I have no scrapbooks, no shoe boxes crammed with keepsakes. No stash of yearbooks, diplomas, theater programs or halves of torn concert tickets, the first dollar I earned or the stub of my first paycheck. I never saved souvenirs or tokens—seashells, pine cones, hotel ashtrays, Cracker Jack prizes, dried and faded corsages. I don’t save birthday, anniversary, valentine or mother’s day cards. I didn’t keep vestiges of my daughter’s infancy and childhood—I don’t have her baby teeth or a blond curl tied with a ribbon, her first shoes, report cards or schoolwork, drawings or scribblings.
I don’t save clothes—no prom or wedding dresses fuzzy with mildew or perforated by moth holes in the back of my closet. I didn’t keep the matching lime green checkered sundresses I made for my daughter and me when she was little, though I recall them in detail, the ruffle at the shoulder, the sash that tied in back. I didn’t save her favorite dress with the wide flared skirt, soft pastels of yellow, blue and pink, but I have a vivid image of her at age four, outside our apartment, under a tree, arms spread wide as she twirled round and round, keeping the skirt in play like a hula hoop. I had a favorite pair of jeans, soft and worn, patched, pencil thin. A few years after I’d stopped wearing them—a few pounds heavier but still quite slim—I tried them on and couldn’t even get them over my legs. Out they went.
I have no extant diaries or journals. I kept them on and off throughout my youth, less frequently as an adult. First the padded and patterned books with little locks and teensy keys and a blessedly small space for each day, graduating to notebooks that ranged from steno pads to Moleskines and museum store books with art works or quotes in the corner of each page. As each book filled or I abandoned it, I would squirrel it away, safe from prying eyes. A year or two or ten later I would exhume and reread it. Was that me, that girl/woman who wrote such drivel? He smiled at me, he ignored me, he called, he didn’t call. My mom is mean, my friends are selfish, no one understands me. Did I really waste precious weeks and words on trivial crushes, silly slights? When I encountered evidence of intelligent life and thoughtful introspection, I’d muse on it momentarily, nod or shake my head, chuckle or roll my eyes, and move on. I hand-shredded each book down to the cover, ripped out pages and tore them into narrow strips from top to bottom and side to side, buried them deep in the trash can. In my teens I burned a few books in the bathtub, page by page, to eradicate all remnants of revelations that might prove to be an embarrassment. I suppose the journals served some cathartic purpose in their time, but I don’t need concrete evidence of the person I was at age ten, sixteen, forty-two.
I don’t save letters, whether from friends or family, past loves or present. My husband and I lived in different cities for the first four years of our relationship. Above and beyond regular visits and frequent, lengthy phone conversations, we helped support the U.S. Postal Service with a continuous barrage of postcards and letters. The cards were brief bursts of brilliance—we put considerable time and thought into amusing and impressing each other—while the letters were outpourings of purple prose and unexpurgated yearnings. He’s a saver and most likely still has mine (I’ve never asked), but some years after we’d merged and married I extracted the banded bundle of his letters and cards from the back of a desk drawer. I reread a cross section, smiled at some, winced at others. They met the same fate as the journals.
A friend with whom I’d once been close moved away thirty years ago. For several years we wrote to each other regularly, confided our innermost thoughts and feelings. We’re still in touch, but now we’re down to annual birthday letters. Last year she wrote that she’d saved my early letters and had been rereading them. She expressed delight at my outpourings of prose—candid, comical, cynical— narratives of my highs and lows that unfolded over the years like a long-running soap opera. She always knew I would become a writer, she says, and now she’ll keep my old letters for when I’m famous. I was horrified. I type and delete that word a few times, thinking it too strong. I substitute milder synonyms, but no, I wasn’t dismayed, disconcerted or perturbed. I was aghast. Horrified. I didn’t want an intact record of my past in someone else’s hands, but rather than admit it I resorted to subterfuge. In my next letter I told her I was planning to write an essay that would reconstruct my thirties self from letters. I asked if she would send me the ones she’d kept. I did think, fleetingly, that there might be something to it—at least that’s what I told myself. She mailed me a packet of letters, and I read just a few of them before rendering them into ribbons.
I’m sorry, Nancy. I lied.
I don’t have my family history in photographs. I keep a couple of albums and a shoe box full of loose photos, but even these I weed through periodically, discard dozens at a time. I’ve given my daughter most of her baby and childhood pictures. People from my past can stay there, especially former beaux. I’ll remember what I value—and a horror story or two—without a visual record. I don’t need hundreds of views of the English countryside, quaint villages, and rustic pubs—I keep a scant sampling from my frequent visits. My brother passed on some old family photos after my father’s death. We weren’t a picture-taking family, so there wasn’t much to start with. I have a few of my baby pictures and rare remainders of childhood, but my teen years are a blank with the exception of two high school graduation pictures.
People save stuff—it’s the accepted norm—but how much is acceptable? Where are the invisible and arbitrary lines beyond which lie the deviants? We non-savers are suspect, hiding skeletons—sordid secrets or criminal pasts—or just heartless in our lack of sentimentality. On the other side, hoarders are considered pathological. Books are written and movies made about them. In Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Sylvie saved tin cans and newspapers, stacked them up in her repurposed parlor. She believed accumulation to be “the essence of housekeeping”—hoarding was proof of her thriftiness.
