘Mom died in this house,” Valerie said, her voice trailing off as if she regretted making such a candid statement to people she barely knew.

“It feels good knowing that the house will be going to you,” she continued, managing a half-smile.

My husband and I were touched by her honesty. We were gathered around the kitchen table in the bungalow we had just bought, then the home of Stephen, a charismatic 86-year-old widower and Valerie’s father. Legal transactions completed, he had invited us over for a second viewing.

Awkward at first, the visit took on a more intimate tone as the coffee was poured. We exchanged brief histories. My husband and I had been married two years and were excited to find a place of our own, hopefully to start a family. Stephen and his wife had raised their children here. But now he was alone and ready to move on to a seniors’ apartment.

Stephen’s son and daughter had come from Toronto to help with the move. Theirs was the agonizing task of sorting a lifetime of memories. What would go, what would stay in the family and who would get it.

The house was dotted with multicoloured tags – yellow for donation, red for relocation – on furniture, dishes, artwork, anything. We were welcome to any of the “yellows” slated for pick-up by the local charity, and accepted some rec-room furniture. In return, we assured them that if they needed to come back for any items after the house was ours, they were welcome to do so.

Our move-in date was Jan. 23, 2005, and we were unprepared. My husband and I are both hoarders and we hadn’t ditched any artifacts from our student lives before moving out of our rental place. Every last textbook and worn-out shoe made its way onto the moving truck.

Our friends shuffled box after endless box into the house, fuelled by the simple promise of pizza, beer and future invites. Two and a half hours after we had begun, the troops finished off the last slice and returned to their tidy, lived-in homes.

My husband and I did a quick walk-through of the house and the work that lay ahead. The bedrooms were reasonable – a bed frame, a dresser and a box or two.

But our new basement, vast as it is in a bungalow, was virtually unnavigable. The room overflowed with our scruffy furniture, half-emptied boxes, broken appliances and the odd pet scurrying underfoot. What useful items we may have packed were outnumbered three-to-one by old and irrelevant bits and pieces. It hardly seemed like a new start.

And the house had come half full. Stephen and his family, mindful of our offer, had left a lot of things behind.

The fridge was not empty. Milk and juice and a Tupperware container with last night’s pork chops gave our new home a lived-in feel. Pots and pans and dishes lined the kitchen shelves. The basement storage area abounded with tools, TV trays and every seasonal item imaginable – lawn chairs, Christmas platters, road salt. There were not enough coloured tags, time or space for these things in the family’s new lives.

We worked hard for the first few weeks to make room. It was fairly easy to get rid of some of our own clutter and even moderately painless to eliminate some of the items that came with the house. A bit of elbow grease and a few trips to the local Goodwill cleared up limited but precious space.

But I hit a wall one night when a scrap paper pile turned out to be a forgotten arrangement of condolence cards made out to Stephen after his wife’s death four years earlier. I began to cry, frustrated with my vain attempts to create a clean slate and guilt-ridden about the prospect of trashing such intimate and personal memories. I wondered if the house would ever truly belong to us.

Over the four years we’ve been here, however, the tide has gone out on the sea of stuff. We cleared out things we didn’t need – ours and theirs. Stephen returned on two occasions to gather boxes stowed on a basement shelf. His visits were brief – he declined a tour each time – and the condolence cards never came up.

Other things we kept. The 13-inch television, the garden trowels and the stepladder all resumed function after we moved in.

A weathered brown-and-gold photo album was one of the items bequeathed to us. In it are vivid stories of square dancing in the basement, tea in the kitchen, Christmas in the living room. There is also a great exterior shot of the house as it would have looked when it was first built.

The house still looks the same. The photo exposes only a few differences, the most notable being the tree in the front yard. Its majestic branches now tower over the sidewalk, but in the picture the tree is young and fresh and barely speckled with foliage.

The photo is perfectly yellowed. And on the back, someone wrote: “This is our place – the picture is flattering we think.” Oddly enough, the photo could be ours.