My husband, Chris and I decided recently that after 15 years in our home, it is time for some updating. Which means the past several weekends have been spent tackling rooms and spaces that have been accumulating stuff for too many years. As we’ve worked together on projects like this in the past, our differences were notable – Chris would lean towards throwing away anything he wasn’t currently using every day, I would be inclined to save things for the times we “might” need them again. Over the years, we’ve adopted a general rule of thumb: if I haven’t used it in the last x number of years, it’s not likely I’ll miss it…and the freedom and simplicity in having less stuff to manage is attractive.
All good reasoning until we get to items that have sentimental value attached. I have a collection of Precious Moments figures that currently fill the top of our piano.
The practical side of me can rationalize that they don’t fit my decorating style, and there won’t be space for them in the remodel, so I should just get rid of them. And then I start taking them down one by one, and the memories come. The births of our children, my first teaching job, cross-country moves, the first time Chris spoke the magical words, “I love you”, the bride and groom that sat on top of our wedding cake. While I know the significance of the memories does not lie in the object, it almost feels heartless to discard them.
And then came the pinnacle of sentiment: kids’ artwork. We had two full dressers and several boxes of pictures, hand-written stories, notes and school projects from each of our three children. I had been tucking them away for years, unwilling to part with this tangible record of their childhood. Knowing my struggle, I sorted everything by child and asked each of them to go through and pick the things they loved most and wanted to keep. I remembered a suggestion from a magazine to take digital pictures of the artwork and have them made into a photo book. Another one of those ideas I planned on doing “someday.” Well, someday has arrived.
As I watched each of our children go through their stacks, I noticed again how different they all are. Katie was the most prolific producer by far, and the one who most enjoyed looking at every piece, reading every note, and not just of her work but her brothers’ as well. I noticed how many of her pictures included members of our family – something she obviously values highly. Katie brings us together, reminds us of the importance of continuing our traditions, and is our family historian.
Matthew was just as sentimental as Katie going through pictures, finding it difficult to part with any. He noticed how many of his pictures were unfinished, a pattern that became familiar over the years as his painstaking attention to detail outweighed the time constraints set by his teachers. We have learned, along with him, the importance of paying attention to unique needs and what it means to tend to those needs with kindness. His favorite piece, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” fits him perfectly given his love for the beauty of the outdoors, particularly a night sky; last summer he spent most nights sleeping outside under the stars in his hammock.
And then there was Timothy, our very practical oldest son, who tends to be a bit more analytical than feeling – he is a math major after all! Yet there have been many times I’ve seen his tender heart as he looked out for the underdog or expressed the emotions of loss; his desire to teach high school in the inner-city and bring hope and change come from that same tender place. As I looked through several hand-written notes, I found a few treasures, including this letter to Santa.
The struggle to name desire and hold it made my heart ache as I read his letter – please try to fulfill my wish, but if you don’t it’s okay; I could use pencils and erasers, but what I really want is a puppy to comfort me. Oh and by the way, a toy puppy won’t bring much comfort. You’re probably wondering if he got the puppy, and he did…for a while.
In the end, going through papers and objects tied up with so much history and memory has brought much joy. My joy came in watching my children and their responses, in connecting their memories to the people they have become – it isn’t contained primarily in the objects themselves. My struggle to decide what to keep and what to release likely reflects the much greater reality at this stage of my life: my children are almost grown and will soon be gone, and I will be relying on memories more than their physical presence when I call them to mind. Just as I have begun to grieve their absence with our oldest two gone to college, so too there will be grieving for some of the things I know I will need to let go in this remodel – we can’t keep everything forever – and really, even if we could, I know it just brings more weight. So my challenge now is to find the appropriate weight: rooted in rich history and memory, but not burdened with so much excess that it keeps us from moving forward and living fully.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to embrace her depth and sensitivity. Inspired by Mary pondering things in her heart, Janet writes about her experiences here. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband of 25 years, as well as her 4 children and 2 grandchildren. She is a life-long lover of words and looks forward to reading and sharing at Red Tent Living.