Dumping the past, boxes and boxes of it…

By Caitlin Kelly

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!

Holy hell, people!

Have you ever gone through all your stuff: in the attic, in the basement, in the garage, in your storage locker(s)?

Jose and I have ruined spent the past few weekends, for two to four hours each time, cleaning out the dozens of boxes containing the detritus memorabilia of our shared and separate lives.

We live in, and I work in, a one-bedroom apartment with few closets, so we need additional storage space for out-of-season clothing, sports and camping gear, luggage.

But you know the deal — when you don’t know quite what to do with something, you tend to postpone a decision, instead tossing it (if you have space) into the attic, basement, garage or extra bedroom(s.)

Then one day you actually notice how many boxes and tubs there are — enough! Time to sort through it it all.

It’s exhausting, both physically and mentally: sort, decide, dump, donate, sell, keep, give away. Then photograph, measure and list it on Craigslist, Freecycle or Ebay, or drive it to the thrift store or consignment shop.

Or, if it really has potential monetary value, calling in an appraiser and/or dealer.

It’s hard to let go of things if, as many do, they also carry strong, happy emotional memories — your baby’s clothes, your wedding dress, notes for your thesis. It’s who we are, or once were.

It felt very weird to throw my hard-won early New York magazine clips into the garbage, (none of them on-line), but I’m not that person anymore. And no one is going to look at a story from 1995 or 1997!

We were dealing with/deciding about stuff like:

The box filled with all the gorgeous textiles my mother collected in her solo world travels: silk saris, embroidered cotton molas, exquisite woven wool mantas from Peru, all of which have value to a collector or dealer. (Kept them.)

All the wedding photos from my first wedding, filled with a blond, naive, hopeful 35-year-old pretending it was all going to be OK when I knew I was not. (Kept them.)

Huge, heavy piles of yellowed newsprint and tattered magazine pages, some of the hundreds of articles I’ve produced since I began working as a writer 30+ years ago. (Tossed them all. Gulp.)

The research notes for my two books. (Tossed.)

But we also made some happy re-discoveries, like my very first professional business card from the journalism job I loved most, as a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s then only national newspaper.

And my sketches, paintings and journals from my trips to Kenya and Tanzania and New Zealand and Australia.

Jose found a signed note on heavy white card stock — The President — from George HW Bush, whom he photographed many times while in the White House Press Corps. I found a signed thank-you letter from the late great American choreographer Bob Fosse, to whom I had written a fan letter.

I still have the small, battered trunk I first took to summer camp when I was eight years old. Yes, I do, dammit!

Have you been cleaning out/tossing stuff?

Yours or someone else’s?



48 thoughts on “Dumping the past, boxes and boxes of it…

  1. unsolicitedtidbits

    I have a few boxes tucked away in the closet that I need to sort out over the summer. It’s a scary project. You captured it nicely here. Cheers.

  2. The textiles sound amazing. I have moved about a dozen times, so my stuff has been reduced over time instead of accumulating. Sometimes I remember things I used to have and wonder what became of them…probably given up at moving time. I do still have a woven wool textile (shawl?) that some ancestor picked up in some country (Scotland?). I regret giving up some things–elbow length gloves my mother wore when she was young, a dresser my father used in college, little things that seem more important now.

    1. I had an entire locker thrown away for me — after I fell behind in payments at a storage facility. That was a long time ago and I am still a little in shock. Now I would rather keep it close at hand and go through it at my leisure. I have very little stuff from my family, so I am reluctant to part with what I do have from them.

  3. I’m a tosser by nature, but I have difficulty tossing the progeny’s toys. I anticipate the day of hauling out the Legos, Bucket of Fun, and Hot Wheels. The MEPA tends to question my proclivity towards this sentimentality. And *gasp* do you at least scan your clips before tossing?

    1. Legos!!! Those are for life. 🙂

      Nope. The hell with them. I’ve written so many damn articles…I do have entire bound copies of several major magazine articles that are much more recent (past five years or so) and a bunch of clips on my website. After 30 years of this stuff….Nor (yet) do I even own a scanner.

  4. Right now, there is a closet that has been whispering my name – time to dig thru and see what is on the bottom of the pile – I go thru closets and junk drawers pretty often – And now have started giving things to the nieces and nephew as they start their homes – let them figure out what to do with it! – but you throwing out the clippings did make me gasp – that had to be a hard hard thing to do.

  5. You have some interesting keepers….what we feel we need teels so much of our lives.You7r first wedding pictures..that seems like a fascinating story. I confess I have some of those, having been married more than twice…

    It turns out there are only a few material items I care about including too many pictures and art work, family artists’ and more. Journals are always tossed the minute they are full. But writing–even odds and ends–is filed away.Clothes are regularly donated. Books and music…often sorted and much kept. But I have a cello, the one my father bought me wehen i was 12 and serious about playing, in a corner. I stopped studying at 18. I am afraid to open its case, as last time the bow’s hairs had all sprung free and the cello’s strings had unwound or snapped, hairline cracks deepened. Yet I cannot bear to part with it though I only play it once a year, if that.

