The first one is filled with file folders, some notebooks, several old kitchen calendars, and a smaller box, labeled in my father’s hand: “Sentimental Journey.” None of this stuff is mine. Or at least it wasn’t mine originally. But I’ve carried it around with me, through 26 years and 5 moves, so it’s mine now. Along with the dozen other boxes of similar stuff.
My question is, Are the contents of this box (these boxes) a legacy or a burden? Are they my history and my heritage, or junk and emotional snares? If I comb through every piece in every box, will I be grateful when they offer me insight into my family’s story? Will the insight have been worth the effort? Or is all of it just an obligatory weight I’ve been hauling around, like an albatross?
Inside the “Sentimental Journey” box are a stack of black and white photos and a reel that holds a hundred 35mm slides. Each slide is numbered according to which slot it belongs to on the reel, but there is no identification on any of the slides. Nor is there any on the prints. Oh, Daddy, who are these people in the photos? Where are these woodlands and farms on the slides, these rivers and train tracks, these houses? Whose are these weather-worn headstones in the country graveyards? Should your sentimental journey matter to me?
And Mother, all these wall calendars are inscribed with your social engagements and medical appointments, along with reminders of birthdays and anniversaries. You kept them for decades past their particular years. Is it important to you now that I keep these details of your history? Are they my history too? If I throw them away, along with the class notes from your masters degree, and the children’s papers from the years of fourth-grade classes you taught – is that an insult to the meaning of your life?
The contents of these boxes are fragments of the good stories of the lives of good people. But how many photos of how many life stages of how many people is “enough”? Am I willing to spend the months and years of my own life that would be necessary to sort meticulously through the papers, piece them together, condense them into a narrative more manageable than the dozens of boxes of stuff? Or do I dare to throw it all away? Or shall I, once again, reseal the boxes, shove them back under my bed, and put off the decision for another year or two?
And what might I want from my own children and grandchildren? Will I care if they keep all my files of stuff, the details of the stories of my life? No, I think not.
I would hope that the next generations would know my name, keep one flattering photo, know that I was once here, and that I was somebody worth knowing. Even better, I’d love for them to ask me now, while I’m still here, for a few of the stories that have shaped me. Let me see my history, my legacy, reflected in their faces, illuminated by their interest.
Then after I die, I hope someone will pass along a copy of my published book to a generation or two. Maybe a few excerpts from some of my journals that I’ve illustrated with photos. Maybe a couple of my published poems. If that is done, then I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine with having the rest of my drawers of files (yes, it is junk) disposed of. I’ll be content for those details of my history to just fade away.
Here’s hoping my parents would, on reflection, feel the same way. Because the verdict is in on my original questions: These boxes may not be filled with junk, but they are definitely a burden. So this week I shall bless each box in its turn, then sort the contents quickly and simply with only the recycle center in mind.
Maybe next month I’ll start on the boxes of my own saved stuff.