Clutter Brings Clarity
How sorting through boxes of memorabilia brings new insights
Since becoming a mom, now a grandma, I’ve covered my refrigerator doors with photos, children’s artwork, and loving messages, painstakingly printed or added to Hallmark cards. Magnets hold those images in place; they tell of travels – to places, “Route 66,” the Washington monument; and through the life of a family.
As I walk to the fridge this morning, there’s a photo of my silver-haired mom, teaching Jake, our youngest, to ride a bike. And current school photos of the great-grandchildren she didn’t live to see. One has her freckles and sunny disposition, another her dark, wavy hair and remarkable grit.
Over the years, new artwork, photos and handwritten notes have claimed that prime kitchen real estate (bumping current occupants into memory boxes, photo albums and frames lining every available window sill). But one quotation, clipped from a book review, has survived every iteration of that heartfully-curated display. A quote, not from scriptures or a great philosopher, but from H. Jackson Brown, Jr., bestselling author of Life’s Little Instruction Book: “Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring, and integrity they think of you.” Have I lived up to that challenge? Sometimes. Did I aspire to and do I still work toward that goal? Yes, consciously and conscientiously. The other day I took a deep dive into a dust-covered memory box. What would I find? Ah. Remnants of a time when my children’s ages ranged from 3 to 13 – the girls on the threshold of adolescence, the baby, smothered by me and his two junior moms, discovering how to play well with others in preschool, his first foray into society.
Before opening the box, I chided myself: “Why are you hanging on to all that stuff? Be ruthless.” I made a folder for each of my adult children for items that didn’t make my cut. “Let them have a look,” I thought. “They’re not sentimental like me.” Then I removed the lid, not for the first time, and dove in.
A treasure trove! What was I thinking? What decluttering goal could justify parting with these precious, memory-jogging missives that transport me back through time. Sure, I could part with a few primitive, “big sun, apple-studded tree, tiny stick figure family” paintings. But not these prize-winning poems my daughters wrote for the library’s summer contest; one witty, the other captivating:
The Funny Bunny
There once was a bunny named Sunny
Who decided to earn some money.
So he sold some jokes
To a lot of folks
Who all thought Sunny was funny.
Beautiful diamonds falling to the ground
Love falling down and touching someone’s heart
A time to be by yourself and enjoy the beauty
Your dreams and wishes coming true
Exploding happiness jumping into your heart
Little people cleaning up the world
Or this poster, a glimpse into the comedic writing future of my 8-year-old son:
Big bad wolf seen wolfing down two, and was
seen trying to blow down a third little pig’s house too,
Officials think he ran into one of the caves, but
people claim to have seen a wolf in the mountains.
That’s our farthest update on the news so far.
(could be reduced to $5,000)
A little more digging unearthed a birthday card I’d sent to Mom. (I’d found and kept this and other memorabilia when her belongings became mine.) I’d added this message: Thank you for giving me a happy start in life, and blessing me with the capacity to love.
This particular memory box could be labeled, “Mid-life.” Married, mother of three, ensconced in an upscale Houston enclave, during this period I’d tried to squash myself into the constricting roles of suburban wife and mother. I’d looked, talked and acted like one, diligently brought drinks and snacks at our turn in the T-ball or soccer rotation and joined the effort to press for a gifted program in our school. I poured my intellectual energy into the socially acceptable domain of volunteer work, at the local, regional, and national levels. The national organization needed a unifying mission-related community service project. “Adult literacy,” I suggested. “Great idea, the region board said. How about piloting it in the southwest, with Houston as the launch pad?”
Like the rest of my life, the shift from carpooling to commuting was not the result of a carefully considered plan, but a consequence of me doing my thing: pursuing an idea as a volunteer in a women’s organization, pushing the idea into the public eye, and then into the political arena. An autographed photo of Famous Amos, a literacy champion, brings back the TV interviews we did together; his celebrity helped us get on the air. As the effort gained momentum and support from Houston’s power brokers, I stopped promoting a new approach to adult literacy as a “professional volunteer,” and started collecting a paycheck to implement my vision. The city council passed an ordinance creating the a mayoral literacy commission and wrote my name in as executive director. Hmm. The question wasn’t would I accept, but how.
With some marital role-switching and help from my teenage daughters, I was back! It was heady stuff – friends would tease me: “Couldn’t sleep last night. Saw you on a 3 a.m. local talk show.” It was also an uphill battle, challenging the long-held turf of an entrenched old guard and their champions; managing and finding funding for a non-profit that went from 1.5 to 50 staff in 2 years, and from one literacy center combining computer-assisted, teacher-led and volunteer tutoring to several, each supported by a unique public-private partnership. When I wearied of pushing, constantly pushing against the establishment’s fierce grasp on the status quo – matching one low-literate adult with one volunteer tutor – I found comfort in this Talmudic teaching, tacked up not on the refrigerator door but in my personal space – my home office: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” That basic tenet of my faith gave me solace again and again over the course of my “bucking the system” career.
