Purging a Lifetime of Memories

by Brian on November 16, 2007

in The Old Country

My parents announced recently that they would be moving out of our childhood home of over 40 years into a retirement community in a few months. That meant that the time had finally come for me to go through all the papers and junk that’s accumulated in the closet of my old room since I was a pre-teen. My parents made it clear that anything left on moving day would be summarily tossed.

I set aside a dedicated chunk of time at the end of our recent trip to the States to accomplish a difficult but necessary task: to wade through the some 30 boxes of papers and memorabilia I’d collected and save only the most important, sentimental or nostalgic documents while purging the rest.

For a pack rat like me, it was one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever had to do.

It wasn’t just that I had to part with papers and various doodads that I once spent time lovingly collating – from radio station decals to the posters that once covered my bedroom walls. It was that I had to do it so quickly. I would have preferred a more leisurely process, where I could review each page before saying a tearful goodbye. Instead, I leafed through wads at a time, assigning most of it for the trash with nary a significant glance.

In the end, I returned home with a lifetime of memories culled into a meager four boxes. By my calculations, that’s an 86 percent junk rate, and even that amount was probably too much given how much space (or lack thereof) we have in our current apartment.

Now you might say I’m making too big a deal over stuff I haven’t seen or used, in some cases, in over 40 years! Just toss it and move on. Doesn’t it say in the book of Ecclesiastes “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” But I don’t think I’m being obsessive. Let’s take a look at what I found and you be the judge.

Tell me, if you were in my place, would you have been able to trash my collection of vintage TV Guides, one for every “Fall Preview” issue throughout the entire 1970s, including issues where The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family weren’t yet in perpetual reruns? Yes, you say? I don’t believe it…

And what about the hundreds of record albums I’d collected – from Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen and Supertramp to Queen, Pink Floyd, The Tubes, and other progressive rock and punk icons of the mid to late 70s – that I no longer have the equipment to play? Wouldn’t you save at least some of them for posterity?

On the other hand, my collection also included literally thousands of newspaper clippings on subjects I apparently thought might be of interest to someone (a university historian? The Library of Congress?) in the years to come. But does anyone remember, let alone care today, about the 1980 John Anderson Presidential campaign? Whether 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace was an anti-Semite? How to achieve “the perfect prom?” Or where to rent a VCR in 1982? Except for a few memorable articles, they’re all in the recycling bin now.

What about the books on my shelves? My parents promised to take them to the library, but will that learned establishment really accept a 30-year-old copy of “The Sensuous Man?” Or the riotous “Jonathan Segal Chicken” (a parody on Richard Bach’s 1970 bestseller “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”)? How about “Mysteries of Reincarnation?” or “The Story of Mankind” by the now obscure Hendrik Van Loon? (The latter is now available in its entirety on the web). I tucked a few books into my luggage; the rest were left to the fates.

As I pillaged and purged, I documented some of what was being discarded. The list goes on for pages. I had saved rush week brochures from the various fraternities I once considered, every story or poem I ever wrote in my Creative Writing classes at Oberlin, phone books, calendars, reel to reel tapes from my days as a radio DJ (has anyone even seen a reel to reel player for the last 20 years?), boxes and boxes of high school and college essays, blue book exams and class notes, the original printed copy of master’s degree thesis, Zippy the Pinhead comic books, copies of Mad Magazine and National Lampoon, an old issue of Creem from 1975, the Collected Stories of William Faulkner, a complete videotape collection of David Lynch’s spooky cerebral TV masterpiece Twin Peaks, and much more.

There were maps of Europe and Japan from my trips there (all available now, updated, on the Internet of course), several April Fool’s editions of the local San Francisco Chronicle, an application for an Elks Club college scholarship, a brochure for a door-to-door Bible salesman program I apparently signed up for in 1979, a poster of Richard Nixon sitting on the toilet and another of a granny riding a surfboard reading “Hang Twelve You Mothers,” transcribed lyrics from Tom Lehrer and Monty Python songs (I saved the words to the Lumberjack Song for my 16-year-old Flying Circus-loving son), and of course my extensive collection of bus schedules and route maps (did I mention that I was a freak about public transportation systems growing up?)

But the hardest of all to part with were my letters. I’d saved every letter I ever received, from age 8 up until recently when easier-to-store emails have pretty much replaced paper missives. On the one hand, these letters represent an invaluable record of who my friends were at various stages in my life, not to mention what they thought of me, growing up and beyond. On the other, they filled up no less than three boxes by themselves. In the end, I chose to keep a sample or two from each writer. The rest sadly were sent to that place where old letters must eventually go.

My memories are now relegated to just that, with scant few physical mementos to document them. My parents can comfortably move without encumbrance. But I can’t help feel that something has been lost. That my children – if they ever wanted to – will not be able to learn quite as much about their father as they once could have. This article is all I have left, a public testimony to some 40 years of hording. Is it so wrong to grieve? The trade-off: 26 boxes are not littering our already crowded house.

Three days to purge the accumulated wisdom of several decades may not seem like much. But for me, it was a lifetime.

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