Things were simple when DH and I began our life together. I moved from Birmingham to Huntsville to be with him when I was 20. Living in a 600-square-foot apartment, there wasn't space for stuff—it was pretty much only us and some basic furniture, plus a kick-ass stereo and tons of CDs. Within a few months, we moved into almost 1,100-square-feet and bought some bookshelves. We got a cat. Eventually we refused to live with less than two bathrooms and bought our first house, which was also the first house our boys called home.
When we moved to Atlanta in 2006, we had more space than we knew how to occupy, at least for a while. Two boys and a cat and even more stuff eventually filled our house. And then DH left, leaving behind most of the things he owned.
The beginning of summer triggered something in me that wanted to purge—to get rid of clutter and years' worth of crap that had outlived its usefulness to me. I started cleaning out the boys' rooms, removing everything they hadn't worn or played with or really touched in a couple of years. Some of it was just trash. Some of it was given to friends whose sons would use the toys or clothes that mine had discarded. And some of it—favorite shirts and Star Wars toys and Godzilla action figures—was packed away in storage boxes to be moved to the basement.
But with all of DH's boxes and accessories still cluttering the storage room, where the hell was I going to put the things I actually wanted to keep?
I had to make space. As I looked closer to see what could be removed safely (while still in entrenched in the neverending divorce), I was shocked to realize there were all of these empty boxes, stacked to the side and squirreled away amidst broken electronic devices and miles and miles of cabling.
For years we would argue about my being a cluttered girl. To everyone else, DH always seemed so simple and organized. The reality is that most of our limited closet space was taken up by his stuff; my younger son and I actually shared a closet for a couple of years because DH's clothes and things took up the entirety of the master closet. With his belongings out of sight, mine had nowhere else to be but out, which only reinforced the perception of my being a slob.
And sometimes I can be, at least historically. My desk is perpetually a mess, but I know where everything is. I am undoubtedly a stacker and tend to have small piles in strategic locations. But my desk is mine alone, and I have never liked to see everything I own spread before me all the time.
As I started to go through the basement, I realized he never threw away anything. (Okay, maybe that's hyperbole, but you know what I mean.) There were receipts for stamps from 2006. The files and desk accessories from every job he's had for the last twenty years are all in labeled boxes. Hell, half of his clothes are still downstairs, even though he apparently can't wear most of them now.
The empty boxes, though, were what got me. They were everywhere. Large boxes were filled with small boxes. Crumpled bags held the empty boxes from some camera or game or computer part from three years before, where he'd kept it just in case there was a problem with it while it was under warranty. But when the grace period expired, he never removed the box from the spot he'd originally dropped it. The box for that Cingular Wireless Nokia 6010? We still need that, right??
As I looked through the remainders to see what was there, I started to think about the people I know who hoard things. Almost everyone I know does it to some extent, whether or not they know it or even do it to the degree that it's disabling or destructive. DH definitely hoarded things he might need again, much like my father and grandfather. My mom hoards books and information and things that were once useful, long past their efficacy.
Me? I hoard memories.
The things I keep are all reminders of some special time and place, some moment that was important to me. There are boxes and boxes of photographs and special baby clothes and books that I read over and over to the boys when they were very young. There are a couple of boxes of concert t-shirts that no longer fit, or souvenirs from high school, though there is very little from my childhood (by design). Most of my music collection is a reflection of some specific point in time; my life undoubtedly has a lengthy soundtrack.
Showing Bounder some pictures a couple of weeks ago, I realized I was waxing ecstatic about the memories behind those photographs, how I'd taken shots of my second son in exactly the same positions I'd taken them with his older brother four years prior.
"I'm strangely sentimental," I commented, almost apologetically.
"There's nothing wrong with that," he replied. "I don't understand why people shy away from sentimentality. If more people were sentimental, the world would be a hell of a lot better place."
The things I keep are tangible embodiments of a small percentage of the things I remember. I retain a lot of detail about so many things, notoriously and almost pathologically. The boxes are filled with the proof of my life, of what I've seen and where I've been. More importantly, they are proof of what I've felt, of some experience that either provided me a new emotional experience or reinforced one that was already special.
But those hordes of memories are also peppered with landmines. There are the pictures of ex-boyfriends and dead family members. There are the videos that bring me as quickly back to a sad time as to a happy one. There are the songs that make me miss someone who faded from my life so long ago. Sometimes they are real and tangible things that need to be disposed. Sometimes they are only ghosts that can still stop me dead in my tracks and reduce me to tears.
Like everything else, they are reminders of whom and where and whence I came, of what brought me to the here and now. As painful as some of it can be, I don't want to forget any of it. I don't want to not be able to remember so many minute details of Stephanie that I can paint a mental image of her at any point in her time and be able to share that with anyone else who matters enough to share my story.
But sharing my story also means having someone else share theirs with me. And that's where the difficulties sometimes arise. The process of moving forward sometimes includes being rear-ended by the past, by what you couldn't see in your rearview. What you refused to look for over your shoulder. Maybe it's your past; maybe it's someone else's.
Sometimes it feels like competition, but you don't always know the specifics of what you're fighting, or sometimes even that you are. This is why I try so damn hard to be bigger, better, faster, more. If I can create something new, something unique, it is unforgettable in its own right. If I am at the core of those memories, I only have to compete against my own ghosts. When it comes down to it, there's only me to fuck with my own head, and I relish that hard-fought battle more than any other.
Much the same way I'm afraid I will be forgotten by those who loved me, I am afraid I will somehow forget my own history, my own stories, my own past, or maybe that I won't remember it in as much detail as I'm accustomed. I'm afraid that I will somehow forget myself; I've done it before and know exactly how difficult it is to remember.
For every souvenir of memory that I box away, there are a thousand more (not hyperbole) that I discard. Right now I'm especially fond of Instagram to be able to journal those unique moments of how I see my world, without having to keep every ticket stub or receipt or empty box.
But for me there is no better way to remember than to write. Sometimes what I write is a painfully detailed and exacting account of the chronology of a memory. Sometimes it is jaded and water-colored to be more palatable to my reader or to me. Sometimes it's a pretty lie with a minute kernel of truth hidden somewhere beneath the glitter. All of that together makes my story.
And you will never find my story buried in an empty box.