Given how many times I’ve moved in my life, I still marvel that I have so much stuff. As I’ve discussed, some of it comes from inheriting my now deceased nuclear family’s archives. But the rest is mine. Even though I’ve had a tendency to save things, I know I’ve tossed or given away items along the way. I reach back in my memory to consider the decisions I made at various junctures and discover why I am in the predicament I am in. Inventorying these moves has been sobering.
Up to age 5. My family moved three times before my fifth birthday, including a relocation from England to the USA when I was two. I have no recollection of these three moves. What remained of those times were some children’s items of clothing (more on those later), some books, and one stolen doll’s dress (navy with polka dots—I still have it.)
Age 9. When I was nine, we moved from one city to another, about an hour apart. I do know that friends from the new city picked me up and drove me there so that I was not underfoot during the move. GONE: Nothing that I know about except maybe a few clothes I’d outgrown! ADDED: I believe all that was mine came with me to the new house, and most of it had been added between the moves—stuffed animals, dolls and doll clothes, a dollhouse with furniture, my artwork, additional books, my school papers and texts. The whole works, kicking the decisions down the road. Of course, I was still a child, and many of these items still had meaning for me.
Age 20. We stayed in that house through the rest of my school years and up through my junior year of college at which time my parents planned to retire back to the old country. Unlike my friends, I would no longer have a place I could easily store things. For the first time, I was forced to consider what I wanted to keep. I lined up all my beloved stuffed animals (except the Steiff bears and the Pooh bear), took their photograph, and consigned them to the dustbin. They were old and worn and probably germy. GONE: Stuffed animals. ADDED: Notes from my imaginative childhood clubs, more books, all my work and souvenirs from school AND college, all the letters and cards I’d ever received, a Danish modern chair that had been a gift for my sixteenth birthday, two sets of shelves, a bookcase, a desk and a chair, a sewing machine, and even my collection of Seventeen magazines. I packed these up neatly, either in the two trunks I described early on in this blog or boxes. Worse, I claimed some treasures of my mother’s past that she was ready to throw away! I sent back a box of baby clothes with them for safe keeping. The rest (my clothes, records, guitar, and record player) all went to college with me. Because of the timing of my parents’ departure (while I was still in college), my father had rented me a room in the neighbor’s attic for the year where I could store not only these possessions but also some furniture.
Age 21. After college, I moved to Boston. I knew that my future plans involved being peripatetic for awhile. With the rental agreement with the neighbors up, I gave all my furniture to the them except for one Danish modern chair (a gift from my parents for my 16th birthday) and a folding desk chair, which I took up to Boston, along with some books, my sewing machine, a few kitchen items, and the things I’d had at college. The neighbors were amenable to my keeping my things in a closet they weren’t using. GONE: My childhood furniture and my microscope, which I left for their small boy! Finally, some substantial downsizing. ADDED: Anything collected my last year of college.
Age 22. I spent just one year in Cambridge, MA, and then I planned to study in Great Britain for a year. I stored some of what I’d brought to Massachusetts in a small room; the furniture, including the Danish modern chair, in the attic. A colleague from my job took all my boxes of books. Our former landlord agreed to store in the garage he ran all my childhood treasures that were still at the neighbors in Philadelphia and even offered to pick them up. GONE: My larger childhood art (paintings), a Japanese umbrella that had been a gift from my college boyfriend, and a crinoline (why did I keep this?) were lost in this shift, not my any intention on my part. When I went to retrieve them two years later, I was unable to locate a box of my favorite books that I’d stored at my colleagues. ADDED: Two foot lockers, some clothes, and paper souvenirs, plus a growing archive of correspondence.
