~ Family Resemblance ~

The Advantages of Being a Pack Rat

I never thought I’d change my opinion about the spilling piles of paper, magazines, and other random things my mom kept all around the house. They were annoying; they made the house look messy and if anyone tried to throw something out, my mom would get mad.

Mostly, I didn’t understand the appeal of holding on to ephemera. Ephemera is supposed to be transitory; it’s there and then it’s not. Old advertising, museum brochures, movie tickets, scribbled notes, fortune cookie messages. Ephemera: a polite word for junk.

But when your mom passes away, your perspective shifts. Your sense of normal—which included having your mom in your life until you were at least middle aged—is altered. You reevaluate your expectations and priorities.

Several months ago, my dad and I started going through my mom’s stuff, and I found myself confronting these piles again. This time though, the piles weren’t annoying. They were actually kind of comforting, reminding me of what life used to be like before.

Still, I didn’t expect to find what I found. Mixed in with the long-expired coupons, disintegrating cough drops, and balled up Kleenex, I found things I had never seen before.

I had no idea she kept the front page of the newspaper from the day I was born. Brochures on breastfeeding and eating for two. Graduate school papers, response cards from my parents’ wedding, one of her job’s information packets, home movies from her childhood. Poems, drawings, every letter she ever received from her childhood friends, from the age of 12 when she left Michigan, until the last year of her life. Drawings my brother and I made when we were little, some of our toddler clothes, report cards.


She had saved her memories. It wasn’t a memoir, like my grandfather wrote, but it was a peek into her world. Because she saved things she liked and wanted to remember, I’ve been able to get to know the younger version of my mom, seen her as a person first, and my mom second. I’ve come to understand her more, appreciate her more. Miss her more.

Apparently my mom had tear gas training. Not sure when that would come in handy.

Apparently my mom had tear gas training. Not sure when that would have come in handy.

Yet I’m still conflicted by these piles. She didn’t just save things she liked, she saved things she couldn’t bring herself to throw away. To get to the things that really meant something, I had to weed through the things that my mom forgot about. It’s a lot easier to miss the good stuff that way.

Delivery record from my birth. I was born about 20 minutes after she got to the hospital.

Delivery record from my birth. I was born 25 minutes after my mom got to the delivery room.

The piles also mean that I have to make the choices she never did. I get to decide what was important to her and what wasn’t. That’s a lot of responsibility to place on another person, especially when that person is still grieving.

Inevitably, this process has gotten me thinking about my own mementos. Because I don’t want the decisions I didn’t make to speak for me—I want to speak for me.

I’m not nearly as inclined to keep things as my mom was, but I still do have some of my old toys, essays, Kid City magazines, and random tchotchkes. And for now, I want to keep most of those things. They represent the person I used to be and trigger childhood memories.

I was in 2nd grade when I made these astute observations in my school journal.

I was in 2nd grade when I made these astute observations in my school journal.

I know I can pare my stuff down further though. I’m pretty sure no matter how many She-Ra books I have, I won’t forget how awesome she is. I doubt I’ll regret getting rid of the doll I never liked and the random ugly trinkets.

So I’ve been culling down my current collection of memorabilia, and taking a more critical look at the things I choose to keep. Now before I indiscriminately toss or keep something, I take a moment to ask myself what I want to remember. Will I want to look back at old cards? Which projects are worth taking up space? Should I get rid of the 1930s hat that I love but rarely wear? In other words, what is important to me?

I think of it as curating my life. As the expert on all things me, I’m the best person for the job.

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  • July 24, 2014 - 11:37 am | Permalink

    I loved the post and related to it. I have been a curator of all our family stuff my whole life but I am also TERRIFIED of clutter so I put it all in books. I have many books. My mother’s telegrams, her publicity stills, her love letters. my child’s things.

    I even have all the love letters ever exchanged with my future and current husband in a binder, by order of date! Took HOURS to do. (could never do it now, with a kid.) but I am SEVERELY sentimental and I would rather be so than remorselessly a thrower-outer. I have a friend who bottles up and suppresses her sentimentality to such a degree that she pretends virtually to be a sociopath, yet she works for the NAACP, getting people off of death row. people are strange in how they reach out to other people through time and space.

    But anyway, I digress. She throws it all out. Super minimalist. I briefly strove for minimalism, especially living in a small NYC apartment, but now I just do my best to keep it serenely tidy but filled secretly to the brim with all the ephemera of all the important people, all their notes and letters and postcards. I do triage, I have to, but I err on the side of history as much as I can!

  • July 24, 2014 - 11:41 am | Permalink

    Organizing your love letters, and just living in NYC with any ephemera, is seriously impressive! I’m glad I’m not the only one dedicated to keeping the important memories. :-)

  • July 27, 2014 - 10:38 am | Permalink

    Loved this post, Rachael! I hate clutter too, but I save a lot of cards from friends, and other momentous. I rarely look through them, but when I do come across a stack of papers from my past, I enjoy looking through them. I love your idea that you are your own curator. And that, while you can never be sure what was really important to someone else, you can sort your own things accordingly. I will be thinking about this as we prepare for a move, and I will be going through all of my stuff.

  • July 28, 2014 - 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Jenny! I’d love to hear how your own “curating” process went for your move.

  • August 1, 2014 - 8:18 am | Permalink

    Love this, Rachael. Brought back memories of going through my own parents’ house with my dad after my mom died. She was the storyteller, and she saved EVERYTHING but didn’t tell us why these things were important, or the stories behind them. I’ve come to the decision that being from a long line of packrats is almost all blessing, and have stopped apologizing for these same tendencies (but my husband might have something else to say on the subject…)

  • August 6, 2014 - 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m leaning toward it being a blessing too. Having her stuff definitely helps.

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