    1. True! The wedding photos also contain images of my late step-mother and of my mother, whom I have had a difficult relationship with, so it’s not about me and the ex, necessarily.

      Love your cello story…have you blogged about this? I have my guitar from when I was 16, in a locker, and have no touched it in years but it is full of happy memories and I want to get back to it.

      We ditched tons and tons of books about 3 years ago, selling them to the Strand Bookstore, and got $350. That sweetened the hard work.

      1. Yes, family pictures are so important, I think–espceially the ones printed on paer…at least that is how I feel about it.

        Good reward for the books! I go to Powell’s City of Books here! But I do think about how many thousands I have spent and how little I make back when reselling. So it goes!

        I have blogged about my cello a bit and a creative NF piece about my father and I buying it was published. But maybe I should blog more with this topic. Music is a potent one for me, not all lovely…

        Thanks for the reply!

      2. And yet…if you (?) ever go to antique stores or flea markets (as I love to do), they are filled with “vintage photos” — of other people’s families. I always hold them tenderly and wonder why I am able to buy someone else’s history.

  6. This made me smile. Everytime I travel (a few times a year), I try to throw out a few bags of stuff. And I travel a lot so it seems like I’m getting rid of a lot… but there’s still more! It’s crazy how that happens.

  7. When we moved last year after 19 years in the same house, we went through the same process. One room a weekend, from April to June. There were some great discoveries, like the scroll our daughter wrote to her future self “To be opened on my wedding day.” Kept. She had to sort through an attic full of toys that we had stored until she would be ready to part with them. If she didn’t remember it, out it went. My husband overheard her say “Hello, friends!” to a group of sentimental favorites. Kept. Can anyone explain to me why I ever collected Pendelfin rabbits? EBay. Hang in there! We’re moving again in August and the work will be so much easier this time.

    1. Whew! I feel better hearing how long it took you….It demands a stunning amount of time, and only by spreading it out is it bearable.

      Dare I admit to owning many of my stuffed animals from childhood? They sit atop a shelf and make me very happy. I love what your daughter said. They are friends!

  8. Reminds me of a George Carlin routine-http://youtu.be/MvgN5gCuLac

    Starting out here with 5 suitcases of stuff and then moving in a giant moving truck up the road we realized our ability to accumulate stuff. When we go back to the states we shudder when we go in the basement…stuff. Closets full of stuff. It is too overwhelming. Some trip home though, the stuff is going to go in the dumpster.

    1. Overwhelming is exactly my point. I am at the age where many of my friends (and I had to do it as well) are being faced — often with little notice — with having to empty an entire house (!) filled over many decades by their parents. One friend is using up all his $$$ and vacation time flying from NY to CA to do it for his mother. That’s my def. of hell and has very much prompted us to start shedding as much as we can.

      On the other hand (!), while we were doing our garage, a friend was doing his, and about to toss out four really beautiful well-framed prints and a huge vintage photograph, all of which he gave us. Score! The prints are exactly our taste and now hang on our walls.

  9. “Stuff” offers an endless battle. I have a shed full of it. Some of it my book collection, some of it source material I’ve collected over the years and decades which, I know, can now be found on the internet. It’s on the list to deal with … And, in the end, it’s just ‘stuff’.

    1. Exactly.

      It felt weird and sad to throw out the notes for my book (esp. the first one) and my old clips. But they are, now, only the past and a small part of my professional history. It’s hard to let go of stuff and I find that reluctance interesting.

  10. I’ve moved house twice in the last 10 months and this has made me realise that I have boxes and boxes of things that I don’t need and/or want. My plan over the next few weeks is to be absolutely ruthless – If i haven’t looked at it for the last year then it is going…

    1. I admire you!

      I’ve stayed in this place 25 years (it is hard to believe that as I type those words) and I loathe moving. But staying put allows you to accumulate stuff for years until you don’t even notice it…moving (as you know), forces you to confront every bloody thing!

  11. Removing stuff from your life is one of the most liberating things to do. But it is damn hard! Nostalgia for a time past, sentimentality for relationships lost (especially with parents, grandparents, family that has passed on). I love the rewards, though, of a decluttered space – next challenge is the digital realm…

    1. You know it! It’s that tug between — space! freedom! — and the loss of all those attachments, which the stuff really only memorializes and concretizes. My grandmother left such debt that my mother had to sell almost all of her stuff and she had very, very good things. Oh, well!

      Living, as we do, in a small-ish space, really forces that issue. I dream of a larger place but when I have had one (larger apartments, at least) they tend to fill up with…stuff! 🙂

      This week I purged 200+ emails and recently cut 60+ “friends” from Facebook. One more place to keep clean.

  12. i suppose the positive to take from this whole exercise is that you found some treasures, while eliminating some of the things you no longer need in your life. very zen, caitlin.

    1. I think everyone who does this purging thing will as well!

      Too many people I know are living with PILES of stuff in their life — and having seen a few friends my age widowed, I think leaving it all unattended is not helpful to anyone who has to clean up and sort through it all. I had to race through all my mother’s things in a few days, literally, when she had to go from the hospital right into a nursing home — i.e. she could not even be there to help me sort through it or make decisions about it. There are still boxes we are paying to store in her city and I still have to go deal with them.

