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April 10, 2013


My mother was a saver. She saved not just money—being a Depression child, she was, of course, super thrifty. She also saved newspaper clippings, photos, holiday cards, birthday cards, postcards, letters, event programs, funeral cards—anything that could be considered a part of the “record” of our family.

To use a term employed by the writer Gay Talese, my mother was a “documentarian.”  She saved items that documented the passage of our family members through their lives.

Since my mother died a year and a half ago, I have encountered box after box after box labeled, in her handwriting, “Items to Save.”

I spent two days last week going through two large plastic tubs of memorabilia, trying to winnow and distill the contents.

I see no need, for example, to keep every valentine and birthday card given to me by my elementary school classmates, though my mother did. A representative few to recall the essence of that long-ago time is sufficient for me.

I began this process three years ago when my father died, but it’s my mother’s collector instinct that has me nearly buried in stuff.

Even before I attacked the two plastic tubs, I already had sifted through three bureau drawers full of photos, slides, plaques, scrapbooks, books, and even rings of keys to who knows what doors and locks.

The closet in my guest bedroom holds some of my father’s World War II mementos, even the leather flying cap and oxygen mask he wore as a radar operator on B-24 bombers flying out of the Aleutian Islands.

In my storage closet are two footlockers, one containing boxes of slides of family vacations and other events and the other filled with framed photo portraits, newspaper front pages attesting to world and national events, cartons of (possibly) collectible coins and paper money, and stamps galore (my father worked for the Post Office). Other items are in drawers and chests, or on the walls and in cabinets, in my townhouse.

It seems there was nothing my mother was willing to part with. I can hear her now: “Well, Don can decide whether to keep this.”

Last week one of the first things I came upon was a crushed blue-and-silver paper hat from my first birthday party. How could I throw that away?

There was an envelope with a dime inside. On the outside it said, “First money earned by Donnie, May 1952, for working for Tom Johnston unloading flowers.” Tom, a florist, had a greenhouse across the alley from our backyard.

I found letters my mother’s father wrote home from France in World War I, plus his pass to go on leave to Paris. There were cheer-up letters he wrote to my mom when she was in college and feeling homesick. In one he signed off with “Best wishes, Donald Duck.” He loved joking around. When he was in his nineties, people would ask how he was doing. He’d say, “Not bad for an old duck—quack! quack!”

There were newspaper clippings, turned brown and brittle, recounting how one of my great-grandmothers was killed early one morning when a train hit her vegetable truck at an unguarded crossing and how a great uncle was found dead under mysterious circumstances in a car parked in the Bronx.

There were letters from my dad from the Aleutians to his parents. He recounted his furlough in Juneau: “I had loads of ice cream and plenty of milk to drink.” I can attest that his habits didn’t change much in the years that followed.

I found photos and postcards related to my dad’s parents’ many visits to Long Lake, New York, in the Adirondacks, one of their favorite spots. I think it appealed because it was near Wanakena, New York, where my grandfather had spent time as a child. His parents had been cooks in a logging camp near there.

My mother’s mother wrote a note to my mother and my aunt—she addressed them as “My Dear Girls”—when she knew death was near: “Please don’t grieve when I leave, for you have both given me so many pleasant hours and times, and I have had such an exceptionally long life [she was ninety-two]. I love you all so much and thank you for all the nice things you have always done for me in your thoughtfulness through the years. All have made me very proud of you in many, many ways.”

It turned out that my parents had a code word they employed when giving cards to one another. To accentuate and personalize whatever sentiment was expressed in the card the sender would add, “Kee-rect!” There were countless cards back and forth with that affectionate tagline.

During my two-day journey to the past I discovered sentiments, complaints, and even a few hitherto undisclosed family secrets dating back through three generations.

At times I felt like an interloper, a trespasser in places where I did not belong. At other times I felt a warm glow of appreciation for the lives, and the struggles, that paved the way for my life. Especially as I read the letters and the old cards I could feel the presence of my parents and grandparents. It was also terribly sad to realize that all of these lives I was peeking into had already been lived to completion, had run their course.

At the end of my two-day journey I had filled only a third of a wastebasket with throwaways and, even so, I found myself pawing through the wastebasket several times to mollify suddenly arising second thoughts.

In the end, I found very little I felt I could dispose of. Only items pertaining to relatives so distant that I had no idea who they were was I able to let go of. Overstuffed closets will have to remain in that condition.

A couple of years ago I got rid of a huge collection of science fiction books I had amassed as an adolescent. I had boxes and tubs full of books, and I needed the space. So I sold the collection. And I have since regretted it and have missed just having those books, because, even though I rarely went back and reread any of them, they were part of my past that I could touch and handle.

That lingering regret for having gotten rid of those books kept tapping me on the shoulder as I went through the “Items to Save.” I decided I’d rather be crowded for space than get rid of something I would someday wish I still had. As one of my friends said to me about family letters, “Once those things are gone, they’re gone forever.” Why take the chance? After all, my kids can ultimately decide what to keep.

©2013 Editorial Enterprises, Inc., and Donald C. Sarvey

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