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Cleaning out my closets

In less than three months, we will have moved out of our house and into an apartment. (This is one of the consequences of falling in love w seventeenth century walls – if you buy a country home, you must economize elsewhere) Having lived in this particular house for over a decade, the attic is full, the closets are full, the storage area is overflowing with … What precisely?

In preparation for the move, the archaeological expedition into our recent past has begun, and I am amazed at some of the things we’ve decided we should keep – just in case. Chairs, old blankets (I apparently have a major problem separating from old blankets, because I had no idea I had dozens of them – most of them tucked away due to a stain that wouldn’t come out, or a massacred fringe) pillowcases, an assortment of tea mugs that means I could host tea for close to a hundred people (sorry; no plates to go with the mugs. Would be a tea and biscuit thing only), odd glasses, odd plates, odd cutlery, odd everything. There are the fine linen tablecloths I’ve inherited from my grandmother (and they STAY), the matching embroidered napkins, a naive sculpture of a Toucan bird, a broken pottery bowl that I once intended to repair, and then there’s the books.
“These have to go,” my husband says, groaning as he sets down one box after the other.
“Go?” I have already opened the books, and there’s the Malory Tower books, the Hardy books, all my Henry Treece books.
“What’s the point of keeping them?” he asks.
Valid question. Since I last read them, no one has read them. I caress the spine of “Black Beauty” and recall exactly where I was when I read this book for the first time – sitting on the top shelf of my closet and reading by flashlight as it was way past my bedtime. How can I throw them out, these rather dilapidated books, stained by age and eager fingers, their spines half broken.
I give my husband a pleading look. “I can’t.”
“They go. You can keep one box.”
One box? There’s seven in front of me.

I get through the books. I get through most of the children’s clothes, neatly packed away in preparation for … child number five? Grandchildren that will never wear jeans that their uncles and aunt have worn? But I, I submerge myself in memories, lifting out each and every garment to hold it up to the light, sniff it and cry a bit – as mothers are wont to do – when I reflect on the fact that they’ve all grown up so fast! There’s the first pair of jeans I ever bought my daughter, minute things decorated with butterflies and flowers, here’s the eldest son’s favourite t-shirt, and no, it is no longer whole, it has acquired a strange wrung out shape, so why I’ve kept it in the first place is a mystery, except that just by touching the worn fabric I see him as a little boy, eyes glittering in the sun, lips stretched into a wide, happy grin (and there’s ice cream round his mouth, it has dribbled over his chin and decorated his t-shirt). I compromise. I can’t throw it all away, and so I smuggle aside a little hoard of stuff, muttering to my husband that it might come in handy some day. I don’t think he believes me, but when I catch him stroking son number three’s Dinosaur pyjamas, I know he won’t protest.

There’s a ton of stuff littering our drive. Most of it is a relief to get rid off, some tings we’ve both laughed our heads off at ever having kept. Like the very ugly Easter decoration in shape of a goose. Or the wrought iron candlestick we bought cheaply and never dared to use as it kept on falling over. And then there’s the stuff we will never throw away, we will simply move it from one place to the other, a tangible expression of the baggage we want to hold on to.
The photos – the boxes and boxes of negatives that my husband has so meticulously sorted. Will we ever look at them? Probably not – after all, we rarely look at the albums, and in this day and age we don’t even do albums anymore, it’s all on the computer. But it’s nice to know they’re there, flimsy squares of browned plastic that somehow bear testament to us having lived.
There’s the letters. Once again, nowadays we don’t do much letter writing, do we? But I have precious letters from my father, written in his distinctive writing on see-through airmail paper, and just by handling them I can envision him, the way he always sat with his chin propped up in his clasped hands, or how he would chuckle at something I’d said. I don’t think I’ll ever read them again, these brief accounts of everyday life on a different continent, but it’s nice to know I can, should I want to.
The baby basket stays as does the high chair and the crib. The crib has teeth marks all over it, as son number two liked to gnaw on it while he was teething. The birthday cards, the little book called “When our mother went nuts” written by son number one (not quite as dramatic as it sounds), the potato print masterpieces, the oh so cliché little cloth with a minute handprint and footprint on it – they all stay.

In three months, we will leave a house where our children grow into adults, where we’ve laughed and cried, shouted at each other, played games, fought over badminton rackets, fallen out of trees – well, lived. This is the house where we’ve woken out kids every Christmas Eve with hot chocolate and saffron buns, to the sound of Christmas carols, this is where we’ve had graduation parties, birthday parties, no-reason-whatsoever parties. Yes, it will be difficult to leave it behind, but ultimately places don’t really matter, do they? People do, and the memories of the people we love and care for, well these carry with us always – with or without mementoes.  It’s not that we need those little memory nudges in the shape of photos and letters, the first pair of booties or the beautiful wooden rattle. But it’s nice to know they’re there, just in case.

My closets are clean now – or at least as clean as I want them to be. And when no one sees I take out the bright green and blue jacket all our children have worn as babies and hold it to my face. So long ago … and yet it feels like only yesterday.


3 thoughts on “Cleaning out my closets”

  1. I’ll come over one evening darling, and we can use all of your tea cups and mugs, one for each refill, and we can talk and cry and remember together… out parts of your life IS painful….but somehow we carry on with just the memories at hand. And the smell of that worn pyjama will still be in your nose when you close your eyes and go back in time….”

  2. I enjoyed reading about your trawl through memory lane. I am having a concerted effort to declutter this year. I came across my ballet shoes the other week and now can’t be bothered to put them back in the attic, but feel I can’t bin them… and they don’t fit either of my daughters… so they just are sitting there….
    Odd instinct, to hoard…

  3. I found myself constantly nodding while I was reading this post. I am in the process of moving as well. We are going to be living 3,500 kilometers away from where we are now and my husband drove the car up there about a month ago to get ‘things prepared’. He took the trailer and loaded in some of the boxes I had already packed. There were twelve of them and 10 were books! I’m hopeless!! I can’t live without them. I’ve almost gone through every room now and have thrown out a heap of junk I will never use (it’s amazing what we collect!). But I can’t part with things like the pictures my children drew when they were very young or the beautiful baby clothes – oh, it’s almost heartbreaking!

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