The names are separated on opposite pages in an old Hallmark datebook, the kind that card stores used to give away. The girls are listed on the left — Joan, Joanne, Judy, Debbie, Betty, phone numbers beside each; the boys — Bobby, Paul, Eddy, Billy, another Bobby are on the right.
I wrote them this way. Girls on one side, boys on the other because this is the way we filed into class every day, up the ramps at St. Mark’s in Dorchester. And it’s the way our desks were arranged, the way the school playground was divided, the way we sat in church, the way we proceeded to Communion, the way we posed for our eighth-grade graduation picture, boys in one photo, girls in another.
“Don’t start with photographs — or letters and personal papers,” writes Margareta Magnusson in her small but groundbreaking book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.” But that’s where I started — in my office, with five Hallmark datebooks because I didn’t know where to start. And because I had no idea there was actually, in print, a how-to book about preparing for life’s biggest and final move until a friend told me.
Not to worry. It’s not my imminent demise that has motivated me to try to eliminate things I no longer need. It’s my inevitable demise. That we are all going to die sometime is the One True Thing. And when my sometime comes, I don’t want my kids to have to deal with my Tupperware containers, my mother’s spun glass collection, and my assortment of records, tapes, and CDs. I have lived in the same house for 44 years. I have 44 years of stuff, everywhere; Christmas decorations, mine and every dead relative’s, stored in my basement. This fact alone takes my breath away.
The decorations got me to thinking about purging because every time I do the laundry, I see stacks of boxes filled with things I no longer need. Mismatched Christmas dishes. A wax angel my husband brought home from Disneyland in 1968. Styrofoam ornaments my mother made and decorated with sequins when I was 8.
So what is a person supposed to do with the collections of a lifetime? Not just the holiday decorations, but all the things that tug at a heart: the Fisher Price xylophone my son dragged around all over the house when he was 2. The blue bird that hung in his crib. A pink bunting. Bibs I cross-stitched. My wedding veil. And what do you do with the things that used to tug at your heart? Tea cups my mother loved. My father’s crazy cowboy buckles. The wooden toys he made.
I retreated to my office and started purging there because I couldn’t deal with the big things and quickly found that everything is a big thing.
“It can be both a lot of fun and a bit sad to go through photographs and letters, but one thing is certain: if you start with them, you will definitely get stuck down memory lane and may never get around to cleaning anything else,” Magnusson wrote.
I got stuck down memory lane because those datebooks were little letters to myself. For five years I wrote what I had done in tiny print to fit into tiny squares. Not every day. Many squares are empty. But a lot of days. And those days hold treasures. “Babysat for Lorraine.” “Worked after school. Saw ‘Fanny.’ Loved it!” “Spent day with Janet.” “Drive-in with Bruce.”
The datebooks mean nothing to anyone but me. I should have tossed them. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t part with out-of-focus photos, either, or so many books: “Things As They Are,” the first hardcover I ever bought. I had to work three hours for it. “From the pen of the dreamer” by Lenny Silver, who moved from our neighborhood when I was a child because he had a disease that took away his ability to walk.
There’s the obvious physical thing: a ridiculous glass kitten with a fly on its tail. And then there’s the story attached to it. My mother loved it but she gave it to her sister. And when her sister died, her family gave it to me.
Girls on the left, boys on the right. Memories. The times of our lives. Our things hold these moments, which is why it is so damn hard to let them go.Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at email@example.com.