When my children come to visit, I now will frequently present each of them with a “present”—one or more plastic boxes, full of their belongings, which they have decided to store in my garage even though neither of them has spent any serious time living at home for the past seven years.
Clothing, horse show ribbons, plastic horse collections, notebooks from both college and high school, and most especially, college textbooks which I know they will never, EVER open again, populate every free space that I can create. I have made a simple (and I think quite generous) rule regarding retention. If they really want to save it, I’ll keep storing it. But they have to look at everything and make a conscious decision that the object still has value.
My dedication to purging was inspired by the painful experience of having to empty my mother’s home when, two years after my father’s death, she was injured and precipitously consumed by a dementia that had been creeping into her life. Her condition required that my sister and I place her in a board and care home where her living space was reduced to an 11 x 11 single room from the spacious mobile home that she and my dad had enjoyed for over 30 years.
The “purge” was a combination of an exciting exploration of memorable objects and a tedious and painful exercise in laboriously making decision after decision regarding what was worth keeping. Pictures, jewelry, and silver, antique dinnerware—those were easy decisions to make. Kitchenware made its way to the kids and family members who had a use for it, but most of their furniture was dated and quickly donated. My sister and I created a system for tossing stuff. “You want this?” one of us would ask. If the answer was “no,” it was trash. My parents weren’t hoarders, but they did keep at least 10 ashtrays stored away even though they had both given up smoking over 25 years before. We must have easily filled a dumpster with the life they had formerly lived.
And my mother saved paper. Virtually every document that was related to taxes, investments, bank accounts, insurance, health care—anything that looked vaguely official—was squirreled away into a semi-roll-top desk that someone else is now enjoying because I couldn’t fit it in to my house.
I spent hour after hour looking through every one of these documents to determine what actually needed to be saved. I ended up with four hefty boxes of documents that I deemed to be unimportant and took them to a professional shredding company (who knew such places existed?) but also found my father’s service records from World War II, my parents’ marriage license, birth certificates, and other family records that even I couldn’t bear to part with. These were the tangible evidence of some of the most important aspects of the lives of my parents, and I found myself struggling to let them go. I even kept my grandmother’s Social Security card. Now, when will I need that?
And that’s the crux of it—Irrational Emotional Attachment. IEA. It’s probably a certified psychological syndrome. If it isn’t, it should be. It causes us to keep around mounds of stuff that no one will ever want, that we will never look at or use. Even someone like me, who likes to get rid of stuff, falls victim to IEA.
I had the good fortune of being chosen as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year in 2009. As a result, I made a number of appearances where I received numerous acrylic “awards” which I displayed for about a year and then boxed up. I never look at them, but can’t throw them away. Someday, one of my kids will. The one exception may be the most nominally significant one—an award recognizing me as one of 12 semi-finalists for California teacher of the year. It is a hideous acrylic creation that we dubbed the “menacing eyeball”. As I packed it away, I remarked dryly to my daughter, Emily that “you guys will be fighting over this someday.” For all I know, it will go the way of my parents’ ashtrays.
So, in the spirit of purging, I took on “the box.” For years, I have wrapped up and saved what I thought was a box that only contained the correspondence between my wife of 40 years and myself when we were interested/dating between the years of 1970 and 1974. Two weeks ago, I broke open two layers of plastic and dove into this archive. In addition to our correspondence, I found letters and cards from former students (one of whom had suffered an untimely death), letters from my high school classmates (one of whom had suffered an untimely death), my own high school memorabilia, and letters from former girlfriends and from Mary’s (my wife) friends, some of whom I dated while I was waiting around for her to notice me.
Some cards and letters were easy to discard, their authors being long forgotten, but others were much harder, a clear case of IEA. They told stories of connections with students who I had managed to support during traumatic times, cards from parents who had appreciated my efforts, one former student who I had helped out as a teen just to become her children’s teacher during the last year of my career. Throw them away? Logically, yes, I should. But no, they went into the “save” pile.
These earnest letters from parents and students make up more of my legacy from teaching than any award I might have received. They make up a nearly 40-year history of working in a profession that I loved. When I look back at them, I like to think that they are representative of me being my best self. They remind me that teaching was so much more than a lesson well planned or another set of papers graded.
I will still open these cards and letters from time to time and enjoy those memories. I promise, I will throw one or more away every time and whittle away at the number that must some day face the shredder.
Next up! What I discovered in the mounds of letters that Mary and I exchanged during our long-distance romance. Ah, young love—It’s a beautiful thing!