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How Best to Sort Out Lifetime of Possessions

January 15, 2009 By:
Mara Sokolsky, JE Feature
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The week between Christmas and New Year's Day found my husband and me nursing aching calves and sore backs. The effects of rambunctious sledding? Daredevil skiing in the mountains of New Hampshire? Not this time.

We spent that week de-cluttering my mother's Bronx apartment. She and my father moved there when I was 2. Our aching backs were the result of sorting through and weeding out 53 years worth of my parents' possessions.

My mother, on hand to supervise, is a vibrant, vital 80-year-old. She has no plans to move. She was just following the lead of several of her New York friends who had sprawling two-and three-bedroom apartments and decided to supplement their incomes by renting out one of those rooms. Our job over the holidays was to create a comfortable, rentable space.

Going through a lifetime of possessions is bound to bring on some level of emotional upheaval. How do we let go of what we've accumulated? What can we safely throw out?

We started with the books. In the "new tenant's" room was a floor-to-ceiling bookcase that housed much of my father's library. Although he's been gone almost 17 years, I could feel his spirit hovering as I plucked out one dusty tome after another. Spinoza, Kafka, James Joyce -- just a few prerequisites for your typical, keen, New York Jewish intellectual.

Those books helped nurture my father's talent for critical thinking. But the books themselves were relatively ordinary fare. There were no rare or special editions among them. I saved several that had meaningful inscriptions. The rest went, almost resignedly, into boxes that were stored in the hallway, waiting patiently until we could find someone to cart them away to a new home.

Next Up: Broken Items
Then we moved on to the broken items. Those could be thrown out without hesitation. Although even then, I was aware that, in another country or in another era, we would have fixed or salvaged most of them. But now, a lamp that didn't work, bent rulers, dried up pens, cracked picture frames -- all found their way into the dumpster.

My mother paced from one end of the apartment to the other. She looked at our piles and exclaimed: "You're uprooting my whole life and carting it out the door!"; then half an hour later, "It's so spacious. The walls are breathing again."

The room we were cleaning contained one large oak dresser. Stuffed into its drawers was a hodgepodge of notebooks, unlined journals and various forms of correspondence.

I sat on the floor (for longer than my middle-aged legs comfortably allowed) and sifted through the piles. The notebooks and journals were filled with my father's copious observations and insights. From between the notebooks, letters and cards my mother had received spilled out.

What do you do with all of this meaningful documentation? Books you can give away; broken pens you can chuck. But these papers formed part of the lifeblood of my parents' rich inner lives. Do you somehow invalidate important moments from the past by throwing all this material out?

In the end, with my mother's mixed blessing, we tossed the notebooks and journals. My mother then sorted through the letters and cards and kept about half. I'm guessing she will not look at them again after we stash them in another drawer but, psychically, she can be assured they're still there.

Now, we are making space for an unknown person to, at least temporarily, lay claim to this room. The previous memories will have to move over.

A little backache is a small price to pay for an improved living space. It's the heartache -- for the years and people gone by, for the objects that helped sustain us -- that will take longer to heal.

Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her at: sokolskaya@coz.net.

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