I was a clever gatherer of things.
Mostly paper. In neat piles. Inside of drawers. Resting innocuously on shelves. Tucked into boxes that lurked in the shadowy recesses of my garage.
Except for occasional accusations of hoarding, I imagined only I could see them.
In those moments, I’d immediately acquiesce, decommissioning just enough stuff to deal with the prevailing winds of spousal dissatisfaction.
After all, did I really need that college term paper on Igneous rock? That large red C-minus at the top couldn’t possibly make it a possession to be savored.
Or Hubert Humphrey’s letter responding to my teenage despair upon his loss in the 1968 Presidential race? Or, for that matter, every birthday card ever sent to me since the age of 16?
Apparently, I did.
I believed those items had value. At a moment’s notice, they could propel me on a journey back in time to less complicated days. Or to more complicated days, when a young love went wrong, leaving me to suffer through the exquisite pain of youthful indulgence.
My so-called hoarding was not the type of nostalgia that comes dangerously close to living in the past. It was a naughty little habit involving a bit of harmless Throwback Thursdays.
But when my partner of 35 years died, bequeathing me with his own Smithsonian-like cache of memorabilia, the issue of hoarding took on a depth and proportion I’d never have imagined.
In the years before he passed, I’d try to provoke a massive, joint Spring clean-up. An I’ll do mine if you do yours! activity.
But he couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. Or was overwhelmed by the thought of tossing a piece of his past onto the garbage heap of history.
And, frankly, so was I.
Lacking the requisite moral high ground to judge him too harshly for this particular idiosyncrasy, I’d back away.
Until his death made it incumbent upon me to sift through endless cartons of paper, uncoil dozens of drawings, page through high school yearbooks in a constant search for what might be noteworthy. Relevant. Must-haves to add to my own collection of memories.
Wondering, sometimes aloud and with utter frustration, what he’d want me to keep. What he might want to live on after him. Something that shed light or learning on his life. Or mine. Or our life together.
I was judge and jury at a time when grief and healing should have been my only occupation. And that’s how the cure for gathering surfaced.
In the end, the best reason to travel through life with as few things as possible is that we aren’t traveling through that life alone. In good faith, I could not place the burden of litigating my own museum of stuff onto anyone else. Certainly not someone I loved.
That was my responsibility.
It’s impossible to put a convincing finger on why it’s difficult to part with vestiges of our past.
Perhaps we need proof of our own experience. A tombstone reminder that something happened to us on planet Earth on such and such a date. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Without interpretation or misrepresentation by the faulty fingerprints of our recollection.
Or perhaps it’s just vanity, laziness, or a codification only we can understand. Even if we can’t articulate why.
My new spouse and I recently moved to a new house.
We did, admittedly, take a few things in violation of our Golden Rule of Packing: Unused for two years? Donate it. Or trash it. No exceptions.
But there are always exceptions. Some of them, treasured exceptions.
One simply cannot manage through a well-lived life with only one KitchenAid Artisan 5 qt. Stand Mixer in Blood Orange. (It was a limited edition color!)
Or find culinary expediency with just one 4-quart Instant Pot. (Spontaneous Instant Pot cook-offs can’t be known in advance.)
Nor could one destroy hard drives from computers with 20th Century expiration dates. (One day I’ll need that memo I sent to so and so.)
Or, dare I ask this aloud?
Could one seriously consider tossing out a piece of paper, ripped from a grade school notebook, containing Jayne Mansfield’s unintelligible autograph?
I think not.
In the end, downsizing is a necessity for simpler life, but we can’t do it blindly. The important memories may just remind us of the person we used to be and what prompted us to embrace our new, more authentic identity. And those reminders are important to have around – at least some of the time.
What are your downsizing rules? Have you had to clean up someone’s stuff after their death? How did you feel and how did you manage? Please share your experience with our community.