My late husband Chuck was a real pack rat. He kept so many mementos from his early days in high school, college and business. He had old report cards, and letters, playbills and tons of old record albums. He even had his college beanie emblazoned with the H which stood for his undergrad alma mater, Howard University. These items along with his faded Howard University athletic tank were all tucked away in a duffel bag in a closet.
We were city apartment dwellers with no basement to hide and store memorabilia and personal keepsakes. Chuck did pull out the shirt often and wear it around the house. My husband loved to read and thus had a huge collection of books. He liked to reread his favorites usually about History, American History, wars and a good mystery now and then. He read all the local papers daily including the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal.
I am a collector of things also: old postcards, letters, jewelry, letters from long gone relatives and beaus and long-ago pen pals, along with all the correspondence from my parents which were sent to me when they served in the Peace Corps in the 80s.
I have old photos and lovely Limoges boxes, a collection of beautiful timepieces which I try to pull out and wear with regularity. I have many of the books my son read when he was a little boy, and some of his baby clothes neatly packed away for the future grandson (or granddaughter). I used to want to hang onto some classic styles hoping that they would make a comeback. A white button-down shirt, black ankle pants, Mary Jane shoes. Although I was right on a few occasions most of the time when the style did make a comeback, it would reemerge tweaked in a way that suited the prevailing fashion trends.
I used to plead with my husband to throw out all the papers that he had accumulated over the years. He promised that he would, but he never really did; they were like a security blanket for him. The more the piles rose the more secure in his fortress he felt. My husband’s insistence on holding onto everything made me very sensitive about my own predilection for collecting “things”. So I put myself in check and would periodically ditch those items that no longer held meaning for me.
He was Inspired to Purge
After Chuck died, I was faced with many decisions, one of the most important being what to keep and what to throw away. The year Chuck was ill was the year he finally “got it”, unfortunately it was a lot too late. During that period, while I was at work, Chuck sorted through all of his papers and documents and photographs and began to get rid of an accumulation of many years of “stuff”. The items that he treasured he put into an album. These included awards, letters of commendation, and all sorts of treasures that were important to him. He began creating a visual legacy for he knew that his time was limited.
It would be a long while before I could pore over his carefully curated collection. These were the items that he felt would tell “his story” and leave his mark in this place.
A Very Sacred Task
Eventually, I edited his belongings and kept only those things that had meaning to me. This very sacred task got me thinking about my own assortment of keepsakes which included correspondences, journals, notes, postcards, and pictures. I realized that I was holding onto items from my past that no longer held the same meaning that they once did. There was a lifetime of old photos of grammar school chums, names I could no longer recall. Books, with tattered covers falling off, vestiges from my undergraduate psychology class, my graduate school philosophy and education classes too. They filled up my library and made it look very impressive, but I never opened them as they no longer held meaning for me. I found drawings that I had created years before in art classes that I’d taken at the Brooklyn Museum and the Art Students League. These were proof that I had once dabbled in pen and ink, and watercolor, and that I loved drawing portraits of anyone who would sit for me (usually a reluctant brother or my sister). As I purged, I came to the realization that these were items that were part of a life that I no longer had. I no longer needed to prove anything to anyone about my intellect or artistic talent. After all, I was me ,just as I am, after all was said and done. I also decided that I did not want to leave my only son with tons of items to sort through that would hold little meaning for him once I had finally left this place.
A Final Act of Love
As I sorted through all of my things I began to feel a bit freer. It was like going to a resort or hotel and breathing a sigh of relief at being away from the hustle and bustle of city life, having arrived only with the bare necessities in my suitcase. Thus, in a big way, my husband inspired me to do my own housecleaning. There was enough to deal with after he died, so the fact that he considered me in his final days and finally got rid of the clutter was what I considered an extreme and selfless act of love. I didn’t have to wonder what this meant to him, who these people were in a pic, why a document was important. It spared me the sorrow, I surely would have felt, as I touched and smelled more items that were a part of my husband’s life here.The memories that my purging, decluttering, sorting and ditching conjured up were snapshots of a former life and times long gone. And even though I no longer have the tangible items which I never looked at anyway, I have the memories permanently etched in my mind that I can access whenever I like. I decided that I no longer needed those material things to help me relive my past, particularly now that I was embracing a new beginning.
The Past Can Block One’s Future
As time goes on we find that we have accumulated so many things that we don’t ever use and never look at. They become a security blanket of sorts, but they can also become the “thing” that can prevent us from moving forward. Of course many people have collections of items that they display, that they change seasonally, that they look at frequently. Then there are those items that you may want to save for future generations to peruse as they research who their ancestors were. But oftentimes there’s just an accumulation of memories from our past that can prevent us from being in the now. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hold on to timeworn treasures that tell “our stories” but we have to discern, at some point, whether our story is going to mean anything to those who come after us….those who have to go through our stuff deciding what should stay and what should go. Our friends and family will not know why we held onto a collection of coins, or who certain people are in faded photos, now faded and torn, or why a special handkerchief is neatly folded inside a Ziploc baggie.
Locking The Memories in My Heart
I decided to lock these memories in my heart and save my only child from having to deal with a puzzle after I’m gone.
There’s a lot to be said for living with less, not more. One’s history is an accumulation of a life well lived (or not), but experiences all. Many of these events in life are meticulously recorded or collected in the form of keepsakes and memorabilia with the intention that we will one day look back on our lives with sadness, fondness and sentimental thoughts. But often these items can clutter our lives and prevent us from living or moving forward. Sometimes, unwittingly, we hold on tightly to the past which prevents us from truly living in the present.
I was able to let go of a lot of my husband’s items in stages over about a five year period. I was able to give away most of his beautiful clothing in the beginning, which I rushed to do, because I was afraid if I did not it would be hard for me to do it later the longer I held onto them. I did not want to go into the closet and look at his clothing every day, with a very lightheaded feeling of anxiety, as I put my face in his coats and shirts and weep and weep and weep. I was already weeping without having to have the constant reminder of the daunting task that awaited. But there were little items like cufflinks, and watches, and glasses, and handkerchiefs, gloves, etc. that I was able to let go of as time ensued. Time does give one a new perspective on things and gradually, I was able to hold onto a modest collection of his possessions without having to have felt overwhelmed had I taken on the task of getting rid of everything initially.
Open a Portal to New Experiences
At some point we must begin to think about the items from our past, and decide whether it’s necessary to hold onto everything. We will want to keep some things from deceased loved ones for sure, but we may find that as we gradually discard those objects that no longer hold the same meaning that they once did, we will be opening a portal to new experiences that will be just as fulfilling and maybe even more meaningful than the old.
Life is finite, and our experiences are always unfolding. Let’s make room for new ones and keep the old ones locked in our hearts.
To find out more about how you can heal after loss read Brave in a New World:A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/jnjs5fu