There’s a pile of art on a chair in my dining room. It consists of the work of two artists, and is a selection of their best work, culled from a pile once stacked on a corner table. And I’m not sure what to do with it.
When my kids started going to school, like many other proud moms, I displayed their art on the refrigerator. When it was full, I started replacing the old stuff with the new stuff. Until the day my poor son spotted a masterpiece of his in the recycling bin. Apparently it was an emotional stab in his sternum. I pulled it out, photographed it, and put it back in the trash. That’s when I started taking pictures of all their art, and added another item on my never-ending-to-do list: make scrapbooks of their projects. They never ask to look at the pictures, but if they see I’ve thrown something away, they do ask if I have it on a disk somewhere. And that’s what the pile is on the table: their “better” pieces I’ve yet to photograph. Only these particular ones, both my son and daughter feel they should keep because they are more “special” then the rest. But keep where? And for how long? Are they going to take them to their college dorms? Will they frame them and decorate their first apartment with them?
It’s a dilemma I’ve been dealing with since I had my children. But it’s one shared by most adults, even those without kids. What do you do with all the sentimental crap that means something to someone at some point but doesn’t anymore?
I once worked with a woman who was relieved the day her mother, in pre-diagnosis days of senior dementia, threw away all the track and field trophies in her china hutch. My co-worker was actually grateful because she was saved from having to “inherit the shit” but her sister was grief-stricken and literally attempted to gain access to the landfill to try and retrieve her old awards. And an old neighbor, who, thanks to her husband’s job, had made cross-country moves five times toting along her mother’s fox-trimmed silk bathrobe, matching mules and other favorites in boxes she hadn’t opened for close to twenty years because she didn’t know what else to do with it all.
And now my husband’s grandfather is moving from his apartment, where he’s lived for over thirty years, into a senior center. He doesn’t have much to pack, but what he does have is creating such grief for him that he’s stressed and distressed. He recently handed me a box with anniversary cards sent to him and his wife for their silver anniversary–over forty years ago. He was visibly shaken by not knowing what to do with them. He didn’t feel as if he had room for them in his new place, so could I take them? Of course I could. I told him I’d put them someplace safe. And I did–“safe” has a relative definition, doesn’t it? I put them in a dumpster. Later I mentioned it to a friend because, though I had no idea what else to do with the box, I was feeling guilty. I was hoping my friend would tell me I did the right thing. She didn’t.
In fact, she was appalled by my callousness. And yet, she couldn’t give me an alternative. I asked her what I was supposed to do. Should I stack his cards in a closet on top of a box of mine so that in forty years my grandchildren would be faced with the situation? Is anyone’s life diminished by me throwing away the cards? I did eventually get her to agree with me that it didn’t make sense for me to keep them, but she still felt it was wrong of me to just throw it all away as if it meant nothing.
What other choice do we have, though? We see the shows on TV about people who put too much sentiment and meaning into their possessions to the point where they can’t get rid of anything. We call them hoarders. We are nauseated by their messes. We don’t understand how they can live like that. We feel great pity for them because their “stuff” replaced the people or love that are now missing from their lives. It seems so harmless to keep the hand-made mother’s day cards, but if you throw them in a box and only look at them when you find them in a hunt for something else, do you really need to keep them? It doesn’t seem so. But there’s such guilt involved in throwing them out.
Really, if it’s the thought that counts, why do the things haunt us so?