One of the corollaries of being in one’s sixties is a predilection for surveying one’s (often copious) belongings. The inventory of possessions—furniture, clothing, collectibles and antiques, memorabilia, papers, lots of papers, seems massive, daunting.
Our very first antique—the beginning of our material inventory—was purchased in the late 1960’s, before we were even married, from a trailer in Pittsburgh that masqueraded as an antique store, every nook and cranny filled, mostly with junk. There we discovered a 1920’s bridge lamp, with a marble base and a unique leaf-patterned shade for $5. We handed our cash over to the old storekeeper, fiercely guarding his cache of treasures. We still remember the enigmatic smile on his face—he thought he was “pulling one over on us,” getting $5 for a worthless old lamp. But it wasn’t—and isn’t—worthless, not to us.
We can walk through our house and remember, almost item by item, those few artifacts that date to our early years together—when everything we owned could fit into a one-bedroom apartment. That, it suffices to say, is no longer even remotely true.
Where did this looming mass of material possessions come from? Yes, we, Greg and Joan, are inveterate (incurable) collectors—and some of the inventory includes collections of porcelain, pottery, encaustic tiles, glass, and books. These we acquired deliberately, with knowledge of what and why we were collecting. Much of it is (and will be, we hope) documented—maybe for a museum or historical society to receive should our children’s interests diverge from ours.
This accumulation was intentional—but so much of what we have has simply come to us organically, in the inevitable cycle of family life. A grandparent moves; a set of lawyer’s cases, a desk, and a piano are offered—and gratefully accepted. A grandmother dies, and then a month later, a grandfather. Photographs, fishing rods, family bibles, and a myriad of objects imbued with sentiment and fond memory pass from one household to another.
As the years raced onward, inexorably, a parent, then two, then three, and unexpectedly a brother, succumb to age and disease. The contents of their lives, too, become our inheritance and responsibility. And we must decide—what to discard, what to keep?
These are hard questions. Especially when they arise at the same time we are faced with the endless details and duties that accompany funeral services and burial arrangements. How should the obituary read? What coffin should be selected? When and where do we hold the calling hours? Who will perform the service? What flower arrangements must be ordered? What stone and design for the memorial? We must phone relatives; choose our loved one’s clothing for burial; write notes thanking those who have sent their condolences. And, always, one must deal with the financial consequences of death. We won’t even begin to tackle that complex subject here.
Everything always seems to happen at once and sometimes on short notice. We need to quickly empty out the contents of our parents’ house and clear out brother Bob’s apartment. And so we furiously triage our loved one’s belongings. Discard the old newspapers and magazines, toss the old worn towels, give away the clothes in the closets and drawers. But so many other belongings are bound up with one’s own childhood and the memory of the home that came before this home, the life that came before this life. So, sometimes in the moment, numb with grief, one just boxes up the remaining contents, Soon there are many more boxes in our attic than there were before, waiting for us to sift through their contents, later, at a time when we are more emotionally ready and able.
Then, of course, if one also has children, they grow up and leave—but they don’t take everything with them when they go. They leave traces of their lives behind, with us. So, there are boxes of children’s drawings, hand-made Mother’s and Father’s Day cards, toys, picture books and school papers. It isn’t that these artifacts of childhood are valuable to the outside world; they are not. It is that they are precious to us, permeated with the emotion and memory of a time now twenty or more years past. These items, too, sit boxed and waiting in the attic for processing; and we ask, again, to keep, to discard?
So, here we are, at age sixty-six, surveying all these boxes, containers, albums, and trunks. We look at one another.
Joan declares adamantly, “I won’t leave all of this for my children to go through!”
So, we begin a determined campaign, an offensive, to move against this well-defended mountain of objects and papers and gain a foothold on its flanks. We will open each box, assess the contents, and begin to move objects out of the house into recycling centers, used bookstores, Goodwill shops and, as little as possible, landfills. (It is surprising how many things one has kept are broken and damaged.) Some we will try to give away to our two daughters and our son and their spouses—a quick picture posted to the intended recipient on Telegram—“you want this?” If the answer is “no,” then the item is banished, never to be seen again.
Going through the boxes and sorting the contents, deciding on their disposition, moving things out of the door—it is painful, but also liberating. There is a feeling of lightness, of a burden lifted. So much of this freight we simply carried around for years—boxes from our first apartments, first and second houses, simply migrated with us, unexamined. We repeatedly moved this weighty inventory around, and it got heavier and heavier with each passing year.
