For part of 2010 and much of 2011 I worked as an archaeologist, of sorts, sifting ancient relics of the past – my family’s past – in my childhood home. No, I wasn’t a professional archaeologist, but I imagine some of the feelings of discovery were the same. And OK, maybe the “relics” weren’t exactly ancient either, but they definitely were old.
My mother, recently widowed, moved last year to a one-bedroom apartment, which meant downsizing a lifetime of belongings in preparation for the move. She had lived in the house on the big wooded lot since 1975: That’s 36 years in the same place. One accumulates a lot of possessions in that time. Especially in a home with a large garage and attached workshop, attic storage room, four dormers and a crawlspace. Not to mention closets, cabinets and drawers.
My husband and I knew we had our work cut out for us even before we began the excavation. The three of us agreed we needed to accomplish the project as briskly as possible, but not at the expense of quality. It was important to us that we execute it right so we could reflect on it later as a success.
Inevitably, I learned some things from the experience. Here are a few.
Given how much stuff there was we didn’t want to keep, it was a pleasant surprise how relatively little had to be thrown away. We tried to be environmentally-conscious in how we went about our task, only putting things in the garbage if there wasn’t a good alternative. Many items could be recycled, given away, donated to charitable organizations or sold. And the things that were placed at the street for trash collection? Often, a passerby scooped them up before the trash collectors could. You’d be surprised what people are interested in taking, and they might be doing you a favor. Trust me.
It can be reassuring, perhaps even therapeutic, to gift meaningful objects you can’t keep to specific people you know would like to have them. There’s vicarious enjoyment to be found in that approach. The item may mean more to them, anyway.
On the other hand, if there’s something you really want to keep, do so. You’ll likely find a place for it. My mother ended up with more space in her new living quarters than she expected.
If it won’t slow the process too much, take time to find the unexpected treasures or let them find you. I spent about four hours clipping newspaper articles about my parents’ achievements shooting skeet competitively in the 1960s and ‘70s. This is family history that shouldn’t be lost. One news account calls my mother, who succeeded in a male-dominated sport, the “Annie Oakley” of her day.
Although it can be a massive undertaking, the process needn’t be entirely bleak. It represents a fresh start and a beginning as well as an end. Your family may even rediscover possessions you didn’t know you had.
And one of the most significant benefits of the experience is the opportunity to relive the past in all its various aspects, like the countless children’s books I’d forgotten from my own childhood. Seeing these artifacts again with their magical words and whimsical illustrations reawakened bits of imagination. Not bad for a first foray into amateur archaeology.
Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina