I was a clever gatherer of things.
Mostly paper. In neat piles. Inside of drawers. Resting innocuously on shelves. Tucked into boxes that lurked in the shadowy recesses of my garage.
Except for occasional accusations of hoarding, I imagined only I could see them.
In those moments, I’d acquiesce, decommissioning just enough stuff to deal with the prevailing winds of spousal dissatisfaction.
After all, did I really need a college term paper on Igneous rock? That large red C-minus at the top couldn’t possibly make it a possession to be savored. Or Hubert Humphrey’s letter responding to my teenage despair upon his loss in the 1968 Presidential race? Or every birthday card ever sent to me since the age of 16?
I believed the items had value. At a moment’s notice, they could propel me on a journey back in time to less complicated days. Or to more complicated days, when a young love went wrong, leaving me to suffer through the exquisite pain of youthful indulgence.
My so-called hoarding wasn’t the type of nostalgia that comes dangerously close to living in the past. It was a naughty little habit involving a bit of harmless Throwback Thursday.
The Cure-All for All of Us Gatherers
But when my partner of 35 years died, bequeathing me with his own Smithsonian-like cache of memorabilia, the issue of hoarding took on a depth and proportion I’d never have imagined.
In the years before he passed, I attempted to provoke a massive, joint Spring clean-up. Downsizing as a team sport. An, I’ll do mine if you do yours! activity.
But he couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. Or was overwhelmed by the thought of tossing a piece of his past onto the garbage heap of history.
And so was I.
Lacking the requisite moral high ground to judge him too harshly for this particular idiosyncrasy, I’d back away.
Until his death made it incumbent upon me to sift through endless cartons of paper, uncoil dozens of drawings, page through high school yearbooks in a constant search for what might be noteworthy. Relevant. Must-haves to add to my own collection of memories. Wondering, sometimes aloud and with utter frustration, what he’d want me to keep. What he might want to live on after him. Something that shed light or learning on his life. Or mine. Or our life together.
I was judge and jury at a time when grief and healing should have been my only occupation. And that’s how the cure for gathering surfaced.
In the end, the best reason to travel through life with as few things as possible is that we aren’t traveling through that life alone. In good faith, I could not place the burden of litigating my own museum of stuff onto anyone else. Certainly not someone I loved.
That was my downsizing responsibility.
That Unquantifiable Thing that Keeps Us Stuck
It’s impossible to put a convincing finger on why it’s difficult to part with vestiges of our past.
Perhaps we need proof of our own experience. A tombstone reminder that something happened to us on planet Earth on such and such a date. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Without interpretation or misrepresentation by the faulty fingerprints of our recollection.
Or perhaps it’s just vanity, or laziness, or a codification only we can understand. Even if we can’t articulate why.
Latter-Day Definitions of Downsizing
My new spouse and I recently moved to a new house.
We did, admittedly, take a few things in violation of our Golden Rule of Packing: If unused for two years – donate it. Or trash it. No exceptions.
But aren’t there always exceptions? Some of them, treasured exceptions?
One simply cannot manage through a well-lived life with only one KitchenAid Artisan 5 qt. Stand Mixer in Blood Orange. Or find culinary expediency with just one 4 quart Instant Pot. Nor could one destroy hard drives from computers with 20th Century expiration dates.
Or, dare I ask this aloud?
Could one seriously consider tossing into the circular file a page hastily ripped from a grade school notebook? The page that contained Jayne Mansfield’s unintelligible autograph?
It’s one piece of paper. Beneath the radar of even the most cautious downsizing.
I think not.
This Article first appeared in Sixty and Me.