Decluttering: Ah, The Memories

In America, we collect stuff.  I don’t know how it happens, but soon we realize our houses are overflowing with things we had to have but do not need.  I have yet to meet an American rich or poor who does not suffer this sickness.  We live in a tremendously materialistic culture, and are constantly bombarded with advertisements telling us how much we need the latest, greatest, newest, or best.  When we can’t afford it, we use credit cards, because we can’t live without it, whatever “it” might be.  Or it was on sale or on clearance and how can we resist such a great deal?  Even if we don’t need it we might need it in the future.  So we buy, buy, buy. Partly it’s because even the simplest American homes are bigger than most houses in other parts of the world and we have storage space.  And of course, there are plenty of McMansions that can really hold a lot of crap.   I know people in Europe and Israel who don’t have collection fetishes as Americans do, but that’s because their physical environment is so much smaller.  There is simply no room to put anything anywhere, so they desist.  Heck, most homes in Europe and Israel don’t even come with closets!

One thing I love about March and April, even though I kvetch about it, is Pesach cleaning.  This goes way beyond the gentiles’ Spring Cleaning.  We Jews are supposed to turn our homes upside down looking for leavened foods, called chametz , which are forbidden to be eaten or owned by Jews during the week of Passover.  Pesach cleaning and preparations take two weeks to a month.  But in the process, our homes get really clean and downright immaculate.  And best of all, we throw out mountains of stuff that have nothing to do with actual chametz, but are superfluous to our lives.  To be honest, the act of getting rid of stuff and cleaning is an exhausting pain, and we do it strictly out of religious obligation.  But when it’s complete, it’s not only a relief; it’s a release; a cleansing of the soul; redemption.  It forces us to take stock of what’s really important in our lives, and the answer, of course, is not “stuff.”  It is, indeed, a religious experience.

One of the hardest tasks facing a person once their elderly parent dies is getting rid of that parent’s “stuff.”  The thing is, it wasn’t just “stuff” to the deceased.  If they kept it, it was usually because the item had real meaning, whether it was a souvenir that reminded them of a trip once taken, some tschotchke that was part of a hobby collection, assorted memorabilia or photographs of family and friends from younger days.  In other words, a life of memories.

I hate to sound harsh, but . . . well, for the most part, one person’s treasure is another’s trash.  My parents’ memories are usually not my memories.  Going through their clutter helps me better understand who they were and what was important to them, but ultimately . . . it’s still clutter.  And even though I wish I could incorporate their nostalgia into my own oeuvre, and even though I feel guilty as heck getting rid of stuff that I know was an important part of my parents’ lives, in my own house it’s a huge space-taker and dust magnet.  But oh, the guilt!  The sacrilege!

My mom was a life-long collector with fabulous taste.  Even objectively, I can see that most of her stuff is nice.  But: I. Do. Not. Want. It.

It pains me to know that my mother would have been unhappy about my getting rid of her stuff.  Usually there is little I want.  I ask family members if they want it.  Other than a few tokens, the answer is most often “no.”  So I post her things on craigslist, and offer other things to auction houses, consignment stores, and donate things to thrift shops.  I have yard sales, garage sales, and estate sales.  Occasionally people buy stuff that they are really delighted with and then I feel good; because my mother would have loved that her things brought someone else joy and that these strangers appreciate – – really appreciate – –  the same things that she did.  Other times priggish antique and junk dealers swoop in like vultures, offering me pennies on the dollar for things that cost my mom a small fortune.  Usually I say no, because I know how upset my mom would have been by their cold, calculated greed, and that they were buying to make a profit and not because they loved whatever it was that she so cherished.  And so, much of her stuff still sits in my house, collecting dust in cardboard boxes.

For better or worse I may be stuck with my mom’s stuff but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t want to do this to my kids.  So for the past 4 years, I’ve slowly been getting rid of my own things big and small.   Furniture.  Accent pieces.  Extra cookware and serving pieces.  Things that I no longer use regularly.  Things I needed in my twenties that I don’t need in my fifties.   I always ask my kids if they want it before I get rid of it, and usually the answer is no.  And I try to divest myself of things the same way I tried with my mother’s things:  yard sales, craigslist, consignment stores, thrift stores.  The difference is that it’s my stuff and no one else’s, so it’s easy to give myself permission to let it go.

