Why Do We Keep Things?

Why Do We Keep Things?

This is artist Arthur Lidov’s interpretation of the mighty mitochondrion. It’s a two page spread and I took a photo of the pages with my iPhone.

A jewelry box with a child’s name bracelet, a few baby teeth, drawings in a 3 by 6 inch notebook done in the 7th grade—why am I keeping these things? I asked myself that question many times when we recently downsized. But I kept everything except the baby teeth. And often I regret the haste in which I divested our bigger footprint of wedding gifts, linens, and furniture. Oh, I wish I had that or why did I give that away?

Amy Goldman Koss in her article When in doubt, throw it out? writes about recently cleaning out her parents home and being relieved that her parents followed that rule. But the question mark at the end of her piece underlines that even after she had disposed of her father’s tools and her parents coats, the image of those coats side by side in a closet somehow haunting her–there was a pang of loss.

We can’t keep everything or we will be hoarders!  But maybe there’s a fine line between those of us who keep every edition of the daily paper and those of us who keep old Valentines and college notebooks. (Guilty) Certainly there’s the element of I MIGHT NEED THAT AGAIN. After my teaching career ended, I saved every mimeograph sheet and lesson plan until a flood in our basement ruined them. That was all right, new tech had replaced mimeo anyway. But it also destroyed years of letters my husband and I wrote to one another and precious old books my mother had given me. But you know–you can’t take it with you.

Possibly we save things because something is going on in us on an unconscious level. That’s the only answer I have for saving much of the 1962 series on the human body that appeared in Life Magazine in 1962. I was a sophomore in high school, taking biology with an amazing teacher. She had us researching DNA, the spiral helix and Watson and Crick. We had to travel to the public library in downtown Chicago to do the research. All of it–the research, the intense writing to get an A–might have planted a seed in me that didn’t bloom until I went back to school in my forties to study anatomy and physiology, medicine–become a nurse. But I still have those pages.

Why Do We Keep Things?

I really didn’t know how important Watson and Crick were in 1962. Not many people did.

To expand on the above idea, we can collect things, hold on to things with various intents in mind.

  • Usefulness. When clothing is no longer ready for prime time, I keep some of it for my daily walks or for gardening. There isn’t a tool on this earth that my husband hasn’t examined and thought that it might be good to have. And for many years he was absolutely right–though often a particular tool was used maybe once, twice?? But it was handy.
  • Sentiment. Keeping things is similar to assembling a poem or creating a tableau. Every word in the poem and every item that is arranged on the table or every photo hung on the wall or placed in a photo album or stored on a computer carries some meaning. Note: those valentines? Cut them up and make a collage. You’ll have the memories, and also more storage space.
  • The great reveal. This concept is more a slippery slope. Amy Goldman Koss doesn’t mention finding anything shocking when she cleaned out her parents’ house. I found a few things of my mother’s very early life–dance cards and a photo of a gentleman I didn’t know. But that’s okay–it was her life and for some reason she wanted to keep  a talisman of those times. It certainly wasn’t the reveal in Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, when after her death, Francesca reveals her profound love affair in a diary that her adult children find. Great stuff for fiction, but maybe not for everyday life.

This topic of things in our lives is not new to Boomer Highway. I have written about gifts from my grandmother, pictures on the walls of my home that keep alive the precious stages of my life. And I wrote about the angst of downsizing.

And though objects remind us of past experience, it is knowing and holding close our personal history that keeps us grounded. That’s truly what we can pass on to our children and grandchildren. The words and actions of those we love provide us with our best memories–an amazing vacation, a mother to daughter growing-up chat, the day Dad gave the ultimate driving lesson or grandma welcomed her first great-grandchild. These are only a very few of the highlight moments in life. Photos, entries in a diary, or just the pure and simple memory in one’s mind–these are the most meaningful things to keep. After all, they are marks on the timeline of our very lives.

Why Do We Keep Things?

