My husband came in yesterday afternoon carrying a cardboard box, and announced, “Well, my mom is still sending me home with stuff.”
His mom, who we called “Ama,” died seven months ago. And sure enough, the box was filled with all sorts of stuff she had set aside for our house. Stamps and stamping pads for my crafty daughter, a Civil War cannonball for the boys, sewing supplies for me, and a trove of old family photos for my husband.
We used to tease her about that. She would regularly send us home with things like my husband’s schoolwork from first grade or his scouting badges from the World Jamboree. Other times, she would show up with something in her trunk for us - my husband’s letterman jacket from playing varsity soccer in high school, canning equipment she thought we might use. Often, I would cringe, and she would grin.
“Don’t you want to be the custodian of these precious items?” her smile seemed to say.
Not so much - I must admit.
I feel like I’m constantly looking around at what can be thrown out. I don’t want to be wading through fifty years of wedded bliss when I turn eighty. I come from a family of nostalgia-keepers, too, so I know the lure of the memento.
I have an aversion to the accumulation of stuff. My kids come home w/ schoolwork and 95% of it goes directly into the recycling. My brain is cluttered enough; I don’t want my house to feel the same way. Perhaps that is why we have rooms with no window treatments and nothing decorative on the walls.
And yet I also have a sentimental side. I have every birth announcement and wedding invitation I’ve ever received in a box on the top shelf of my closet. I recently found all my correspondence from college (the days before texting and email!) - letters from high school friends, family members, college friends when we were home for the summer - and put it into the recycling bin.
I have noticed, as I work harder to recycle, donate or simply throw things out, that it gets easier the more I do it. There is something very liberating about not hanging on to mix tapes my friends made for me in college and letting go of baby toys - even the ones that were most adored.
In doing so, I realize that I do not need the “stuff” in order to feel connected to the person or the period of my life. When I hold onto the physical items, I feel responsible for them and the memories they represent. Even the highly cherished things take up space and weigh me down.
“Feel how heavy this is,” my eight year old son says, holding out their newly discovered cannonball. My eleven year old looks on in wonder, his eyes fixed on the small cast-iron ball. I can see his mind at work, as he imagines the Civil War artillery and battlefield scene.
It had been one of my husband’s treasures when he was a kid - given to him by his uncle, a history professor, when he was eight. Perhaps that cannonball had something to do with my husband becoming a history major in college. Ama held onto it all this time, and now it can delight the imaginations of another generation of young Curtis men.
Perhaps I don’t need another sewing kit to add to my own. How could I possibly use fifty more small, black buttons? But I love holding another piece of Ama’s story in my hands.
My husband and I look through the box of old family photographs. Great-grandparents, great-aunts, great-great-grandparents - they are all painstakingly labeled, so that we know who is who. A picture of my husband’s grandfather as an infant, pictured with his own father and grandfather. I can see the physical features passed down through six generations, and I am touched by the poignancy.
Perhaps even after she is gone, Ama has something to teach me about the accumulation of stuff. We don’t need to be weighed down by a sense of responsibility, of carrying the past forward into the future. But we can connect to the history that has made us who we are. Ama is sewing us one to another, weaving her thread in and out through the layers, the generations, of memory. We are connected one to another, to our histories, to our memories, to that which has come before us and that which will continue after we are gone.
What is your relationship with stuff? What are you holding onto that is ready to be let go?
What connects you to your history? How does this serve you in the present moment?
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