06/04/15 – TO SAVE OR NOT TO SAVE?
My 83-year-old mother has always been a tosser, so it surprised me when she told me she had spent the past week reading her collection of old letters and short stories she had written in college. I was even more surprised when she offered to feed my hoarder habit by giving my grandparents’ love letters to me. She thought I might someday work them into a novel.
My mother has never had any patience for saving things, nor for dwelling on the past. She is notorious for putting aside, repressing, suppressing, or just plain forgetting pieces of her life. She doesn’t ruminate, or dwell. She sees no point in keeping around anything, material or spiritual, once its immediate use is over.
For as long as I can remember, my mother made me feel guilty about my own boxes of old letters and school papers, the ones I’ve been carting from one residence to the other for the past forty years. She despises packrats. This is a woman who unceremoniously threw away my brother’s baseball card collection. This is a woman who made me give my Barbies away at age 12 because she decided I was too old for dolls. This is a woman actually follows the rule about discarding a piece of clothing for every one acquired.
To have my mother hang onto her own old letters and papers, and to spend her days going through them, made no sense.
It was my mother’s intolerance for hoarding that made me feel obliged to justify my dogged inability to let my old papers and letters free. And I had plenty of justifications. Originally my explanations included the possibility that I might need these mementos in my writing. What if someday I needed to look up my notes from Developmental Biology or Tudor-Stuart England, or wanted a personal spin on what was thought about such subjects in 1978? What if someday I wanted to remember the name of a friend’s first college crush, or see how my 18-year-old self described the world?
As the years, and then decades, went by, and I never opened any of these boxes, such rationalizations became flimsier. Access to the richness of the Internet weakened my excuses further. So did the waning of youthful grandiosity.
As embarrassing as it is to admit, at least part of my hoarding stemmed from notions that someday someone somewhere might find it useful to find my cache. Perhaps that person would be a curious descendant. Perhaps it would be a historian grateful to have a glimpse into a lost world. As someone with a doctorate in history, I shivered at the idea that some potentially useful artifact of a lost era might be abandoned. And who knew? Perhaps someday some stranger would actually read my books and want to know more about their author.
With every passing year, such possibilities became more remote, if not absurd. I mean, really—how likely was it that some future historian would be grateful to find these papers? How likely that even my own (still purely hypothetical) great-niece would ever bother to wade her way through the faded ink, must, and mildew, or the cursive script that no one under the age of 30 can decipher anymore?
People who communicate digitally may not even recognize a potential treasure in a cardboard box. Their texts, emails, won’t be there for the remembering, or for the lugging around. They won’t have the same delusional sense that every passing thought is worth saving, or revisiting decades later. Artifacts like old letters may be completely unrecognizable to future generations.
The older I got, too, the more I saw how things, even personal, poignant things, were utter vanities, burdens not only to me but even more so to all the loved ones who would have to manage them when I was no longer around to do so. How many years could I justify keeping these memorabilia unopened? Would I actually ever look at them? Would they do anything more than cause burden and emotional pain to my children some day?
Still, I hung onto the boxes because I knew throwing them away would be an admission that all my earnest effort had been for naught. These letters and notes to and from me were all signs that a life had been lived, documentation that a particular life had been lived. They were a lifeline to all I had done and who I had been, and to toss them was tantamount to tossing my continuity of consciousness.
And now, after all these years, it seemed that my mother agreed with me after all. For all the carrying on about uncluttering, it turned out that she had, indeed, saved things, and was now savoring them—even if many of them, like her letters from old boyfriends, wound up in the shredder after the savoring.
The fact that my mother herself found it valuable, though, admittedly, sad, to read letters of long-lost and probably deceased boyfriends, or relive the past through these letters, made me think that I might want to keep these things around a bit longer. It reminded me that having these letters would indeed be a way to pry open secrets of the past that I could no longer answer because the bearers of the secrets were long gone. It reminded me that even keeping these things only for me, to read someday when the best years of my life were behind me, might provide a precious if bittersweet moment of solace.
If my mother saw some value in saving old letters, notes, and journals, then surely I, her hoarder daughter, could agree. And who knows? She might even be right about me working those old love letters into a novel.