09 June 2014

The Words We Leave Behind: What NOT to Throw Away

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy;
for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves;
we must die to one life before we can enter another.
~ Anatole France

June is the FLX/WordCount Blogathon!  Join us for 30 Days of blogging madness!

hat do we leave behind us?

Specifically, what words do we leave behind?

Peggy Rosenthal has a thoughtful post over at Image Journal about aging, accumulating “stuff” and old journals and letters.

Reading about the tearing and ripping apart of old journals and throwing them out to be burned made me want to cry. 

On the one hand, I understand where she’s coming from: make things easier for the kids once she and her husband are gone; less to throw out.  It’s a charitable act, really.  No one should have to go through all that when they’re in the throes of grief.

Or should they?

What We Leave Behind Isn’t Just Junk
My mother could star in an episode of Hoarders, a show she watches avidly, proclaiming: “How awful!  I’m not THAT bad!” 

In her case, a lot of what she saves really is insane: broken things that she swears she’ll get fixed; items that will be re-purposed into something new. No, Mom, turning the microwave into a ice chest for the patio is not cool, it's white trash.  

The yards and yards of fabric that she said was her retirement ~ she was going to make crafts and sell them ~ has now become her detriment.  I swear the damn things mate like bunnies somewhere in the deep recesses of the craft room.

Image credit: Memories Wallpaper, Google search
But I’m glad she didn’t throw out the ledgers from my Dad’s foray into owning his engineering company.  Seriously, how is it possible that in just under 40 years, prices have changed that much?!  

Or the menu from the restaurant where they met ~ he, the suave and debonair owner with the European flair and she, the young and impressionable back woods waitress with a Southern accent and a braid of thick auburn hair that put Crystal Gayle to shame.

These at least aren’t just detritus from a life well lived ~ they are touchstones that bring the past to life ~ our version of a hologram.  And to touch them is to bring back both the past and the person who lived it.  I would hate for those precious memories to be lost. 

Although, dear God, someone please tell her that Good Housekeeping magazines from 1967-1986 are NOT worth the paper they’re printed on!

In Our Own Words
Accumulating things seems to be an American rite of passage ~ or a disorder, however you want to call it.  So of course I have my fair share.  My several sets of china will tell you of my love of food and hospitality ~ but so will the pictures of all those dinners and parties with friends. 

Each plate and cup and saucer could still act as touchstones to another generation I suppose, although it looks like my sisters will have to take up that clarion call.  No, if all that china got broken, it’s easily replaced.  The memories are safe, tucked away in words and images: in my journals.  In letters.  In blog posts.

The most important thing we leave behind us when we go is our love.  Our caring.  How we felt.  And the memory of that might fade once we’re gone. 

People always talk about how they can’t really remember a loved one’s face anymore.  Or the sound of their voice.

But a journal ~ now there’s a touchstone worth keeping.  There, we remember, in the moment, how it felt to see the Alaskan skyline for the first time.  How deeply betrayed we were by that one relationship.  How our heart pounded with terror as we spent a dark, stormy weekend alone without electricity. 

Just think how much emptier our lives would be if Leonardo de Vinci, Charlotte Bronte, Albert Einstein, George Sand had burned their journals.

The dark and the light, the pain and the hope and the redemption ~ threaded together by ink and the corpses of trees.  They died to give our memories something to cling to.

And that’s why ultimately I wish Peggy hadn’t ripped up those journals.  Such an incredible writer should keep the evidence of her journey ~ both as a writer and as a woman.  Wife.  Mother.  Grandmother.  That kind of talent may pop up a couple of generations from now. 

And how cool would it be for a little girl to learn that her Great-great-great grandmother Peggy was a writer who lived and loved and struggle to find her writerly voice too.

And how grateful that she didn’t leave her a ginormous stack of old magazines.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

Read It: Peggy Rosenthal is one of my favorite writers and all her articles are thoughtful and thought-provoking.  I invite you to read and be moved.
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Anonymous said...

Perfectly lovely!

Unknown said...

"No, Mom, turning the microwave into a ice chest for the patio is not cool, it's white trash."


Unknown said...

Yes, I can relate to this blog on a very deep level, especially when it comes to things written down. My ancestors on my Mom's side took hoarding to a level that was extraordinary. We had not only letters from my Grandfather to his wife, but letters from their forbears going back to the 1800s. I don't know what happened to all of those letters. I imagine they got trashed. Who would have time to read all of those? On the other hand, we have time to watch endless hours of videos and movies. To demonstrate the value of not throwing everything out, here is something that Mom wrote, which survived on an old piece of typing paper: "Our teenage son, Robert, is a bright young man, even if housekeeping is not his strong suit. In his piles of clothing and debris that accumulates in his bedroom from time to time, his keys, wallet, money, jogging shoes and other vital articles get buried--and then invariably and miraculously the same missing items are tracked down again by him. When the inevitable bug appeared, no doubt attracted by food and drink containers left in his "den," I confronted our son one day after school with the fact of a dead roach in his bedroom. He grew visibly interested. "Where was it?" he inquired. "On the floor beside the bureau," I replied. "Oh," he said, "that one."

Unknown said...

Caroline - dude, I seriously said that! Guess where the microwave is? On the patio! Doh! But hey, when you're related to a writer, it's all fodder for the machine!

Bob, what a hoot! Sounds like me. ;) Although, uh, no roaches.

It's too bad those old letters got trashed - they're worth something today, if just for the research value.

I've been known to buy old letters from people I don't know - I read them, use them in crafts and just plain old keep them.