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Thursday, 8 July 2010

Everything Must Go

Letters from the Past
By Liliane L. Clever 
Junto Staff Writer BioWe lived in a large three-story house in Haddonfield, New Jersey, for a quarter of a century. Our was a family of three; we had no use for all of this space, and so the third floor soon became an attic.

At first, we just stored the few remaining unopened boxes from our move to be dealt with 'at a later time.' Over the years, more boxes and items of all sorts, from all sources, joined the original lot. We had a bit of everything. Books, toys, discarded pieces of furniture, suitcases filled with clothes that no longer fit properly, our very first personal computer, several CRTs, various electronic equipment, old typewriters, dishes to keep for our future cabin in Maine, our son's crib and playpen, and tons and tons of issues of scientific journals kept for 'reference.'

We even stored items for family and friends. For years I kept a suitcase full of personal items that my friend Lucette had left behind for 'the next time she would visit.' I kept it way past the time when I knew that she would never be caught dead wearing these old pairs of pants. Somehow my mother-in-law's old sewing machine and practically un-used loom found their way to our third floor, soon to be joined by a set of trundle beds no longer needed after a major home renovation.

It would be impossible to make a complete list of all the contents. I don't know if we were pack rats or just plain lazy. Most likely a bit of both.  But it always seemed easier to take things upstairs and add them to the piles rather than deciding what to do with them. My now ex-husband used to joke that we could never sell the house because we simply had too much stuff to move.

But we did have to sell the house, and we had to face the third floor and its years of meaningless accumulation.

You know the old 'make three piles' approach for clearing out rooms. One pile for 'keep,, one pile for 'give away,' and one pile for 'throw away.'
Well, we could not use this approach since we had no staging place left in the attic. So we had to do it the hard way, one item and one box at a time. It was a phenomenal job. And it took a long time.

It was also when I came across a box of letters I had received from my family during my early years in this country. It had been eons ago. Way before personal computers, the Internet and e-mails, and back when transatlantic phone calls cost a fortune. So we would write letters back and forth. We wrote like mad. For years, a week would not go by without at least one letter in my mailbox.

The box contained hundreds of long forgotten letters that I did not even remember I had kept. I recognized each and every handwriting at a glance. 

My maternal grandmother grew up on a dairy farm in Brittany, spoke Breton at home, and only had been to grade school part time. Her handwriting was shaky and she had no sense of punctuation. Her letters were one long sentence full of misspelled words. But her letters were full of interesting news. She always signed using her full name.

My paternal grandmother had had more formal schooling 'chez les religieuses,' that is, among nuns. Her handwriting was impeccable; her spelling and grammar perfect.  She always slipped a pressed flower from her garden between the pages.

My mom's letters were fun and smart. She would type them on a typewriter in her office at lunch time in the middle of her busy day.

But my sister's letters were the ones I would really long for. I would press the unopened envelope to my heart, and curl up in a quiet place to savor every word.

I knew that dealing with these letters would be difficult. I took the box home to my condominium in Philadelphia.

When I thought I was ready, I randomly took one letter out of the hundreds from the box. It was a letter from my sister. I could not believe my eyes. The letter was dated July 1, 1969. The very day I left my hometown of Paris in the morning to arrive at New York's JFK in the afternoon after a flight that would for ever change my life.

My sister must have written the letter right after going home from seeing me off at the airport. The letter started with 'You must have arrived by now. What are your first impressions?'  Further down it said in big uppercase letters 'If you don't like it, please come back. It will be OK'.

My eyes filled with tears. I remember these early days so well. I was so young, so lost, and so homesick.

I read more letters until I couldn't do it anymore. It was an emotional journey down memory lane. On the spur of the moment, I randomly threw some of the letters away. It was a strange reaction to an unexpected discovery, and a decision I now regret. 

I have since become more ruthless with personal possessions. I give my books to friends, leave them in the lobby of my building, or donate them to the Friends of the Free Library. I recycle all journals, magazines and birthday cards.  I automatically discard pieces of clothing I have not worn for over a year. This ruthlessness is partially due to the lack of storage in my apartment -– no third floor there -– and a new awareness and worry about 'what will people find after I am gone.'

But my ruthlessness only goes so far. I have since sorted in a chronological order the letters I want to keep, and tied them with pretty bows. These letters are staying with me for the long haul. Some things are simply too precious to throw away.

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