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Tete-a-tete: Memento or clutter? Don’t leave that decision to the historians

Due to the massive amount of snow that has fallen and the accompanying freezing temperatures, the time I’ve spent outdoors this winter has been, shall we say, limited. Rather than catching up on movies or taking up a new hobby (like learning how to knit an enormous blanket), I’m investing this unprecedented amount of “indoor time” in a full-scale cleaning and reorganization of my living space.

Little did I realize I was embarking on a journey into some of life’s deepest questions. What things do I really need and use? What should I give away? What should I keep? And how do I make such momentous decisions? I don’t want future generations to curse me for deciding that my elementary school art projects qualify as family heirlooms.

Granted, not all decisions are equally momentous. Choosing to chuck the brood of pantyhose and knee-highs that has been nesting in my sock drawer undisturbed for the past five years was pretty much a no-brainer, as was recycling the user manuals for electronics I no longer own.

After all the no-brainer items were taken care of, I found myself dealing with increasingly rigorous levels of contemplation and soul-searching. First was the re-evaluation of my personal interests. It takes a lot to admit that there are certain books, movies, and CDs you’ve accumulated over the years that you’re just not going to read, watch, or listen to. Though it was somewhat distressing to acknowledge that I’ll likely never read Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” the fact that I can now fit my thesaurus on my bookshelf instead of stowing it under the bed is helping to ease the pain.

The next level of contemplation was the reconsideration of social protocol. If someone I once knew took the time to send me a thoughtful note ten years ago, does that mean I’m obligated to hold on to it forever? I have concluded that it’s just as emotionally fulfilling (and more space-savvy) to harbor gratitude and appreciation in my heart as to save the note in a box.

The final – and most difficult – level of contemplation was the consideration of posterity. What items that I’ve been entrusted with from the past are actually worth preserving? What items from my own past are worth preserving for future generations?

Thankfully, there are a few no-brainers in this category, such as the Slovak prayer book Grandma received for her First Communion. To the best of my knowledge, no one in my family speaks Slovak anymore, but the prayer book represents an important part of our heritage.

But what about the costume jewelry that once belonged to another female relative? It’s very dated (from the 1990s), and it’s the kind of jewelry that you would get at a “buy-two-get-one-free” sale at a department store. I know this for a fact, because many times I had the delightful childhood privilege of choosing the free item for myself.

Pending a hardcore ‘90s revival, this jewelry will likely never be worn again. I still have the memories associated with the jewelry and this relative, but what about future generations? Anything they know about her will be secondhand, acquired through the retellings of others. Might they want a possession of hers, tacky though it may be?

Among my own possessions, there are the miniature terra cotta warriors I picked up on my trip to China. They represent the culmination of my bargaining skills (I got the vendor down to U.S. $5) but that’s the extent of the memories associated with them. There are other souvenirs from that adventure that are more meaningful to me, but what will be the perspective of future generations?

This isn’t to say that I’m letting the potential opinions of a generation that hasn’t even been born yet dictate what I keep and what I give away. I’m keeping my terra cotta warriors simply because I like them. Plus, they add a bit of gravitas to the décor. This does, however, make me more careful in my decisions – especially in regards to things that I’ve inherited – and remind me that what I consider important might not be important to someone else and vice versa.

I don’t have infallible answers to the great cosmic questions of de-cluttering, but I have happened upon a few helpful guidelines. First, never underestimate the amount of space taken up by paper. You’ll never miss those outdated user manuals or faded receipts, and you’ll welcome the amount of space that will be freed up in your desk or closet.

Second, it’s amazing what we save simply because it never occurs to us that we no longer use it or we’d rather not admit that we’ll never get around to using it. Set your own personal versions of pantyhose and Dante’s “Divine Comedy” free and watch your spirits soar.

And lastly, give yourself some leeway when it comes to items you’ve inherited. Ask other family members if they want an item before you give it away, and if you’re not completely comfortable with letting something go, keep it. Set it aside for future generations – they might thank you for it.

Or, they might just complain about how much stuff they have to go through because their forbears saved everything. Really, it could go either way.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published March 5, 2015.

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