Learning to Part With Keepsakes

article image
Illustration by Elizabeth Ligon

Our kids came home this past December for their last Christmas in the house where they grew up. Because “kids” actually means kids plus spouses plus grandkids plus miscellaneous dogs, it was a wild rumpus, made more so by my determination that they would take away with them all childhood artifacts for which they held any attachment. Our new house, by design, has minimal storage because our hope, our intention, is to force ourselves out of our native packrat tendencies into new habits of simplicity. It’s sort of the “carry a smaller purse” principle writ large.

The kids did a good job. What they packed up, mostly, was books. The favorite early childhood storybooks, with minimal squabbling over Go Dog, Go. The high school science fiction collection for old times’ sake (or maybe for eBay). Who kept their high school yearbooks? Who consigned them to the trash? A sure measure of sentimentality, and there were no surprises. What surprised me was me, pulling odds and ends out of the trash or the Goodwill box, plaintively inquiring whether they really meant to throw them away. I guess their old grade cards and construction-paper snowflakes just didn’t mean the same to them as they did to me.

I remember going through all this with my own mother, when she and my father moved at last into their final wee retirement house. I couldn’t be bothered with my old teddy bear, my old letter sweater, my old newspaper clippings, and the clumsy artwork she had so carefully saved. But neither could my mother bear to consign them to the trash. So she employed her own creative solution: She removed a strategic board inside a closet, and stuffed all my old stuff between the walls, nailed it up, and moved on. Call it insulation. Emotional insulation.

If we are what we eat in a physical sense, are we what we surround ourselves with (insofar as we have choices) in a psychic sense? I know people who live thoughtful, intentionally austere lives, but not very many. I know people who move house frequently, for the primary purpose of periodically divesting themselves of clutter. I know people who buy for the sake of buying, always newer, always better, always more, and never enough. I know there’s a whole segment of the publishing industry devoted to showing us how to have less (just as there’s a larger segment devoted to showing us how to have more), and I’ll bet there are plenty of people who have stacks and stacks of the books and magazines it produces. I’m in no position to judge. My downfall is the stuff of sentiment or possible utility–an excessive amount of family china, old letters and greeting cards, odd-sized envelopes and bits of yarn and string, and little broken things that are fixable–that crowd the shelves, drawers, and corners of my life and challenge the limited storage space in our new house. “Need” is a slippery concept.

By the time you read this, we will have made the move, and I will have made my choices. I’m hoping to approach the process with anthropological detachment, and perhaps learn some useful lessons about the real meaning of sustainability. I’m hoping to be as mature as my kids.

Linda Ligon is publisher of Natural Home. This is part ten of the ongoing saga of her new natural home. The illustration is by Elizabeth Ligon, c. 1974.