Hey, I’m keeping my stuff. And I’m going to drag it along with me until I’m gone. My books, my ticket stubs, that coffee mug I made in grammar school, a chipped and unusable thing that hides in the back of the back of my closet awaiting the occasional rubber band, paper clip, or anonymous key.
There’s a chorus of voices insisting that I chuck it all, that it’s just a dust-gathering jumble of objects, that my mind holds the memories, not the wrinkled photos and deteriorating letters. These dumpster lovers preach with the vigor of those who’ve found a higher path, almost cult-like in their insistence that purging is the only way to find peace and the present tense. If you don’t love a thing every week, or every month, they say, then ditch it so you can fly.
Sorry: Not gonna do it. I’ll fly, but with an overstuffed overhead compartment.
Recently, while packing for a move and listening to friends, I did question my commitment to my possessions. Box by box, backache by backache, I began to doubt. Then I unearthed a phone machine cassette tape from 1985, which had been sitting in a cardboard box in the dank basement of my apartment building for more than 30 years. And bam, I was back in the material world, clinging to it with renewed fortitude.
If I hadn’t come across the tape, I’d never have heard voices from my early days in Boston, some younger versions of current friends, some elders now gone, others silenced prematurely during the AIDS epidemic. It felt like an archeological miracle, the tape, and as the voices spoke to me once again between beeps, it brought me back to the daily texture of my life before the gray hairs, before the Globe, before the country returned to the Middle Ages.
I remember every single one of the people who left those voice messages, some of which are mundane “See you at 7″-type snippets, others longer and more heartfelt. I remember them, but I suspect I wouldn’t have thought of some of them without the 60-minute Phone-Mate tape as a prompt. Their faces would lurk in the muddy waters of my memory, submerged, visible only if and when they randomly peeked out in a dream or, alas, a nightmare.
So it’s the things – I also found photos, keepsakes, and a once-beloved lighter I’d brought with me since I left my mother’s house – that truly enable the flashbacks. They’ve triggered rushes of bittersweet recollection – the most powerful kind, resonating emotionally while evoking the unstoppable passage of time. I texted recordings of some of those old phone messages to friends still in my life, and they also seemed to relish the throwback, hearing the past in their own voices. It’s like tying the knot, linking together our former and current selves, conveying a sense of our whole lives so far.
I’m on this bandwagon – not to be confused with hoarding, please – because, after having moved for the first time since 1990, I’ve been so heartened by the stuff. And I realize that if I were much younger, I’d probably have many fewer old objects to spark up the past, as the digital age has thinned out our storage of physical mementos. I suppose a visit to the cloud – assuming the cloud will indeed maintain photos and texts for decades to come – could have a similar effect for future aging people looking for a dose of their youth. But you’ll never convince me that computer images are as potent as objects, with their odors and handwriting smudges and rust. I feel as if I’m in possession of the most personalized, specific, and valuable treasure trove I’ll ever receive.
You can imagine, for example, how mind-blowing it was for me when I stumbled across a letter from my father, whom I barely knew, written while he was serving in the Air Force. In it, he apologizes to his mother, my grandmother, for eating an orange while writing – and there it is, a small stain, on the paper. I’m still mesmerized by that stain, an odd little point of contact to the reality of the man. It’s irrational, I suppose, but there it is, not a photo from a wedding or graduation or some milestone but the passageway to his presence, the fruit of an ordinary moment now frozen in time for me. It’s like a little map to his bunk bed. I can’t imagine chucking it, or even photographing it and then chucking it.
The stained letter will remain in my custody for the rest of my days, as long as I have a place to put it, perhaps in a folder in my bookshelves, of which I have very, very many, filled with more books than some small bookstores, my library of reminders of some good and great reads. The tin lock box from my early teens, album jackets containing vinyl I no longer play, a T-shirt that was once my signature layer, an ugly painting by a late friend, they’re all coming with me, as catalysts for powerful reminiscence.
My recent move was into my late mother’s house, by the way. Here I have found all the items she’d dragged through the decades, refusing, mostly passively, to toss them all. They are a gift in so many ways, filled with hints and details of the life she had before me and after I left. They float in her wake, there for me and my brothers to pick out and listen to whatever they might suggest.
Of course I won’t keep it all; I’ve already thinned out the ranks, tossing a number of mid-20th century yearbooks, deteriorating tablecloths, and a few tatty lampshades. It is the future of my own stuff. Until then, however, I’m holding out and holding on. It’s the good kind of baggage.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.