Yet, what we are doing isn’t the haphazard “downsizing” and wholesale tossing of a lifetime’s accumulation of artifacts into the void that you sometimes read about in magazines. “Experts” recommend to those of us in our “golden years” that we let go of these things quickly—they want to make it seem easy. Just last year the AARP compiled “20 Tips To Declutter Your House.” Some of their suggestions we accept—scan your important documents, back them up electronically, store and organize them. Others we reject—burn your parents’ love letters, make pillowcases out of your wedding dress, or sell Grandma’s china on eBay.
Throwing it all out is an abdication of responsibility and, in some cases, has tragic consequences. Many years ago well-meaning relatives cleared out Joan’s grandparents’ apartment and threw away her Grandfather Martin’s detailed diaries—the first diary was written in the late 19th century. Martin was a meticulous and literate observer of his times, and they, were, undoubtedly, true masterpieces of the diarist’s art. Joan has lamented their loss for over forty years.
So, there are real treasures in this trash. Old pictures of relatives, precious as gold to the genealogist in Joan—irreplaceable proof that her marvelous people, sturdy Norwegians and Swedes, lived and thrived. There are also family photograph albums, some very old, the kind where the photographs in black and white and sepia are held on the page by paper corners.
“I’d forgotten we had this!” Joan exclaims—looking through one album of old black and white photos. There she appears as a child, in monochrome, wearing an indisputably 1950’s baby bonnet. She’s in her father’s arms. Her mother stands near her with her siblings. It’s surprising to look at; it’s not so much that she is a child—but that her mother, her father, they look so young. It makes one stop and think, astounded.
Digging through the strata of our belongings, other artifacts emerge— a record of a trip Joan’s great grandparents took to Norway in 1932; a bundle of letters written home to his parents by Joan’s dad during the Second World War; letters we wrote during our year “behind the Iron Curtain,” saved for us by friends and relatives as a memoir of our difficult but life-changing months in East Germany between 1985 and 1986. And old love letters!
“God, was anyone ever as smitten as I was?” asks Greg.
There are more treasures to be uncovered. Much to her delight, Joan also discovers her parents’ old love letters, written during World War II after her dad was wounded in Sicily and stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Sometimes we get derailed—stopping to read some random letter or shed a tear when we find a child’s drawing with the words “I love my Mommy and Daddy” scribbled on it. But mostly we push on, through these poignant distractions, determined to make headway, no matter how overwhelming it all seems.
There are diplomas, even old school notes—these latter not so interesting in and of themselves but for the doodles—some very elaborate and cryptic—that appear in the margins. Greg used to draw, and write poetry—he doesn’t so much now—but these old artistic attempts surface too, rising up from the layers of paper in a dusty, collapsing box. These youthful gems are separated out with all the other treasures we are rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) among this mass of stacked and scattered boxes.
But not everything is to be saved for posterity. Both Joan and Greg were professors. Our old student rosters, teaching handouts, tests, grade books—all these must go. We were also students and homeowners, so the old tuition bills, the old bank statements long since replaced by electronic records—so many marked with social security numbers—must be tossed. Our shredder gets the workout of its life.
We are, one could say, examining, assessing—maybe curating is the best word. Organizing, labeling, assessing the value—to the family at least—of items that represent the history of our clan. These items tell stories—revealing a parent’s career, earnest courtships, and countless deaths and births. They tell of tastes, likes and dislikes, of trips taken, of opportunities accepted and refused. When we throw all of these out without some thought we deprive ourselves, and our descendants, of some important part of their heritage. We are fortunate, to be sure, that we, Greg and Joan, have the time, and the room, to curate our lives—and the lives of our ancestors. We don’t have to move into a nursing home next month and sell our house. We are not yet faced with those contingencies that would force us to yield up our unique material history.
So, we get new boxes, sturdy and white, from Office Depot. They have room for labels. We assemble file folders, archival sleeves, and Sharpie pens. The sorted material goes into these boxes and descriptions are written on them—“Greg’s Unpublished Papers,” “Memorabilia—East Germany,” “Shreve Genealogy.” We purchase whimsical decorative storage boxes—boxes that resemble old books and boxes covered in maps of the world. Our postcards from East Germany go in one. Postcards sent to Greg’s maternal family in a World War II Austrian refugee camp have their special place in another. We tie old love letters in small bundles with twine and store them in boxes marked “Confidential.” Will this box pique someone’s curiosity when it is discovered after we are gone? Will its contents reveal who we were to that future reader?
Now we know what’s in these new boxes; we know what’s important and what’s not. When the fancy strikes us, we can spend an hour or two perusing the treasure box of our choice. And, if we’ve curated well enough, weeded, and disposed well enough, then some family member who comes after us might recognize their value and care for them too. They might recognize our boxes and the artifacts they contain as a legacy. They might, through these items, because of these boxes, come to know us, their parents, their in-laws, maybe their grandparents, more deeply, more completely, than if we had simply made it all disappear into the past without a second thought.