The stuff of life

The stuff of life

A friend from down the block made aliyah the other week.

I dropped by a couple of times the week before and watched the hustle and bustle-the rush to pack up 10 years of a family’s life into one single moving truck. What to take? What to discard? How is someone to choose such things when faced with years and years of stuff, of objects that awaken memories? “To-keep” labels were attached to the furniture, but piles of books and toys that had accumulated over the years were for the taking. Anything left over was to go to charity or into the trash. My friend quipped that they were moving only to get her family finally to clean up the house.

One day that week, I drove slowly past her house toward my own. There she stood in the street next to a huge moving truck, watching as men carried all the furniture out of a house that her family for so many years had called home. Which led me to clichéd thinking: What defines us? Are we defined by all the stuff we keep? Does home mean a collection of objects that create our own personal history? And can we ever really go back again?

This, too, connects to the end of the school year-projects and papers-objects that we debate whether or not to keep based on what memories they might evoke in later years. With my oldest child, at first I kept just about everything-and I’m sure many parents can attest to this-from her first crayon scribble to the scrapbook of the seasons (to which she probably added one cotton ball; and while her teacher finished the rest of the project she probably tried to get as much glue in her hair as possible in preparation for her evening bath). As years went by, my rule of thumb was to keep the projects and papers that made me teary-eyed and that I truly believed I’d want to look back at in later years.

While cleaning out the storage box the following year, about half of that was thrown out and a few more keepsakes were added to the pile. With my pre-schooler, most of what comes home, in all honesty, gets thrown into the trash within the week. I save all the photos, of course-just cut them right out of whatever project to which they’re attached and chuck the rest. (Sorry, super awesome daycare teachers!)

I’m actually at a crossroads when it comes to keeping such school papers and projects. Growing up, I made my parents keep some of mine, and I’m glad they did. Looking at book reports and the like, in chronological order, creates a timeline of sorts that sparks fragments of memories long past. This, I value. Elementary school: Optical illusions. The Solar System (back when Pluto was a planet). High school: Imagery in “The Great Gatsby.” Analyses of Frost, Whitman, Dickinson, T.S. Eliot. College: a paper arguing that Yankee Stadium was a symbol of the American dream (it was a sound argument), pieces of creative writing. To me, these artifacts awaken memories that I hold sacred. Had those papers not been kept, those memories most likely would have disappeared.

So now what? Do I keep my child’s Van Gogh-style painting? Her first illustrated 2-page, 5-sentence fairy tale book? And the toys, the toys! The same predicament. How can I throw out their old toys to make way for new ones, when my hypocritical self still owns (and hides) some of my vintage Strawberry Shortcake figurines? And seriously, how many times have I heard the line, “I had a mint-condition Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card but my mom threw it out when I was younger, along with all the other cards that might have helped pay for half of yeshiva tuition”? And, “Had I only kept those record albums. They don’t make them like they used to,” says every person over the age of 60. Had I only kept. Had I only kept.

But then I think about those books, toys, old clothing, and other giveaways piled in the corner of my aliya friend’s dining room. This makes me think – is all this stuff that I own really that important in the grand scheme of my life? No, would be my answer most of the time. And yet I still save some of my daughters’ projects (until next year, when I reevaluate and throw out half), and I still keep my old toys (which I let the kids play with), and books, and mix-tape cassette, and old clothing that hasn’t fit since 12th grade, and all those pictures from various summer teen tours.

Again, I ask myself, do I really need all this stuff?

The dilemma, for me anyway, is not knowing what will be valued in later years, either by me or by someone else down the line. How does one know? My zaide, for example, while cleaning out his apartment, found a Young Israel of New Haven bulletin from 1959, which announced the guest cantor for the holidays, who happened to be my husband’s grandfather. It was remarkable, so many years later, to see both grandfathers’ names in the same paragraph. (My zaide was an officer of the shul and in charge of Yom Tov seating.) Had we not known this information, would our lives really be any different? Is this tidbit a necessary thing? Well no, not really. But how nice it is to have a little bit of family history, saved because it was among the stuff my zaide put in the to-keep pile.

In this day and age of eEverything, maybe it will be slightly different-books, music, games, term papers, and so forth all will be online, where there is no to keep or not to keep predicament because we have the ability to store them in the ether. Even so, we cannot keep all of it. Will this object or that object disappear from our lives forever, or will it be saved and become our own personal artifact? We have to make choices about our stuff, whether it is mundane objects from day to day life, or an entire house.

Still, although my aliya friend may never be able to go home again, her family will create a new home with entirely new stuff in Israel. This, because she, just like everyone else, always will move forward, picking up whatever new stuff along the way, whether or not it is worth keeping.