So many moves since leaving the Vermont house I loved in 1985, the only one I ever owned, even if it was a shared mortgaged with a former husband.
It took four years of absence and one massively disruptive, difficult week to sift, sort, sell, and store what had been accumulated in that space where I thought I would live until old age then I’d get to die there. I thought I’d always be a part of a community I loved despite the difficult snowy winters on the borderline.
The string of places and the stuff which moved in, then out, of my life is now lost to me. I knew the move to this house by the ocean was not my last but somehow I had faith that the move that would come after that would be my last and it would be a peaceful transition. How little we know of our own futures.
Going through stuff as an old person is quite a different process than the younger me experienced. You may be familiar with the declutter movement and its primary guru Marie Kondo. One of the tenants of the declutter movement has been the “rule” if you haven’t used something in the last year it is in line for shedding. I no longer believe that is applicable. Old age is altering my perspectives on this.
It’s true that much of what I once felt was required as necessities for daily living got pared down. It turns out that after retirement (or is this a pandemic thing?), work clothes give way to comfy, stretchy stuff. There are bins of work clothes in the storage space in the house which need to be passed on. But lots of what is in the (too many) boxes that came with me, which hasn’t been unpacked in four years, has precious connections to times, places, and people that are gone from my life. This time the memory attachments to that stuff feel like gossamer threads which bind me to things more precious than ever precisely because they—the places and the people—are gone. There are letters in handwriting I’d forgotten which remain as proof that connections were as real as their writers who have passed from this world. Other objects still in the boxes that came with that last move, the singing bowl from Jeannie, the boxes of slides which are all that remain of the life the film camera recorded, and the papers I wrote in grad school, one with an A+ at the top of the page. I found two degrees and a commendation in a folder in a plastic box. Do you put those particular pieces of paper through a shredder? The move from the Vermont farmhouse required a large outdoor bonfire but here there’s no place to do that. (And I still don’t recommend burning your grown child’s left-behind toys. That one left scar tissue.)
I am thinking of people in spaces now moved to minimal assisted-living accommodations and wondering where their memory stuff went. When those ties are broken, when you can’t open an old box and feel yourself travel through the objects to the memory of connections, then who are you? Does anyone think of that or is the practicality of warehousing old folk in more the most cost effective space possible all that matters?
I didn’t expect to be so attached to what I sorted and brought with me on the last move. Long ago I shed the idea of owning “nice things” because I moved a lot and stuff always gets broken in a move. I don’t own valuable, re-sellable objects, but as I sort through the boxes I didn’t expect that what feels broken this time is me. No one but me wants this stuff, cares about this stuff, not as valuable objects but oh-so-precious because of those gossamer threads that make meaning out of what once was, only to me and only for as long as I can follow those threads.