November 12, 2015
My grandparents’ apartment had a maximalist décor, which is a fancy way of saying they had plenty of stuff, all of it neatly displayed. Though the quantity of those belongings outsized their book value, together they possessed a priceless beauty I’ll never forget. Most importantly, the tchotchkes were both an extension of who they were and solid evidence that they’d lived their lives as fully as their circumstances permitted.
So it was a traumatic amputation, wrought teacup by porcelain teacup, when we packed up that apartment for my grandmother’s move, years after my grandfather passed away, to one room in an assisted living. What mattered, of course, was how she had lived and loved. We knew she couldn’t take the Rosenthal cake stand with her, not to the home and not into the World to Come. But the pain came anyway when we divided up the little that remained after she followed him.
We say over and over that our possessions are ultimately meaningless, yet I believe they still hold a mirror up to our soul. What we collect and curate speaks volumes about who we are. With one glance around someone’s home, we know if she is sentimental and spiritual, and if she possesses a quirky sense of humor. We get a feel for what warms her heart and what she values, whether she travels often, and if she likes to dust.
These thoughts have been on my mind a lot the past six months. It began when I read a review of yet another decluttering book on a night I could not fall asleep. I decided to take its philosophy to heart, and to follow the steps to minimalist Zen I could glean from the article.
First, I made my way through our everyday objects, sorting and distributing and donating what we no longer use. It wasn’t easy to let go, but I even found new homes for books I know I’ll never read again. We recycled reams of documents that held no meaning or purpose, and gave away several wardrobes’ worth of clothing.
Once all of that was gone and our surfaces were clear, I could breathe easier. We had more elbow room. I was able to find whatever it was I needed in a cabinet without removing its entire contents. I even located all the little keys to a stash of padlocks we were ready to toss.
Then the time came to look at the other things in abundance here – the mementoes, the souvenirs, the treasures inherited from family, the ephemera, the silly objects that once meant something to me and, to be honest, looking at them now, still do. What belongs to my husband I will let him reckon with one day when he’s ready.
In our den, scattered among the books on the shelves, are decorative wooden boxes filled with items whose bounty well exceeds their book value. The plastic boots worn by my Barbie dolls. The mold of my teeth made by my orthodontist. Miniature musical instruments and a cache of ticket stubs. Wooden nickels. The keychain my husband gave me in lieu of a ring when he proposed, the one that still makes my heart thump when I hold it in the palm of my hand.
It is unlikely any of it will ever mean much to anyone else, but I can’t help worry that our boys will one day toss it all willy-nilly, cursing me under their breath for having saved such a useless quantity of the past. I would like them to choose a few things to hang onto, if only to remember me by. But my deepest hope is that they will take some time to sort through the whole lot, and to consider the stories behind each item, or at least the story they come together to tell about me.
For now, though, it is neat and self-contained. Besides, I do the dusting, so who is going to say boo? None of it is bothering anyone. I’ve already de-owned plenty, but I’ve resolved to hang on to what’s left for as long as I can. If the decluttering books advise that we keep only what we use and love, then I’m guilty only of loving more.