Monday, September 20, 2010

Deconstructing a Life

I am currently working on a program with my friend and colleague, professional organizer Sue West of Space4U. "Life in Context: Telling Your Story" helps one reflect on why what we save matters to us and to the people around us. The things we save give shape to our lives and reflect who we are - our interests, our values, our activities, our relationships - to our families, our communities, and to future generations. Your personal papers, memorabilia, and artifacts are part of a unique individual history. We plan for the workshop to help individuals think about their items in a broader context and help them relate and preserve your story. This past weekend, I had an experience that brought the point of our workshop into sharper focus for me.

On Saturday, I attended an estate sale with my young daughter. We arrived by mid-morning on the second day of the event. The sale had been advertised by a local high-end second hand store that I like to frequent. Cars lined the block with tape and cones helping to guide us to proper places to park. My daughter and I exited the car and held hands, walking with other curious people toward the event while weaving our way through others returning to their cars. The chandeliers, tools and glassware that were advertised on the first day were gone by the time we arrived. Some costume jewelry twinkled in glass cases in the sun. While my daughter quickly locked on to a knick-knack owl on a table in the garage, I located a box of documents in the corner of the basement. I poked through it to find religious certificates and memorabilia and while I usually take pleasure in poking through archives, I felt strangely uncomfortable with this box.

My daughter articulated what I was feeling as we climbed the basement steps. She said something to the effect of, "Mommy, what happened here?"

Trying to explain estate sales to a seven-year-old is no easy task. I told her that the people who lived in this house no longer wanted these things. I told her that perhaps they were moving to a smaller home or maybe there was just no one who needed these things anymore...

While I spend most of my time trying to put together the stories of communities and lives, I felt like the stories were being shattered in this home. What did the objects mean to the people who owned them? Were all of the items appropriate for this sales event? How would these people be remembered? How did these people or those who cared for them decide what to keep and what to give away?

I remember when my grandmother passed away when I was a teenager. My father flew down to her house and took care of her estate, quickly going through her artifacts, deciding what to keep and what to discard. For all I knew, he based decisions on personal sentiment at a very emotional time. That is not how any child should have to deal with family memories - the accumulations and documentation of a long life quickly considered rather than contentedly pondered and secured.

Few people think about what parts of their life should be recorded for posterity. Few consider their life in the context of their community or a larger culture that needs the stories of individuals to tell a fuller tale of humanity. "Other people's useless stuff" makes me wonder what "other people"? Who makes decisions about what is important to a life? While people may take old objects and treasure them anew, an object can embody many life stories. What are the best ways for us to share the history of an object with our loved ones? Perhaps we might even want to share some histories with communities or other people who value our material after we no longer want or need it?

This morning I received an e-mail from the second hand shop that calmed my mind a bit. The message asked if anyone had seen a box of home movies and children's dvds that had been put aside. They were not intended for the sale and were apparently taken by mistake. A small box of missing materials that was carefully culled for safekeeping allowed me to see that someone is trying to retain a story and missed a piece of it when it was gone. I'm confident that it will be returned so that family's memories will live on. I hope that the removal of clutter has allowed them to focus more clearly on what is important to them, treasuring the key elements of their life in context, and letting the rest go.


  1. It's very strange that i read your story today about the estate sale, because today I looked into my memento file and came across a letter my 28 year old son gave my husband and I one xmas as a gift, he actually wrapped it and put a bow on it before handing it to us. Well I was brought to tears today while re-reading this two page letter about how he wanted us to know how much he loved us and how much he wanted us to know incase we didn't know, that we were the geatest parents and how he tells people all the time how lucky he was to have such loving and caring parents that he knew were always there for him. Well I since took this letter out of my file cabinet and put it with my important papers in a fire proof box and labled it the best christmas gift I ever recieved. A true heartfelt keeper for me..

  2. What a lovely story! thank you so much for sharing it.

    (Just be sure to monitor that letter in the fire proof box. Check on it once in awhile to see if it is growing brittle or changing colors. Changes in temperature and humidity can cause deterioration of your valued papers, especially in a fireproof box that doesn't have great air circulation. Consider photocopying the letter and scanning it. Put the copies in other safe locations to ensure the survival of the information)