Shortly after we moved, my daughter wrote to Santa Claus. She worried she’d be getting coal and whether Santa knew our new address. ‘I’ve been trying my hardest to be good,’ she explained, and thanked him for ‘what you are doing for me and other children.’ She was 11.
She’s twenty-five now.
Along with a U-Haul box of loose photographs, photo albums, and VHS-C home movies, I recently found her letter while cleaning out our basement. I also found quite a few things I’d forgotten we had, things I have no idea why we saved: snow boots and snow pants long outgrown, my son’s seventh grade notebooks, faded coffee mugs, a cardboard box of statements and bills circa 1992. Cleaning was long overdue. It had become increasingly overrun and difficult to navigate, as the kids moved back home from college, then back out to their own adult homes. Stacks of boxes teetered and tottered, an avalanche threatening more chaos.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve felt nearly crushed to death by things. Aside from moving my own household’s houseful, I’ve helped empty my mother’s, my mother-in-law’s, and a family friend’s, as well as the classroom in which I taught for 31 years. All told, nearly THREE CENTURIES of things.
My mother kept the Easter egg tree I made in preschool. In 2016, my sister found it while we packed.
The family friend had a Sears catalog from the year I was born. It was covered in mold, so I had to toss it.
My mother-in-law had a kitchen cabinet overflowing with mostly expired medications and salves, the oldest filled for my father-in-law the month before my husband was born. I found it in June 2022.
I kept projects created by my former students, lesson plans for courses I hadn’t taught in decades. Diaries and journals, notes from eighth grade friends. We used to fold them like origami and pass them behind our teachers’ backs.
And I kept my husband’s letters. The ones he wrote to me in college, the ones I wrote to him.
Like the persona in Jorge Luis Borges’ sonnet ‘THINGS,’ I read those objects like stories as I sorted and cleaned, tossed or repurposed or boxed for another day’s deciding.
Why do we gather and keep so much stuff?
The reasons, of course, are as varied as the objects and their owners.
The constant, however? We can’t take it with us. We will leave this earth, and we will leave our things behind. And someone will have to clean out our underwear drawer. Someone will be privy to our secrets.
My mother-in-law used to joke she would be the one to figure out how to take it all with her. She didn’t, and in her passing she left a carnage I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
So many of us are good at things, not people. Stuff, not relationships. She was like that. I strive–albeit imperfectly, I know–to be the opposite.
So I donated the snow gear and the still usable mugs. I shredded the files, and I re-crated my son’s notebooks like he asked. ‘I bet there’s some lost, esoteric knowledge hidden in those old books,’ he texted. ‘Lol.’ I wonder what he’ll think–Someday–when he flips through their pages.
Last week, my daughter read her letter when she and her husband joined her dad and me for dinner. She laughed and rolled her eyes, then the four of us reminisced for hours while our dirty dishes waited in the sink.
Next week, I’m taking the video cassettes to a nearby studio for digitizing. The photos I’m planning to organize and place in albums. A daunting task indeed, as I also have pictures on my phone, on my laptop, and on a collection of old phones and thumb drives, and I stopped organizing them in 2011.
As for my letters and journals? I moved them to a secure location, wink wink, and am slooowly making my way through them, black Sharpie in hand. My husband says I should just toss them. Too personal, he says. Embarrassing.
But I can’t. Not yet.
I want to endure beyond my vanishing.
(My daughter’s letter…. See the Chapstick smudge in the top corner? Clearly, she was hedging her bets!
What cringy or gotta-keep-’em treasures lie boxed in your basements? What stories do they tell? And what do you think I should do with my journals and letters? Drop a note below…I’d love to chat 🙂