Fortunately I am not a tschotchke collector (not because I don’t like tschotchkes, but because I am a terrible housekeeper and I couldn’t bear the thought of dusting every few days).  But I have tens of thousands of papers and books and photos that sit in boxes that will eventually suffer either from mildew or dry rot.  I admit it:  like my mother with her stuff, I cannot bear to throw these things away.

The good news is that unlike my mother’s objets d’art, technology has provided me a solution to my media hoarding:  scanning and digitizing.  All those articles I wrote or were written by others I admire that, let’s face it, will probably never be read again, can now be scanned.  (Maybe, just maybe, my kids or grandkids will be interested in my writings and journals and photographs some day?)

I have been slowly going through my bookshelves and re-reading everything.  Not every story brings me the joy I thought I remembered.  So slowly I am dissolving my library; I donate my books to our little rural library here in Maine.  What they can’t use they sell as overstock and that also provides paltry but necessary funds for the library’s use.

But the worst clutter offender:  my photographs.  So far my husband has scanned over 20,000 (!) photos which — and this is almost physically painful for me – – I have then dumped into the trash.  Thanks to an Adobe software program called Lightroom, when he scans the photos, he “tags” them with keywords so anyone with access to our digital library will be able to quickly and painlessly retrieve specific photos based on names, places, family members, events, or approximate dates.  No more going through albums and boxes.  I think there are approximately 35,000 photos total.  But that doesn’t include thousands of slides and film negatives.

Recently I bought a slide and film converter at Costco.  You simply place a negative film strip or slide transparency inside the converter, and in 3 seconds it digitizes the image and stores it on your computer  (essential:  backing up one’s separate hard drive!).  There are professional, expensive converters/scanners out there that do a fabulous job; this one is not that.  The resolution is not terrific and the color renditions and clarity are somewhat off.  But I realized the chance of me or my children (I asked them first) wishing to enlarge a digitized image from their 5th birthday party that happened 30 years ago into a quality 8×10 print copy was indeed remote. Even if I could make prints of all the slides and negatives, it would take an entire room just to contain the albums that would hold them.  It’s nice to view the images and relive the past – – for a few minutes.  Neatly archived, the only space my life’s memories take up can fit on a disk drive . . . or is that just plain, sad commentary?

And then, it’s time to move on.

 

 

 

 

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Phyllis Weintraub [ פיליס וינטראוב ] on January 25, 2015 at 1:13 am

    HI,

    I guess part of having a blog is knowing what to write or what may be interesting to others. I can relate entirely to what you have written – I started the process of shedding ‘stuff’ a couple of years ago myself (but never thought it would be interesting to anyone else). Furthermore, I had grand plans to scan in a lot of photographs (both negatives and 35mm) from when I was a child, but then realized that Yonah not only didn’t know my grandparents, but he probably wouldn’t really care to have the pictures. Scrapped that idea. I never even made an album from my New Zealand sabbatical for the same reason, and he’s never asked to see the photos I took. I realized that I’m just entertaining myself. It required a bit of a mental switch, but….

    There’s an organization called Light Opera of the Negev which puts on musicals once a year. For an amateur group they are really quite good. When Yonah was younger, 11 or 12, I took him to one and he liked it so much that he asked to see it again – so we also went to closing night. We went annually and included a nice dinner out. I thought he liked going and when I was away on sabbatical I sent him the information but he didn’t make the effort to go. I thought perhaps it was something that the two of us did, so when the advertisements came out for this years’ show I sent him the information by e-mail and told him about it on the phone. He never got back to me, so I realized the enjoyment and specialness of the night was on my part only. I spent this past Shabbos at friends in Kibbutz Alumim and, because Yonah was in the area, he joined us for lunch. He did a double-take when he saw Eric with beard and hair dyed to be Tevia in Fiddler, paused for a second, but never mentioned wanting to see the show. That sealed it, something that I have enjoyed for 12 or 13 years has come to an end. I was saddened. Even though he’s been out of the house since he was 14, in a sense, he’s still leaving, but in increments. Does that make sense, do you understand what I mean? Now I find myself faced with the balancing act of what information to impart to him that won’t actually be unwanted.

    Keep up the blogs, you never know who you will reach,
    Phyllis

    Reply

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