I spent the last two weeks cleaning out the basement. Going through years of sawdust-covered boxes and lumpy, tattered garbage bags containing old electronics, paperbacks, journals, and photos. Forty years worth of mildewed documents marking my life . . . images, report cards, news clippings, letters from friends.
Encouraged by the decluttering movement that preaches divesting all that no longer brings you pleasure and aware that this most procrastinated of jobs was mine alone, I decided it was time to make my way down to the belly of family memory.
I bagged up the easy stuff first, the things we no longer had the equipment to access — floppy disks and mixed tapes, DVDs and cables replaced by Apple’s ever-evolving ports and plugs. Then I attacked the first shoe box full of cards and letters. Unexpectedly mowed down by a truckload of nostalgia, my pace slowed. Decades of intimate communication demanded I make a conscious decision about their future. I flip-flopped between melancholy and delight as I sifted through my personal archives. For the first time in my life, I felt the weight of the years I have lived.
The transcript of my college grades. (I don’t remember that many C’s.) Postage-size photos of high school friends; and my third-grade class in 1969. Amazing letters dated 1972 from my friend, describing the year she spent in Vietnam with her reporter boyfriend. Menus from a dozen holidays and celebrations where I fed those I love the most what should have been illegal amounts of salt and sugar. Travel journals containing more complaints of being tired and full than any recollections worth preserving. Daily planners, Playbills, Life magazines — all thrown out, out, out.
Then onto the photo albums. Like books on shelves or bikes in the garage, photos in never-looked-at albums don’t do anyone any good. I grew up believing there was a certain hell in store for a person who would choose to throw out or destroy a photograph. But I was on a mission. If they were photos without people, out they went. If they were photos of people whose names I no longer remember, out they went. If there were a dozen photos of one party, two remain. I painstakingly curated 10 albums into one.
I found a questionnaire I filled out for someone’s Ph.D. dissertation when I was in college. It was a trait evaluation index where you rated yourself on various personality characteristics and then answered questions that revealed how accurate you were. I smiled to see I rated high on good naturedness, open mindedness and organizational skills. Then my heart sank when I read my 18-year-old self scored in the lowest percentile in independence and self-confidence. In a flash, I remembered the girl I was and wished I could have reassured her that one day soon she would grow a pair.
Even as I dragged garbage bag after garbage bag to the curb, I was keeping way more than my daughters will ever be interested in. They live their lives digitally, and if it can’t be stored on a flash drive or a disc, they probably won’t keep it around.
Every friend I know who undertook cleaning out her attic or garage or cellar or basement did so under duress because of life changes, whether sudden or planned. Stressful times are not ideal for a task so overwhelming and exhausting, one that asks you to refocus on the experiences and surprises you will inevitably unearth. There also are life lessons to be learned that make the effort worth prioritizing. I realized that if an object’s only claim to fame was that it predated Elvis’ death, that wasn’t enough reason to keep it. Holding onto something just for sentimental reasons (the 50-year-old matches from my wedding) can weigh you down.
I always knew in my head, not so much in my heart, that our memories are within us, not within our things. Parting with almost 75 percent of my cherished, long-hidden stuff was so difficult because I was afraid if I got rid of something, I’d miss it. I know now I won’t miss what I shed. I collected and preserved each piled crate of memories just for the day last week when I reconnected with my geologic past. And found I was humbled by the emotional richness of the life I have led so far.
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