Delving deeper into the memory box takes me through a period that spanned several years. The children, my mother and I moved through life stages – childhood to adolescence for them, mid-life to menopause for me, and for Mom, through her vibrant, newly independent seventies to fragile, dependent old age. Memories of all that jumbled up in one box! I find myself struggling, as I do today, to get a handle on the chronology of it all. “If our youngest was in 7th grade, then the girls must have been in college, right? How old was I then?” “Was that before or after I went back to work?” “When did we make that trip to New Orleans?”
Remembering that period brings back the guilt that haunted me: Were the kids okay, with me both physically and mentally absent so much of the time? Was I over my head managing a dozen literacy centers? How could I expect my once super-achieving husband to stand in my shadow? And why couldn’t I make room in our home for my dementia-diminished mother, as generations have done for their elderly parents?
Continuing to delve into the box, I spot a fondly-remembered snapshot: 10-year-old Jake with a trout on the line, welcoming a trip to a stocked pond that was more his speed than his dad’s weekend pastime: deep-sea fishing in the broiling sun and roiling waters off the Texas Gulf Coast. That photo hits the replay button in my mind: “There I am again,” the tape plays, as long-subdued anger reappears, “making up for what his dad ought to be doing.” Like our mother-son trips to a dude ranch (Jake’s first horseback ride), our road trip to the Rockies (I drove, he read the map), and a plane trip to our nation’s capitol.” Where was his dad? At home watching TV or enjoying his backyard pool. He’d “been there, done that,” when our girls were young. He was done.
Digging deeper, there’s a snapshot of Mom in her assisted living home, a frail, now white-haired wisp of herself, holding a balloon bouquet at her birthday party. All smiles. Always the caregivers’ favorite for her amiable disposition, she was happy then. Osie, a nurse’s aide who formed a special bond with my mother, made sure that Mom, known since childhood as “Fritzie,” looked like a lady every day. I knew and Osie sensed that those social graces mattered to Mom. It pleased me to see Fritzie and her new best friend visit in the tastefully furnished living room, and dine together on delicious food at a linen-covered table – complete with fresh flowers. Was it a strain for me to add frequent visits and constant vigilance to my schedule so she could be happy and safe? Did I chafe at being caught in the cliché “sandwich generation?” Sure. But for my mother, I pulled out all the stops to beat the system that denigrates and isolates our elders. As her needs changed I visited and revisited every senior living residence in Houston to find the right fit. When she dipped below the standards required to stay in that assisted living facility (one night she mistook the walk-in closet for the bathroom), I teamed up with Osie, who stayed with us as Mom moved from one housing situation to another. After work each day, Osie spent an extra shift with Mom, so when I couldn’t visit, she’d be my eyes and ears. Were my children watching all this? They were. And they remember.
Near the bottom of the box I found this haiku written by my son, then a 6th grader, for a homework assignment. Now I see his words captured that time of life for me and my mother:
Radiant leaves burn
blazing fires touch my warm heart
slowly dying out
While our daughters passed through puberty to proms and college prep, and their brother moved from preschool to public school, from T-ball to softball, Alzheimer’s crept into and slowly stole my mother’s memory, but never pierced the barrier around our bond. Her face lit up each time I visited, past her 80th and then her 85th birthday – when she danced with a man at her small group home, a ranch house with a back yard and pets – and still lit up at the sight of me in her 86th and final year. Also unchanged: her love of people, and of music. “Why is she crying?” a nurse asked me as a choral group performed one day. “She’s overjoyed,” I replied. I guess they didn’t see much of that in their work.
When mom died, Osie and I embraced, whispering, “We did the best we could for her.” Near the bottom of the memory box I found a lovingly composed “Ode to Fritzie” that Osie presented to me at the memorial service. How could I ever throw that away? And among the construction paper drawings, painstakingly printed poems, photos rocketing me back to special places and times, I came across correspondence – Mom thanking us for her 75th birthday celebration (so touched by her gift, a personalized “Woman of Valor” plaque), letters the two of us exchanged (long distance cost a fortune) and postcards from her travels.
Dad’s fatal heart attack had ended my parents’ 40-year love story, sparked in their early teens. I married soon after that life-changing loss and moved home to Chicago from D.C., partly to support Mom, the “little lady” who’d never been on her own. Well…a year later, at 58, she sold her house in the suburbs, moved to the city, began dating and announced, “I’ve always wanted to see Japan. I’m going there in October.” That trip was her personal declaration of independence, and oh, how she loved every minute of it. The postcards bring it all back.
Today, so many years later, I’m as old as Mom was when, widowed again after a 15-year marriage, she gave up her condo in Sarasota to live near us. Now my daughters have children and their baby brother’s an eligible bachelor. Time for them to take ownership of the memories stored in boxes and albums. Let them make the hard choices about what to keep. I’ll save the letters, cards and photos conjuring up memories meaningful to me, and some the kids discard now but might value someday. This is not my first attempt to whittle down the contents of that box, and others like it. The progress is slow, but the process? Not a superficial sort, save and toss task, but a step toward understanding who I am and how I’ve lived my life.