Keepsakes. Possessions. Family heirlooms. How much is too much?
My husband’s aunt went to garage sales and more garage sales until she’d accumulated so many purchases that to walk from room to room she had to follow narrow paths amongst the clutter. I have a friend with closets stuffed full of clothes, shoes, and purses that will never be used. But she finds it hard to part with any of it. Other friends have neat-as-a-pin downstairs rooms, but upstairs there’s at least one bedroom filled with storage boxes of books, old toys, school projects, and family memorabilia. Others have orderly, large houses where the basements and attics are crammed with stored furniture, boxes, grandma’s china, and old baby beds.
When I was growing up, my mom’s room was a disaster: her extra bed, desk, and dresser-top were piled high with clipped articles, books, letters and photos. She was a packrat, saving everything. I was an untidy child, but I swore I would never live like that.
I used to keep piles. Stacks formed on my desk awaiting decisions or lingering “just in case.” But during the move from our big house to a rental, and recently from that rental into a much smaller house, I have become more ruthless. To the shock of many friends, I’ve thrown away photographs, old letters, kids’ artwork, my childhood drawings, and many writing notebooks. I want empty space and uncluttered closets. I do not want things. Many of my possessions have become an uncomfortably heavy weight of responsibility and memory. Perhaps they represent the burden and realization of how the years have piled up, how long I’ve lived—that I am growing old. As I began to box up my belongings for the move–so many things–I felt a tightness as if I were an old snake that for years had been unable to shed skin and was now bound too tightly, suffocating. Getting rid of the excess felt like moving forward, being set free.
Nevertheless, from time to time I worry that this urge to unload my possessions is just a phase. Will I regret throwing out so much? My 88-year-old mother recently told me that she’d spent a wonderful evening re-reading old letters from college boyfriends. (As I mentioned earlier, she’s a packrat!) Do all these boxes of letters and photos make for a happier life in one’s twilight years?
I know: scan my old letters and photos into the computer and save on discs or in the cloud. I’ve done some of that. And before tossing out kids’ artwork and school projects, I’ve photographed and scanned the best ones. But this still is a burden of online clutter to keep track of and preserve.
And then there are the items from long ago. My home has been the receptacle of many family keepsakes: my grandmother’s consume bowls, another grandmother’s Willow Ware dishes, my grandfather’s baby crib, a great-grandmother’s wedding dress, ledgers full of my grandfather’s poetry. The list goes on and on. In addition, my mother’s apartment storage bin is crammed full of boxes and crates of family “treasures” that will one day be mine to sort through.
We are ephemeral creatures – but my god, how our stuff outlives us. Bodies decompose or are burned to ash, but the army uniform, the packet of letters, the wind-up toy all remain, if aged and yellowed. Kings and pharos were often buried with their life’s possessions, to be taken with them to the afterlife I suppose. Maybe we should do that. We would unburden our future generations of the photo albums, collections, DVDs, clothing, letters, books, furniture, china, and jewelry that fill attics and basements and flea markets.
Yet, I think of my mother treasuring those letters from old boyfriends, now mostly dead.
The other day I opened yet another box of stored items and read a letter written by a great aunt I never knew. The faded handwriting was very hard to read and the news rather ordinary: “I have had the flu but am well now.”
I folded that letter, stuck it back in the envelope, and picked up another. My heart tightened in my chest. Written in black cursive on the envelope were these words: Jimmy’s Socks.
Inside were tiny baby’s socks—probably a first pair. I had a great-great uncle named James Harvey. His mother, Clara, must have labeled the envelope. In an instant, she came to life for me, all because of her gentle gesture of saving her baby’s socks. And Uncle Jim? Before this moment he was merely one of the two men in the blurry photos of “the Kansas Folks” that my mom showed me, reminiscing about her childhood visits to these elderly relatives. Now in a flash, those tiny socks created a continuum: he was born, he kicked his fat baby legs, he grew to manhood, he had lived and breathed.
I had never before thought about my great-great uncle Jim, much less cared about him, until I held his tiny cream and blue socks. Now he holds a small place in my heart and I will never forget him.
So, what do I save and what do I throw away? How much do I cram into the basement and closets? What will my great-great niece pull from a box that will make her catch her breath, suddenly aware that her aunt Martha once walked the earth?
Have I already thrown out too much?
For certain, I’m afraid, my daughters’ baby socks are long gone.