When I was 21 years old and moving into my first apartment, my mother and I visited her mother in Winnsboro, S.C. Nana had an idea: perhaps we could go through the wedding presents in her attic, the ones my parents had failed to take possession of following their wedding, a mere 24 years earlier. Yes, my parents had left wedding presents in Nana’s attic for a quarter of a century. The thank you notes were written and mailed long ago, and the gifts had languished for so long, they were back in style. I scored some great cocktail trays and barware for my new place.
Why did those gifts languish? My parents couldn’t take them immediately because they moved overseas soon after their wedding for my father’s stint in the United States Army. By the time they moved back to South Carolina, I was a toddler and, as any parents can tell you, no one gets anything done with a toddler. The years went by, more children came along, and the gifts stayed in the attic. They came from close friends and family members, thoughtful tokens to celebrate my parents’ marriage, which was still going strong, in spite of all the children. So they couldn’t possibly jinx it by getting rid of any of those gifts, right?
By the time I got that decoupage butterfly cocktail tray, the matching coasters and a crystal cigarette box engraved with the South Carolina state seal, they were retro-fabulous, or so I told myself. On my limited budget, I was happy to embrace whatever I could get to decorate my first home. And the cloisonné ashtray, marvelously vintage, was a piece of history. After all, no one gives ashtrays to newlyweds these days. There is something to be said for saving sentimental clutter, unless you don’t have a whole attic for it.
Most of us have to cull our clutter, deciding what to keep and what to give away, what to display and what to throw in the garbage. Yes, it’s okay to not keep every single piece of “art” your children brings home. I gave up after two prolific years of pre-school. Downsizing sentimental clutter doesn’t mean letting go of memories. Digital photography has made it easier than ever to keep scads of photos. The scrapbooking industry is thriving, for those who are motivated. And some do still have access to their parents’ attics, which can be a great storage option.
But things disappear in those cavernous spaces, eaten by moths, damaged by weather or simply forgotten. The other day, I was feeling sentimental, and pulled out a couple of boxes, both ivory with gold scroll lettering reading, “Bride’s Record.” Inside, neatly filed, were hundreds of index cards. In her elegant, precise cursive, my mother had recorded every gift, every party hosted, every card sent. Each thoughtful gesture was recorded, along with a notation when the thank you note had been written. That avocado green hand mixer I still use? I know who gave it to my parents. Even the butterfly tray and coasters were there. I should probably write a thank you note of my own, because they have received a lot of use –– the vodka tonics and potato chips of my 20s, served over a backdrop of butterflies, were more chic and certainly tasted better. Those cards were a window into my parents’ lives before I was born. Imagining them opening each gift, excited to begin their new lives, and feeling thankful for their friends and family, warmed my heart.
But you can’t save everything. It can be hard to let things go, even when you want to make space for new memories, or your children’s unused wedding presents. How do you know what your children will want when you’re no longer there to share your stories with them? You can’t possibly guess, so why not take those things out now and talk about them? If the kids object, tell them they’ll thank you later.
Should It Stay or Should It Go?
Five Questions to Ask
l How big is it? Do I have room for grandpa’s taxidermy bird dog? Maybe not, even if it was his favorite.
l Does it say something personal? A generic statue of the Eiffel Tower is less meaningful than the giraffe in a hula skirt that Aunt Bess just had to have. The one she made Uncle Spence run back to get, so they missed their flight. If the object has a story, consider keeping it, or writing the story down.
l Is there another way to store this? Have you heard about people printing family recipe cards on tea towels? Lovely and useful!
l Is it beautiful? Some sentimental objects really bring the room together, like that brown, orange, and harvest gold afghan my mother made when I was a baby.
l Will it hurt my heart not to have this? We can’t always explain why something means what it does. A beautiful painting might be easier to let go of than the aluminum reindeer pin from Woolworth that your mother wore every single Christmas.
Three Reasons It Has to Go
l It smells, has rotted or cannot be repaired. Looking at you, Mr. Dog (a stuffed animal from my childhood that had been stored unwashed, in a garbage bag in a hot attic for far too long).
l It can be used and enjoyed by someone right this minute. That butterfly tray of my mother’s was a hit at every party I hosted, and she probably wasn’t going to use it after 25 years of letting it hibernate in a box.
l You can’t remember exactly who owned it, or why, and the idea of letting it go is easy.