My nearly 88-year-old mother was awake until midnight recently, reading letters that took her back 50 years or more, to when her family was very different and included both her parents, and her father was ill with cancer that, in the martial vernacular of terminal illness, he fought valiantly. (If that means he maintained his love and compassion for others, despite his own painful illness, then yes, he fought valiantly.)
The next day, my mother was going through a different box, reading other cards and letters from friends and family, including some from her husband’s youngest brother who, for decades, battled his own illness – mental illness. In this family, we are capable of acknowledging that mental disorders can be as catastrophic as cancer, even if they don’t kill us quite as efficiently. (There is plenty of evidence of these catastrophes scattered around this side of our family, where only alcoholism outnumbers bipolar disorder, and bipolar disorder easily outnumbers the also-rans.)
I guess it has to be this way – not the cancer and manic depression, but going through the treasured family archive, discarding. The family I grew up in has never been known for judicious saving of out-of-focus photos, routine letters, Christmas and birthday cards, yellowed linens from the 19th century, school records dating back to kindergarten, sagging and broken furniture, leaky china from England, no-longer-used flatware and silver, and a collection of polished stone turtles of baffling origin – and the house on Long Island seemed to stretch to accommodate everything. We offspring have, more or less, continued this tendency admirably.
But my long-term goal is to live in under 200 square feet – something like a 21-foot long self-propelled, wheeled palace with accommodations for me, occasional co-travelers, and – of course – the two cats this blog is named for. My aim to become a rolling nomad requires this painful culling as a preliminary step, because when RV dwellers say their rig has “plenty of space for storage,” they don’t mean it has “plenty of space” to accommodate all the legacy items in my current home and still pending in mislabeled boxes in the garage. It’s entirely possible – likely, in fact – that some of the hand-written letters detailing family life in 1964 or 1972 or 1993 will have to be scanned and discarded. Actually, “plenty” of them will have to go.
This month (and most likely the next, as well), I’m in the process of sorting out my childhood books (saving the true gems for any grandchildren – one of whom is already on the way), stacks of books in my Willa Cather and William Gilmore Simms libraries, stacks of books from the courses I taught, stacks of books and memorabilia from our mystisch year in Germany (when I turned 9), and stacks of photos I thought were so essential when I pressed the shutter release, beginning at age 8. But more than that, I’m sorting through my ideas about what qualifies something as a treasure – what makes anything indispensable.
And I’m watching my parents do the same.
I can tell you there are no objective criteria for the appraisal program that rates items “must keep” through “must go.” Decisions fall prey to the mood of the person appraising, the dynamic influences of what else was packed in the same box (or the previous one), the time of day the appraisal is taking place, even the weather as it is all happening. (A melancholy rain seems to increase the volume of “must keep,” while the urgency of a thunderstorm may be the death knell for anything that doesn’t quickly rate very high.)
It seems to be almost a toss of the dice, seeing whether anything makes the cut. This randomness reassures me that it’s nearly impossible to cull incorrectly – unless, of course, everything lands back in the box for which there still is no long-term space, in the house or the garage.
In that case, the dice have shattered – sentimentality has served us poorly, the tears have flowed without catharsis, the heart has led us astray, the brain was disengaged, and the garage will still be full of boxes overstuffed with out-of-focus photos of people we believe we should recognize, but whose names escape us.
Among the very few things in this process of which I am confident, I am absolutely confident that this chronic, rampant clutter does not qualify as treasure of any kind.