By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 17, 2015
I’m cleaning out closets in my never-ending quest to follow my tidying-up guru, Marie Kondo. This morning I went though boxes of old family papers that I inherited when my mother died years ago. I had stashed them away to avoid processing them. These include old family letters, orders my father got from the Air Force, ancient report cards, newspaper clippings, birth-marriage-death certificates, and other records with proofs of long forgotten facts.
I was going to throw the entire box away, or give it to my sister and let it be her problem. Then I started noticing enticing facts here and there, like addresses and dates I’d long forgotten. I grew up always on the move. I have no idea how many houses I lived in before I moved away from home, nor am I sure of all the schools I attended. I remember what states I lived in, but not always sure when. For example, I lived in South Carolina twice, but I can’t place the first in time at all. Some of my faulty memory clues tell me it was after I started school, but I have absolutely no memories of going to school in my very vivid earlier memories of South Carolina. Since we moved a round a lot, it could have only been for a summer, and I’ve even wondered if my parents kept me and my sister out of school. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember it being cold. I figured it was sometime between age 4 and 7.
I’ve always believe the first time I went to a movie theater was when I lived in South Carolina the first time. I later learned that movie, Snowfire, was released May 18, 1958. I would have been six, and I started first grade when I was five. Growing up I vaguely thought I had lived in South Carolina the first time before I started Kindergarten, which I attended in Miami in 1956-57. But Snowfire wouldn’t come out for two years. Both memories can’t be right. I do remember the theater building, which I think was on base, so it could have been in New Jersey in 1959, and we were seeing Snowfire as an older release.
It seems a little anal now to worry about where I used to live almost sixty years ago. I could throw all those papers away, or I could go through them and look for clues. Creating a timeline of when and where I’ve lived might be an interesting mind building exercise. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t be cleaning out my memories like Marie Kondo pushes me to clean out closets. Does it really matter? No one is interested in it but me. My mother saved all this stuff that was important to her, and now that she’s dead, it’s just landfill. The 94-year-old lady living next door recently died, and her family have parked a long dumpster in the back yard to clean out her house. Their family has been living there almost as long as I’ve been alive. The weight of her memories piles high in that container.
I’m also thinking about just scanning all this inherited paperwork. Although I’m not sure how often I would look at it after making such a huge effort. Will this information become more important to me when I’m in my seventies or eighties? Marie Kondo asks me to hold each object I own and ask myself, “Does this bring me joy?” Nostalgia could be a form of joy – maybe? On the other hand, freeing myself from the weight of the past, brings another kind of joy.
My father died when I was 18, and he’s always been a mystery to me. We never had many conversations. My parents were alcoholics. Dad died before I got old enough to be curious about his past, and even though my mother lived to be 91, she chose to forget a lot of her past. I once asked her about our first time living in South Carolina and she couldn’t remember when it was. If I took the trouble to examine this box of documents I might discern some information about my Dad. I’ve even thought of using the freedom of information act to track down information about my father’s Air Force assignments.
I have scanned in most of my family photos that go back to the 1920s, and I’ve been trying to find ways to useful organize and display them. Often I don’t know the exact dates when the photographs were taken. I wished I did. I could name each photograph and scanned document by the date and have a timeline slideshow. I’d have to date them like this: “1930-08-07 Great grandparents.jpg” and “1963-12-25 Report Card Becky.jpg” to sort properly and know what they were.
On the other hand, I could just trash it all. I doubt these odds and ends artifacts have been looked at three times in the past fifty years. One thing I’m learning from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is everything should have a place. As I organize my physical belongings to reside in their unique place in the house, I wonder if I shouldn’t put all my digital belongings in their unique place on Dropbox.
4 thoughts on “Playing Detective to My Own Mysteries”
I advocate not getting rid of your past. In fact, I like my things and, in general, don’t want to get rid of them. I am anti anti clutter. For me, life is too short not to have pretty, interesting things around me. And I think your box is interesting. Scanning is good for safety and sharing but the tactile pleasure in old documents cannot be discounted.
It’s often said that at the end of life, all you have is your memories. Considering what we now know about the reliability of our memory, that’s a rather scary thought. Maybe the truth is that all we ever really have is the present.
Regardless, for the past few years I’ve been engaged in an off and on internet search to correlate my vaguely remembered past with various markers such as the dates of movie premieres. I couldn’t tell you exactly why I bother — the couple of times in my life when I’ve tried keeping a journal I quickly gave it up because I never really have the urge to go back and read such. The past is past, after all. Still… there’s this urge to try and reconstruct the context that made me whatever I am.
Like you, James, I’m at a loss to decide what to do with all the old documents and artifacts that my parents left behind, much less the boxes of ancient and unmarked family photos of now unknown relatives. It’s somehow fascinating to look at at those old images, but I have no way now to identify most of them. As for my parents, I never really got to know them while they were alive and although I have regrets, I’m afraid it’s really too late to change that.
Reconstructing the past from memories really is of little use. I find it challenging to put together a time line from the clues, but afterwards, like you say, I just walk away from the project.
There’s also a side-effect of such efforts. If I finally put together a consistent memory that works with the external clues, I accept that as my history, but I know I could be wrong. I know it’s entirely possible to build new memories over old memories based on false assumptions.
Writing one’s autobiography is like building a city atop the Sargasso Sea.