We are getting ready to sell our house, so I am back to cleaning out closets. And drawers. And filing cabinets. And shoe boxes. And pretty well any other storage vehicle or hidey hole you can imagine.
As I sort through papers and ‘stuff’, it occurs to me that history and any historical record must often be constructed based on accidental survivals, skeletal accounts, and assorted flotsam and jetsam.
I have made decisions all my life on what to keep, and what to deaccession. At each stage of life my decision making process has been different, based on my age, and maybe dictated by the time available, and the space I have to transport and save objects and data. And my life has been largely free of the effects of natural disasters, or war, or other conflagrations. So, what survives for the record, what is edited out, and how, and why?
When you moved away from your childhood home, you probably decided to leave all sorts of things behind, handily stored on your behalf in childhood’s closets and attics. When those things catch up with you again, like your doll collection
or the letters on brightly colored stationary (we all had it, back then) from your summer camp pen pals, you might not remember or understand your compulsion to preserve them.
When you moved from college to an apartment? Well, you probably didn’t have much beyond your clothes, and your music collection. Have you already gotten rid of your LP’s? (“What are LP’s?”, The Boy asks me.) How about those self-recorded cassette tapes, the ones labelled ‘Party Mix’, ‘Cruisin’ or ‘Smooth’? Perhaps you saved a few exam papers marked with a red magic marker A- or A+, invitations to college events you organized, and even more correspondence. Oh yes, it is true that in those days before email and texts and cell phones, we did write to each other, often several letters a week, when separated from school life, and roommates and pals. When you review the content of these bundled and perhaps slightly foxed letters, does it seem important to revisit their gripes about the long-past workplace, or the shared angst over ‘what we are going to be’? And if you are not already famous, to whom does any of this surviving record matter? Maybe there are one or two letters that capture a special exchange; perhaps you will put those to the side as you shred paper, or dump entire files in the recycling bin.
Books. I collect them without even trying. Love them, without even trying. So once or twice a year, even if I am not moving, I need to edit the shelves. And I do. But I always keep books I will read again, and my favorite favorites, and a couple of collector’s items, and a few of those art books that cost a small fortune, and weigh a ton. And reference books on antiques and historic interiors. Okay: I won’t live in any place that doesn’t have shelves.
For me the photographs pose an enormous challenge. I have been in love with photographs for decades. I still have pictures that I took with my twin lens reflex camera in elementary school. (Was that a Rolleiflex? You had to look down into the reverse focus finder from above.) I became even more enamored with photography once I was given a Nikkormat for my high school graduation, and learned to develop negatives and print photos in the darkroom. I possess cartons of photographs – ‘old school’ prints with negatives, and even contact sheets, in both black and white and color, of family and friends, endless pictures of my children, and views of memorable places I have traveled. Perhaps I believe, as some native peoples are said to do, that a photograph captures part of the sitter’s soul. I certainly seem to have a very hard time letting any picture go. They all record something or someone special.
My Husband is dutifully scanning many of the photographs that I actually placed in frames over the years – favorites that I apparently felt deserved enlargements. Taking photos out of frames is like a treasure hunt really. There are generally several older, and perhaps semi-forgotten, favorites hidden behind the one currently on display. Once scanned, we can share these pictures with children and family, or rotate them through a digital frame.
Of course, like the LP’s and cassette tapes and paper letters and printed photographs, most of these things have been replaced by new, more portable media. It seems everything has vanished into the computer or the iPod or your phone. But I am still a little stuck on ‘things’, on the picture in the frame, the book on the shelf, the letter sent or received through the actual mailbox. “They” haven’t managed it with clothes yet, or with food, virtual replacements, that is.
But real things take up real space. They are heavy and bulky and expensive to move. They require places to be put, new shelves and closets and drawers. So we whittle down to the rare, the best, the favorite, the most useful. Perhaps also the most sentimental.
And how does history change, as we edit? What would the future make of me and my family, if we kept everything? What story will the future be able to tell, based on one college research paper, a letter offering me a job in New York City, Mother’s Day cards in crayon, a penciled Thank You note from my Godson, seven years of tax returns, and a mountain of photographs?