      1. yes, i think the ‘stuff’ around you is a bit of a reflection of what’s going on within you – and i did have to do this same thing for my mother, really quickly when she had to move into an assisted living facility within just a couple of days. she kept absolutely everything, it was a mind numbing and horrendous emotional experience.

      2. My mother’s room was very small. There was no question about what she could keep in it — a tiny, tiny fraction of her belongings. I would have found that horrible but she seemed a good sport about it.

  13. Since my divorce I have incrementally downsized from a three bedroom house with a full (in every sense of the word) basement to a compact two-bedroom condo. It helped that my ex and then my eldest daughter took their share of the “stuff” with them. Even so, my younger daughter and I have had to get pretty ruthless. I now find that having two much stuff makes me feel weighted down, and even when I think I’ve pared things down as far as possible I am always coming across things that make me say, “do I REALLY need THAT?” Even so, there are things that I don’t yet know how to part with. What DO you do with the wedding albums after the marriage ends?

    1. Thanks for sharing…I knew this one would hit a chord with many people! 🙂

      I think keeping the wedding pix from a failed marriage is perfectly fair. It’s your life and, esp. if you had children with that person, they may wish to have access to the images, even if they don’t mean that much to you anymore.

      “Need” is a good definition. We need a tiny, tiny fraction of the stuff we accumulate.

  14. My ex, while not a full-blown hoarder, certainly has tendencies in that directions (“I’m keeping this because it might be useful someday…”) When I sold the house, which was after he had taken everything he was going to take, I filled an entire “1-800-Got-Junk” truck with the crap we were keeping because it “might be useful someday.” I think living with his clutter all those years has caused me to develop a deep aversion to unnecessary stuff.

    1. But I get it. I had a few very lean years when I was single before Jose and I met and moved in together. I was too scared to get rid of some things because I really did not know when or if I would be able to replace them. So sometimes that drives hoarders as well.

  15. A few months ago I helped a friend clean out his father-in-law’s farmhouse. The father-in-law had moved in when his parents passed away. He didn’t get rid of anything, just moved it out of the way or into the attic or a nearby shed. A hundred years of collected and forgotten things. It was nostalgic and sad. No one there to tell what was what might be sentimental and what might be junk.

    It was a clear motivator to de-clutter my own place.

    1. Joe, thanks for sharing this — my point, exactly! It is a sad and basic fact that we will all die and some of us will do so leaving a shit-ton of stuff for others to make sense of. I have seen the toll it takes on those left behind — lost income, lost vacation time, airfare costs, etc. when people are forced into that role. Not nice and not fun!

  16. I do this regularly. I move from room to room, usually in very short increments (so it takes awhile to get to the whole house). But keeping this a process helps to keep things from getting too ugly. Except my lovely children tend to accumulate as often as I throw out. Aargh. And the getting rid of articles? Ouch. I have my own stockpile and need to just bite the bullet and do it. Something very freeing about it all, right? If there were a fire, most of the stuff we keep wouldn’t come with us out the door. And yet, we act as if we can’t live without it.

    1. True. I have thought about what I would grab…passport and green card…then…? My stuffed animals from childhood? Jewelry…a photo or two…?

      Maybe bribe a friend with pizza and beer to help you sort through it?

  17. My husband and I have been doing this for the past two years. A career move, and being new, empty nesters, encouraged us to downsize from our 5,350 sf home on 20 acres to a 2,600 urban, patio home. Fortunately, we did most of our purging in the year and a half it took us to sell our home. We chose to donate most of our furnishings, many of which were sentimental. My niece and nephew each took a flat bed trailer and truck’s worth for their new apartments, another trailer and truck load went to a single mom with a toddler, many more truck loads went to specific homes. Additional truck loads went to church garage sales or other charitable causes. Smaller, sentimental items are still in boxes in our new home as I go through them one at a time. Larger items not displayed, will be photographed then donated or disposed. Smaller paper items will hopefully be scanned, to save digitally. My goal is to not have anything sentimental, hidden away. This process may take me a couple of more years.

    1. I cannot even imagine a house that big, the first or the second. Our apt is 1,000 square feet. I would find that much room pleasant, but overwhelming…and where we live, affordable only for a millionaire.

      Scanning is an interesting way to “save” things and I suspect many people are now doing it.

  18. While cleaning the basement at my dad’s house my last trip home, I uncovered a napkin from my great-grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary party (kept), the stripes off my dad’s Air Force uniform from the 1960’s (kept) and a stack of greeting cards from my 1st communion (tossed…although I did keep the $5 that was still in one of them). It’s the not knowing what you’ll find that makes the search worthwhile. That, and the extra space once the garbage bags are tossed.

      1. Into my second month of chemo and doing well, thanks. I’ve been away from the blogworld for a bit so I’m getting caught up on posts. You’ve been a busy girl!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s