“I can’t get rid of it,” my friend said, holding her late husband’s dental school diploma, as she prepared for her tag sale. After selling the house – allowing enough time to make that major decision – she found herself at the crossroads of clutter and memento. What to keep? What to toss?
There are items so saturated with the deceased’s essence, it feels wickedly wrong to discard them. But how much can you hold onto? And for how long? Whatever your age or stage in life, space and organization are likely important aspects of your day-to-day living. After family and friends take their keepsakes and you donate appropriate items, then what? Should you live with stuff you don’t need or want? Be saddled with monthly storage fees?
My issue was worse than most. My late husband was initially a collector (appropriate saving) but became a hoarder (unhealthy saving). (Actually, his kindergarten paintings attest to hoarding from early on.) Throughout the years he accumulated a mix of treasures and trash, indistinguishable in the end. So I couldn’t hire junk removers to simply clear out the basement, Robert’s man cave. I had to carefully sort through dilapidated boxes, weeding out vintage World’s Fair brochures from decades old work files.
In the first couple of years after Robert’s death, I had done a good amount of clean up, but there was still a lot of work left to do. Then I met Billy, and he offered to help. Our relationship grew and we fell in love, becoming a couple devoted to spending the rest of our lives together. In these past four years, Billy has provided the expertise and muscle to tackle some ugly house issues, including man cave clean up.
Outdated audio equipment, broken tools, discarded pipes, pounds of old newspapers and unopened mail, junkyard heaps of appliance parts, antiquated plumbing and electrical parts, moldy cartons, broken luggage, dilapidated boxes filled with styrofoam forms. Amidst the mess of a hoarding alcoholic were the remnants of yesteryear: GI Joe action figures in their original boxes, Matchbox cars (including the Batmobile), JFK highball glasses. To help with widowhood finances, I decided to sell the collectibles.
But what about the items that aren’t ebay-worthy or donation-appropriate? The stack of baby Robert congratulations cards, saved in a 1950s box of ‘perfumed stationery.’ (I kept it.) Or his notepads with favorite quotes. (I kept them.) Or his New York University laminated wooden diploma? (I kept it…for a while.)
Recently, we needed a hard surface for a house project we were doing. Robert’s diploma was the perfect size and strength. The diploma wouldn’t be discarded, it would be destroyed. Despite the five years since Robert’s passing, it still felt disrespectful. Even cruel. But what am I going to do with it? There are no children who want it; his parents are deceased. What are my options? Save it until I die? Eventually, during months of use, the diploma became warped and cracked. When I threw it away, I made sure nothing was legible before hiding it deep in the trash.
It was a guilt fest. I imagined Robert angry and hurt. So I gave myself the surviving spouse litmus test: If I were the one who died, how would I feel about Robert using my Hofstra MFA diploma as a chopping board? Not great. It’s not an ideal solution, but in the end it’s just a piece of wood.
I’m not heartless. I’ve kept mementos of my late husband. Stashed away in containers in the now neatly organized basement are Robert’s passport, driver’s license, baby photos, an envelope with his baby hair, black and white marble composition notebooks filled with his little boy handwriting and lots of other stuff. I can’t keep everything. And I can’t feel guilty for deeming items unworthy of saving. I don’t know what I’ll eventually do with the containers – though I suspect the contents will find its way into a landfill, or whatever the means of garbage disposal at that time.
Not all mementos were banished to basement storage or sold. There are plenty of Robert’s collectibles displayed throughout the house. And for the past few years Billy has integrated Robert’s Lionel trains into his set under our Christmas tree (something my late husband always wanted to do, though never did, leaving his trains boxed away during our 23 years together). Billy also incorporates the trains of his late brother, Georgie, in our Christmas display. Bits and pieces of those who have passed remain in our lives. They just don’t overwhelm us.