Age 24. I ended up staying in Great Britain for two years (in several different residences), coming back to Boston for the summer in between when I couch-surfed. In the meantime, my friends from the Cambridge house had moved. GONE: One of the new roommates had taken my prized Danish modern chair from the attic and broken it. ADDED: But on my return, now to Delaware, I had added to my possessions all the notes from my year of study and teaching, my books related to teaching, manipulatives from mathematics, and samples of children’s work. I left one box of souvenirs (mostly from my travels) with my sister in London. At some point, I collected all my possessions from Cambridge.
Age 26. Teaching wasn’t for me, nor was living in Delaware. I sold what little furniture I owned (I share an apartment with another women who did own furniture), except for my foam mattress, and found a local storage place for everything else, including all my childhood possessions that I relocated from my landlord’s garage. Everything more or less would now be in one place as I headed out for a year-long trip around the world with just a backpack. GONE: Only a chest of drawers. ADDED: More items from teaching!
Age 29. Returning from my travels to graduate school in Boston, I settled in a large house with five other roommates. I remember driving down to Delaware to selectively collect clothes, books, and other items I needed or wanted on the day-to-day—whatever I could fit in one rented car. The rest I left in Delaware for the foreseeable future, at a cost of only $10 a month! After two years, I decided to move to Cambridge with three friends. GONE: I think everything I had in Boston all went with me. Nothing that I can recall as between a full-time job and a half-time graduate program, I had no time to declutter. ADDED: My slides and souvenirs from my big trip, my new camera equipment, all my notes, texts, and papers from graduate school, a new rug, and some kitchen items.
Age 38. I lived in this house for almost ten years, the longest I’d lived anywhere since childhood. I began another lengthy graduate school program but was determined to be a home-owner before 40. A friend and I bought a two family-house nearby. GONE: Nothing that I can recall as between a full-time job and a half-time graduate program, I had no time to declutter. ADDED: A lot more furniture, more camera equipment and a slide projector, a bicycle, camping equipment, skis, kitchen items, and souvenirs from my travels and cultural life (e.g., all the programs for events I’d attended), and more correspondence as we were still in a largely pre-digital time.
My friend and I shared the first floor until our second-floor tenants moved, at which time my boyfriend (later, husband) moved in with me.) We had more space than I had ever had, including my own study with an extra closet and crawl space for storage. In the meantime, my boyfriend and I got married and the storage company in Delaware was shutting down. We rented a van (and got a ticket for driving on the parkway In a commercial vehicle) and brought the entire contents of my early life back with us. Most of it went in my study or attic crawl space. In the meantime, my husband inherited some large and beautiful furniture that had been in a country cottage. After almost ten years in this house, we wanted to own a house of our own. We found another two-family house a couple of miles away, with the bonus of a large, dry basement (the previous one had flooded) and an attic, where we had a floor installed. The move, on a snowy winter day, took 12 hours! GONE: NOTHING!!!! I was about to start a new job the day after the move. ADDED: Tons more furniture, more papers, especially from my graduate work and previous jobs, mountains of professional magazines and books, computer equipment, many more clothes, kitchen items, linens, knick-knacks, plus everything that had been in storage, including all my childhood toys and books.
We haven’t moved since then. And so, we’ve come full circle. As I shared in my introduction to this blog, I inherited all the family archives, including my mother’s large paintings, my parents book collection, their china, a lot of vintage furniture, and all of their correspondence as well as clothes and paper archives from my sister along with a dozen suitcases. From England, I also brought back that box of my baby clothes and most of the contents of the box of souvenirs I’d left with my sister.
With each move, rather than using it as an opportunity to pare back my life, I found myself accumulating more and more—not because I bought a lot of unnecessary things (though I did channel my fashion designer’s penchant for clothes after she died), but because I find it hard to let go.
There is no moral to this tale. We live our lives as we need to. Unless you are committed to the minimalist’s life or live in a tiny space, then like me, you may not have made downsizing a priority. But now it has become a routine part of my life—something I try to spend a little time each day doing, as faithfully as I exercise. It’s like I have a new muscle that needs to be used. And with the next move, the “added” column will be considerably shorter than the “gone” column.