My parents are moving out of my (third) childhood home where I lived from ages 9-18, during college breaks, and for two years after college graduation. Last week they asked me to come over and go through some of my old things; they would like me to take what’s mine to my apartment, where I now live with my husband and children. Sounds like a simple enough request. But it isn’t.
On Friday I went over to my parents’ place to go through my things. It was a process that was simultaneously wonderful and unsettling. Until Friday, I really hadn’t been confronted with my past in such a tangible way. As I combed through the piles, bits and pieces of my life that I had forgotten came flooding back. Many of these bits I happily and gratefully accepted into my consciousness: the ticket stub from my first Guns N’ Roses concert, an English paper that I had done well on, pictures of trips and events where I was nothing but smiles, a Camp Lenox yearbook and pictures of my Fieldston Pre-K class, to name a few. It was invigorating and reassuring to be reminded of good times, to see evidence of past happiness.
But a few of these bits and pieces might have been better left unremembered. I read letters that I had written, but never sent, to my college crush. I thought, “Who wrote this?” The author seemed like a stranger to me. She said things that I would never say, and yet there were the words on the paper, the letter signed with my name. I was appalled by my diary that I had kept when I was in Israel during the summer of ’94. My diary entries, regarding the social aspects of the trip, sounded angry and jealous, so immature. I seemed like that clichéd, angst-filled teenager who was in desperate need of an outstretched hand. Reading that diary instantly made me feel 16 again, forced me to feel what I had forgotten in the 21 years since then. I wish I could have sent a hand back through time and squeezed that teenager’s hand, promising her that it would turn out all right.
At the end of going through all of my things, I had two “garbage” boxes filled with law school text books (very easy to part with–buh bye!) and law school notebooks (slightly more difficult to part with, but only because it was sort of fun to marvel at the detail with which I organized my law school notes–from the looks of it, that girl was really on top of the material, although I don’t quite remember it that way).
After that I was faced with the remaining items which filled two boxes. It’s a strange feeling, to be forced to decide what to do with evidence of your life. Keep it, only to bury it in the corner of a closet where it will collect dust, maybe taking it out once every 10 years when you’re feeling sentimental or when you want to share bits of your past with your children? Let it take up space that could be “better” used, perhaps as a storage space for items that belong to your own children that will one day be evidence of their childhood? Or throw it out and hope that memory will work well enough on its own; that you don’t really need to hold the photos of you and your friends in Greece after college graduation because you can remember the trip without the tangible evidence?
It’s not a simple matter, the decision of whether or not to throw away items that are a testament to your life. I feel like I physically don’t have room for these relics in my apartment. Or maybe it’s that I don’t have emotional room for them. Who was this girl? I don’t even recognize parts of her. But without these old photos, cards, notes, letters, Bat Mitzvah invitations, concert stubs, medals…who are we? If we throw it all away, will we remember enough on our own, or do we need the physical evidence? Must we make room for evidence of the past, literally and symbolically?