Hoarding is listed in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as an offshoot of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. A website of “10 Horrifying Stories of Hoarders Who Died in Their Stuff” includes the Collyer brothers, whose bodies were found in the midst of their 130 tons of matter. Specialists of various cloths have hung out their shingles offering remedies, from medication to behavioral therapy to decluttering services. As I planned my retirement ten years ago, I considered becoming a professional organizer. I could capitalize on my “when in doubt throw it out” philosophy to rescue rampant accumulators from their fate. Minimalism was a burgeoning field then; now it’s all the rage, thanks to the teaching and preaching of Marie Kondo, who makes me look like a pack rat.
My mother didn’t save things. She didn’t keep my childhood ephemerae, didn’t tuck things away for future reminiscence or to pass along to me. I would ask, from time to time, “Do you still have my ___ (fill in the blank—my ballet shoes, the poems I wrote in junior high, my rock collection),” and my mother would brush off my query.
“And haul it from house to house? Where would I have room for stuff like that?” “I wouldn’t have imagined that you’d ever want it.”
She had no keepsakes of her own, no photos from her childhood or before she married my father. Maybe they never existed, maybe her practice stemmed from her mother’s immigrant experience, leaving everything behind to come to the U.S. as a young woman.
Our family migrated cross country when I was six, then the length of California two years later. In the southern beach town we subsequently called home, we moved from one side of town to the other, from rental to rental, eight times in ten years. Last year’s memorabilia became this move’s dispensable clutter. After my brother and I left home, my parents moved to a small mobile home and shed any remaining residue of our childhoods in a final cut.
Is my behavior hereditary or dictated by circumstances? Frequent moves emerge as a theme, a rationale—for my grandmother, my mother, myself. I’ve spent all of my adult life in San Diego, but I relocated often within the city: from apartment to apartment to house and back, from roommate to roommate to solo to husband and child, and back again. My last apartment was less than 400 square feet, and my current home these past twenty-plus years just twice that. Belongings have had to be scrutinized and prioritized each time, anything superfluous relegated to recycling bags or trash cans. Most of it was superfluous.
There are exceptions. My mother gave me some odds and ends for my first apartment when I was eighteen. Most are gone and forgotten, but I still use her cast iron pot, a wooden spoon and spatula. I have a tiny bracelet of pale pink beads spelling out my name that was put on my wrist at birth for identification. A beaded necklace and a macramé keychain that my daughter made as a child, a refrigerator magnet—a flower pot that says “Grandma”—from my grandson, a pencil drawing made by a house sitter of two beloved and long-departed cats in yin/yang position. I have a potato stamp—now shriveled—on my kitchen window sill, a heart inked in red, that my husband made for a long-ago valentine’s day.
My mother made exceptions too. I had a favorite doll, Baby Boo, from around age three. When I outgrew and abandoned it, my mother put it away and passed it on for a cousin who was born when I was ten. My aunt kept Baby Boo too and presented it to me in a new hand-made outfit when my daughter was born. Now my daughter has it in safekeeping for my great-granddaughter.
For a time I saved political buttons. I had hundreds, going back to the sixties, peace and justice themed, anti-war and feminism: “Bread not bombs,” “Jane Wyman was Right,” “Shirley Chisholm for President,” “ERA Yes,” “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” They lived in a basket on a bookshelf, where I could toss in new ones, show them off to friends. When I stopped collecting buttons, I exiled them to a shoebox in the closet until even that affronted my anti-materialist sense of order. I gave them to the Peace Center to sell at a fundraising event. I kept a button from a Greek restaurant near the university that was being evicted from its space thirty years ago. It’s message—“Skatah Happens”—needs no translation and is eternally relevant.
My mother died at sixty. My father and I went through her things together, and he urged me to take whatever I wanted of her clothes and shoes before he donated them. I took two hand-knit capes, nothing more. I’ve never worn them, but I can’t bring myself to consign her exquisite workmanship to the Goodwill bag. I kept her jewelry box, a white naugahyde case filled with cheap costume jewelry. I gave the necklaces, bracelets, and clip-on earrings to my daughter for dress-up play. They didn’t last long, but I’ve used the box these past forty years. I kept her wedding ring, but it was stolen when my house was burglarized. A lesson about the impermanence of material objects?
I kept a simple gold band, her only keepsake from her father, engraved with his initials. It survived the burglary—either I was wearing it at the time or the thieves missed it. Now it’s worn thin and smooth, the initials erased by time and wear.
My past selves don’t signify who I am now. I don’t seek to deny them or run from them, but I harbor little nostalgia for the “good old days” and their tangible reminders. I understand why people save diaries, letters, and photographs, why they treasure keepsakes and talismans, but for me it would be false sentimentality. The past is past. What was, was.
When I started writing I mined my past for material, choosing what and how much I would explore and divulge. Very little as it turned out; that wasn’t where I wanted to go.
Virginia Woolf begins her memoir with her earliest recollection—“red and purple flowers on a black ground—my mother’s dress.” She could still visualize them, recall them as anemones, fifty-some years later. Proust’s reminiscences of childhood were evoked by taste and smell—a cookie dipped into a cup of tea. He didn’t need a relic to jog his brain, a wind-up madeleine on the mantel.
My memories don’t require palpable placeholders, strings tied around my finger. They pop up with a spontaneous prompt—a familiar taste or smell, a date on the calendar, a remark overheard—or out of nowhere, unbidden while I’m walking or gardening. I follow their trails of breadcrumbs, signposts to an as yet unknown destination; one thing leading to another and another. Or not.
My recall isn’t what it once was, and some day it may no longer be accessible at all. I hope I can accept that internal divestiture, the culmination of a life of not saving stuff, with equanimity. Or with smug satisfaction that I’ve cleared both physical and psychic decks of clutter and cobwebs from ages ten, sixteen and forty-two to make room for here and now. At seventy-four I’m as uninterested in recovering my past as I am my old “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” button.