This is part of the LIFE MAGAZINE cover. Note the date and the price!

4 thoughts on “Why Do We Keep Things?

  1. My nine year old daughter saves everything. She is nine and already I have trouble convincing her to let go of the plastic toy she won in a claw machine that has broken in half. Toys that she no longer plays with collect dust on the shelves but if I try to get them away she has a meltdown. Notebooks filled with images she has drawn, images that she continues to draw and improve upon and still she wants the first drawings, yet never looks at them. Did I mention that she is nine?
    My mother has hoarding issues. Very definite, strong, and serious hoarding issues that as children we have had to tread very closely so as not to offend or upset her and possibly cause her another stroke or heart attack…
    Can hoarding be genetic?
    I’ve studied what causes people to become hoarders and most often it’s some kind of traumatic event, a loss, financial distress, bad health… my mother is very easy to figure out. As her kids we’ve discussed what has caused her to be this way, we understand the psychology of it even if we have to make sure she doesn’t become overwhelmed with ‘stuff’ and cause a danger to her or my sister that lives with her.
    My daughter though… why is she so determined to keep everything and at such a young age? Have I not given her a stable enough home? Does the fact that I am very sick and in fairly poor health give her reason to cling to these things? Do they comfort her when I am in too much pain to climb the stairs to her bedroom and tuck her in and so her father does it? Is she worried if she lets go of these things she’ll lose some sense of safety?
    It makes me feel sad that she cannot let go of items she no longer uses. And to just throw them out seems cruel to me… I do try if I am home alone, which is rare, to dispose of broken toys and those items in the far reaches of the closet. Those things that sit in the open shelves, that she will immediately notice if they are gone, I haven’t yet gotten rid of. Her father complains all the time about things falling down or her having too much stuff but my analytic mind thinks there must be some reason a nine year old girl feels the need to have all of these things… I just haven’t found it yet.
    Wonderful post as usual Beth, very thought provoking and insightful.

  2. Questions for you, Natalie? When you are able to rid her room of some of the broken things or papers from school she doesn’t need–does she realize it? Does she come and complain? Truly, all my children were hoarders, if you want to go that far. And I tried to be careful. My oldest was neat about it and I know she saved things because of the memory attached. And we can’t say what memory is more important than another. My middle child kept things together and I don’t remember having to sneak, but my son–yes, I sneaked. And sometimes I got in trouble. Part of it was he just didn’t want to sort through stuff. And when you become the sorter you might toss something that is meaningful–so you have to be careful. Talk to her about the junk and ask if she can let some of it go. I don’t think she’s a hoarder and that you are a bad parent. Maybe a new storage bin for some of her stuff might solve the problem. Take care, Beth

  3. Beth,
    She doesn’t notice if it’s something small, plastic junk type things, coloring books, old books she outgrew but almost everything else she notices if it’s missing. I made the mistake of getting rid of some stuffed animals and oh my gosh… it was a hysterical mess. She doesn’t like to sort through things but she will help me but usually ends up keeping more than she gets rid of.
    She’s been like this since she was old enough to talk and realize that these were here things. She’s the exact opposite of her father who throws out almost everything once it’s served it’s purpose for him and he doesn’t have to many sentimental things. He could literally pack everything he owns into a few boxes.
    Grace also loves to look through other people’s junk. Going to garage sales and flea markets are a dream day for her!

  4. Truly, she sounds like my oldest daughter. Carrie LOVED her life. She kept things to remind her of that life–at least that’s my take on it. I don’t think Grace is hoarding, but you might also teach her about recoiling and keeping the earth green–as well as her room. No one loves a messy person. Carrie would often let her room become a disaster and then go through a major cleaning experience and everything looked like a museum. Different people just do things differently. In my piece, do we ever leave the nest, I talked about straightening rugs at the age of 3. I was trying to keep my world in order as it had been ripped apart by my father’s untimely death. Take care, BEth

Comments are closed.