One evening I lug a giant gray scrapbook into the kitchen. It is stuffed with memorabilia from everything we did with our then-young children for six years, from 1993-1999: results from family fun runs, theater bills, sporting events ticket stubs, birthday party invitations, favorite restaurant menus….
“You know, after you do this for a while, you get hardened, relentless,” I say to my husband Chris. “You see this scrapbook? I made it for them, but I’m not keeping it. The kids won’t want it, and they don’t have room for it anyhow. They seem to have complete amnesia about their lives until a few years ago anyway.”
“What kind of scrapbook?” Chris says. “Let me see.” He flips through a few pages, spending longer and longer on each one and soon engrossed. I retreat to the attic to clean out another box. After a bit, he appears, cradling the scrapbook in both arms. “This is great,” he says. “We shouldn’t throw this out.” It is the first thing he has ever wanted to save.
Some people don’t dwell on the past, and my husband is one of them. But while I don’t think I’m obsessed with it, I like to revisit things every so often. And as a writer, I may some day need to consult these letters, journals, and envelopes stuffed with great ideas. They’ll be needed for “deep background” – especially since I happen to be working on a “loosely autobiographical” novel about a woman in her late 50s (and getting older all the time) who is readying to move from her home of 23 years and can’t get out of her attic!
Still, I am overwhelmed. Why have I kept every letter ever written to me; all of my high school, college, and grad school papers; various drafts of books I’ve written; and countless boxes of photos? At some point, my mother and mother-in-law separately hatched the idea that I was the family archivist, so I have inherited their boxes of photos as well.
In a stack of letters from decades ago, I find two from my dad, who died when I was 30. I am struck by how beautifully he wrote, both his penmanship and the prose. Delving deeper, I am shocked to discover that several of the correspondents’ names don’t ring a bell. And I don’t remember exchanging so many personal letters with my college philosophy professor. I recall, as a teenager, asking my mom if she had read a certain book. “Hmm, I think I read it. I’m pretty sure,” she said, and I thought, “That’s so lame. How could you not know if you’ve read a book or not? That will never happen to me.” But now it has, and now I only have an inkling who many of these pen pals were.
“We can’t take all of this,” Chris has said more than once when he’s ventured to the attic. “We can’t even take half of it.” One time he said, “Want me to help? I can make quick work of this.”
“The attic is my province,” I say. “You are patching the holes in the basement ceiling, and I don’t get in your way, but the attic is mine.”
“We can’t take it all,” he repeats.
“I know. I’m reducing, but I have to do it thoughtfully, and that takes time.”
Time is what this is all about, and it’s how we came to this juncture. The time has come. We want to consolidate and move while we still have the energy – not just physically, but mentally, to wade through our pasts. “We” is a nice way to put it, I think, but I am happy that my husband has relinquished the task of going through our attic to me. He has plenty else on his list; in addition to his work in the basement, he has painted new shutters, removed lots of extraneous hinges, repaired cracks in stucco, and on and on….
The house already looks much better than it ever has. Who has time to keep everything in mint condition while you’re busy living your lives? The place has a Zen, spare quality now that’s very freeing. It has been exhilarating carting out our excess stuff, which is a paradox: If it’s such a relief to purge, why do we hold onto so much? “By the time you get done, you’re not going to want to move,” the realtor says, taking in all our improvements. But though we love our house, we will not turn back. You only live once and we have plans.
One attic box says “From Sam’s room.” It’s a big carton and I sigh in trepidation. Sam’s bedroom closet already holds 18 bags and boxes for him to go through next time he’s home, a tall order. With one hand over my eyes, I pull off the packing tape. It seems to be stuffed with debris: candy-bar wrappers from England, soda cans written in Spanish from our trip to Playa del Carmen, the crumpled, disintegrating contents of various school backpacks, old shirts that Sam outgrew but couldn’t part with. There is more and more, but he has no idea this box exists and neither did I. It was packed at least 15 years ago when we redid his room. So out it goes – some to recycling, the rest to the trash.
Most boxes are not that easy. Most require deliberation. I am much more attached to my sons’ early art than they are, so I keep a few things, take photos of others, and toss the rest.
I persuade Chris to hold onto his high school yearbook. Then I show him a few (of many) letters to him from the kids that I have saved, and I’m delighted when he says, “I’m actually really glad you kept these.”
I have also saved all the cards that I gave my husband over the years. If something happens to me, he will want these too, I hope. And I once salvaged an envelope of school photos of him and clips from when he played football that he had discarded. His entire past fits into one carton, and though he may never look through it, he seems okay with keeping it.
Time passes. I have taken all the art off the walls ahead of the professional painters’ arrival, and packed up vases, tchotkes, and framed photos because, we are advised, prospective house hunters will not want to take in our lives. I have boxed up what Sam wanted to save, and though our older son, Peter, didn’t want to save anything, I have filled a few small boxes for him (reasoning that he might want things like his diplomas some day).
The more de-personalized the house becomes, the more detached I feel. This no longer resembles the place we raised our family. A very long chapter is coming to an end. I won’t have to order any more checks with this address. I’ll never use up all those adorable return-address labels.
I have kept too many books for a future two-bedroom apartment, but I’ll deal with that later. When I was lamenting to a friend how hard it is to get rid of books, he said metaphorically, “You can’t take it with you,” and I know that to be true. But perhaps it’s harder for writers. My books have had a profound influence on me, and I often return to them. There are also lots of great books I’ve yet to read, as well as a beloved children’s collection. It is true that Ogden Nash’s “The Tale of Custard, the Dragon” may not translate to a 21st-century grandchild (if I’m lucky enough to have one some day), but reading it again brings tears to my eyes. It was one of the poems that made me want to write in the first place. At least I’ve jettisoned the pocket paperbacks whose pages fell out when I opened them.
At last, the day of reckoning is here. Time to seriously tackle the hordes of letters, papers, and photos. My stuff. It has been stacked by category, and I am in a state of paralysis. It is called “moving” because it is very emotional – inspirational at times, but fraught with poignancy, your whole tangible life displayed before you. All the time that’s behind you, and relationships lost, several to death. I am fortunate to have gained many new friends in recent years, but… And how great we all look in that photo from 20 years ago, though I remember at the time thinking I looked fat.
As someone who thinks about aging and dying a lot, regardless of what I’m doing, this experience – this daily contemplation of my life and that of my family members – has been a jolt to my system times ten. Scenes from our lives together constantly flash before me. I ended up taking most of the photos out of their frames because I want to put different ones out in our next place. We’ve looked at these for so long now.
And that’s another part of moving: moving on. Despite my lingering over all these remnants of my past, I wouldn’t want to go back to those earlier times. It’s funny, but even though my husband and I have noticed that we sometimes get seated in the more sedate sections of restaurants these days, we are content with the ages at which we’ve arrived. Why is that?
No doubt it’s because we are excited to be heading somewhere new. If all goes right, we will be moving into an apartment in Jersey City that has a view of the Statue of Liberty. Eventually, we plan to settle in Philadelphia, where I am from, and also hope to travel for a few months at a time. The beginning of our first new journey is only months away. And we are nearly ready to go.