13 May 2018

Mother’s Day was different this year; I spent it purging.

Ever since I left home at 17, I have been accumulating stuff: letters and photographs, books and clothes, newspapers and toys, records and old typewriters, furniture and dishes. My grandmothers impressed upon me the value of old things, of cherishing things and passing them on. Considering their era, (they were born at the turn of the 20th century), this made sense. Things were handmade of excellent materials, and were designed to last, they were lovely heirlooms. Money was scarce, so stuff was a commodity, a resource. “You never know when you might need this old thing” was an underlying attitude. So was “Your ancestor saved that picture of a woman he loved, so you should too because it is old.”

I was raised to be a caretaker of stuff, not only my own stuff, but that of generations before me. I was given my own first antique, a little maple stool, before I was 10 years old; I still have it holding a lamp in my office. I remember being so proud of my very own antique. I remember too, my grandmother’s ceremonial air as she inducted me into the world of family stuff.

For over half a century, I have dragged stuff around with me, from house to dormitory to a succession of homes. My grandmothers never had to deal with as much stuff as I have. After 8 moves, 2 divorces and the breakdown of  at least 4 households, I have a 5-bedroom, 4-story house full of stuff. I’ve spent years of my life arranging stuff, fitting more into my life, and hanging on to everything done or made by my children.

After my father died, I watched my stepmother deal with 2,800 square feet of stuff, accumulated during a career spanning 60 years, a lifetime of travel, and a 44-year marriage. None of the children or grandchildren wanted any of it. She couldn’t give any stuff away, even nice expensive stuff. She was in a rush, having to sell the house and find herself a nursing home. She ended up liquidating everything, for a dime on the dollar, including a family collection of fine arts, museum quality European antiques going back to the 1700s.

I am determined that my children will not have to deal with my stuff after I die. Two years after my father’s death, I have gotten rid of at least 200 bags of things; books have been donated to the library, clothes to Vietnam Veterans of America, and things have been given away or sold on Craig’s list. More has been recycled or put into the trash. Not a week goes by without me getting rid of stuff. And still, there is so much more! When a son-in-law visited recently, he didn’t notice any changes in the house; I asked him.

Today, Mother’s Day, is chilly, overcast, and rainy; the atmosphere is dismal. I’ve just discarded over 500 slides of my first daughter’s babyhood. This hurts, and yet, I can’t justify keeping boxes of slides when I’ve not looked at them in over 40 years. I find the empty space on the shelf in the basement, where the box has rested for 31 years, to be more satisfying than the thought of dragging it forward into the rest of my life. I did save one small container of selected slides.

Why is this painful?

I think in part, it is because I am getting older, and the childbearing energy and excitement of that time is long gone. While the slides remind me of that time, I found that them to be overwhelming and burdensome;  I didn’t even want to look at all of them. That something that was once so precious ( images of life with my sweet first baby) is now basically dust, as I shall be, is sobering. That my vibrant life, full of babies and future, is now in a phase of decline is thought provoking. I have two major passages left: one is a possibility, that of grandchild(ren). The other is definite, my death. Not as many options as there were 43 years ago!

That those captured moments, representing the passage of years, were discarded in a matter of minutes gives me pause.

I have heard stories that indigenous peoples didn’t want their photographs taken, fearing that their souls would be stolen. Is that a reason why this purging is painful, that bits of our souls rests in those pieces of film? Maybe so. . . .

In throwing the slides away. I have let the details of those years go. Their spirit remains, forever in my heart. And that too, shall be discarded one day.





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