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A Lot to Unpack

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

My parents bought a house in 1992, the same year I started high school, and, until this past weekend, my bedroom looked exactly like it did in the fall of 1996 when I left for college. On my bulletin board, I had the wallet-sized pictures and hand-written letter that my soon-to-be freshman roommate had mailed me over the summer hanging next to my mortarboard tassel and the bumper sticker that said, “Seniors 1996.” The Caboodle in my bathroom still housed all of my huge, brightly colored earrings, a blue eyeliner pencil, and a Clearasil acne stick.

Two images of a teenage girl posing for senior portraits

Since I haven’t really lived at that house for an extended period of time since the summer after my sophomore year of college, it never occurred to me to spend any time during a quick visit to cull through the drawers, closets, and bookshelves. In fact, as I got older, it felt comforting to know that when I would visit my parents, I would be walking back into a space that was exactly how I had left it. It was frozen in time and, other than the twin trundle bed that had been upgraded to a queen shortly after I got married (thanks, Mom!), I was content to keep it that way.


Huge posterboard with a clock that has 3 cut-out images of Marissa in different costumes
My Bat Mitzvah theme was "Rock around the Clock" in case that was unclear

Although the sign-in board from my Bat Mitzvah was still hanging on the wall and I had a mound of multi-colored friendship bracelets and half-finished lanyards in the jewelry box on my dresser, I suppose there was one other thing that had changed since 1996. Over the years, cardboard boxes had started filling the empty space in my closet, stacked up in the corner next to my dresser, and shoved between the bookshelf and the wall. Doing some quick calculations on my fingers (and some toes), I realized that in the 27 years since graduating from high school, I had taken up residence in seventeen (17!) different abodes. That number included seven dorm rooms, nine apartments, and one house across six cities in two countries. Additional analysis revealed that fifteen of those addresses were from the first fourteen years immediately following my high school graduation.


Regardless of the location I was moving to, or which chapter of my life I was beginning or ending, I always considered the red-bricked house on Windmier Circle my home base. It was my touchstone. It was a constant. It not only represented familiarity and stability, but it was a practical and convenient place to store my stuff. I took for granted that I would always have a space to put the overflow, whether it was the china set that I inherited from my grandmother when she died in 2002 or textbooks following my 2006 graduation from my master's program that I thought I should keep in case I ever needed to refer to them (spoiler alert: I haven’t). There was certainly a lot of privilege that accompanied a sense of comfort in knowing that there would always be a place for everything to go.


But, now after 31 years, my mom was selling the house in Dallas so that she could downsize and be closer to my sister and brother in Denver, so the four of us spent a weekend unpacking decades of memories while packing up boxes.


As I stepped into my old bedroom and started going through things, it was like opening up a personal time capsule, and I was both shocked and soothed by what I found.


I fancied myself a sentimentalist (“aww, this means so much to me!”), maybe even a pragmatist (“I might need this someday!”), but I had no idea I was a low-key hoarder. I’m not really a collector of stuff (although my husband did suggest it might be time to get rid of my Watchman when we were in Dallas last Thanksgiving), but I think it's safe to say that I am a hoarder of memories.


I had accordion files – one for each year and then organized by month - packed to the gills with ticket stubs, invitations, programs, boarding passes, certificates, newspaper clippings, cards, and letters. Some of the letters were from people I am still regularly in touch with, while some were from people from whom I’ve drifted. I found sweet notes from new crushes or from the early stages of a relationship, as well as notes that referenced the crushing heartbreak that inevitably came after the dissolution of a romance or the fracture of a friendship. There were cards from people in my life who have since passed away: my dad, all of my grandparents, and even a handful of peers. It was jarring to see their handwriting and my heart sank as I sat on my bedroom floor and thought about how long it had been since I had last received a card from them.

Sweet hand-written letter from 8th grade boyfriend
A love letter from my first boyfriend

I had kept folders and binders of every note, quiz, paper, test, and project from every class I had taken from elementary school through graduate school. I had dozens of floppy disks that my children would not begin to understand how to use. I had meticulously and fastidiously saved all of the vocabulary flashcards I used to prep for the SAT. I not only had Xeroxed copies of each of my college applications, but all of the school brochures and pamphlets from every school I was considering. I didn't just keep the acceptance (and rejection) letters; I had saved the paper from the message notepad at my high school’s office indicating that my mom had called to let me know that a thick packet had arrived in the mail from Brown.


Mesage that says "large envelope from Brown University!"
My heart started pounding all over again when I found this

I had saved all of the spirit beads, t-shirts, newsletters, and calendars from the various youth group events I had participated in during high school. I kept nametags, door signs, rosters, and handouts from every camp, conference, or program I had ever attended. I saved copies of all of my speeches for student government, stats from each basketball and softball season, and fliers from events I helped to organize.


Handful of different colored beaded necklaces and a nametag from a conference

In addition to all of the boxes that I had filled on my own starting in middle school, I discovered that my parents had stashed away their own boxes with vintage treasures: the greeting cards people had sent after I was born (plus birthdays #1 and #2), my first pair of shoes, the badges I earned each time I graduated to a new swim level, and a healthy selection of arts and crafts projects from preschool. I also found a report from a camp counselor that said my leadership abilities as a 3-year-old were strong, but that I needed some help remembering "that everyone needs to have a chance to lead, to help and, to talk."


Counselor report from summer camp when I was 3

Was this impulse to keep mementos influenced by nature or nurture? Who knows, but, evidently, I had it in spades.


Over the course of two days, I pored through the archives wanting to take it all in and remember why this particular thing had felt so important to me at that particular moment in time. I was also very overwhelmed, quite curious, and maybe a little sad that younger me felt compelled to document, preserve, and protect everything in such a robust way. I am still processing, but one thought has bubbled to the top:


If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?


Similarly…


If an experience took place and there is no picture, tchotchke, or social media post to document it, did it really happen?


We have an innate desire to be known. I don’t mean famous, but affirmed. Confidence in the knowledge that people would notice if we were gone. Grounded in the wisdom that our lives had a purpose and that we had an impact. Not necessarily in a world-changing, history book-documenting way, but that we meant something to the people around us.


I think my collecting of concrete mementos has something to do with this need to feel as though it was real, as though I am real. I think it comes from a need to feel as though there’s something that will exist even after I’m gone. Memories are ephemeral, subjective, and flimsy, but if you have something concrete and tangible then there’s proof that this was meaningful. Here’s the evidence that it mattered. Here's the evidence that I mattered.


This is perhaps why at one point as I filled yet another trash bag, I exclaimed in exhausted desperation, “it feels as though I’m throwing my whole life away. I am literally throwing away an entire life.” Of course, I knew intellectually that this was untrue, but I found myself having to navigate this tension over and over again as I decided what to toss, donate, or keep.


Mounds of full trash bags and various household items
Just a small portion of the items we donated, recycled, or threw out after 48 hours

I should also note, in case you were wondering, that this compulsion to keep concrete reminders of memories has tapered off in recent years. It could be because the last decade has coincided with the rise of the digital age so anything I am inclined to save resides on the cloud, in a portal, or forever on Facebook. It might be that because I have children now, the idea of leaving behind a legacy feels less abstract. Most likely, because I have children, I am tired and do not have the energy to organize and curate anything whatsoever.


It’s a good thing, too, because my mom has already made it clear that although I am always welcome in her new home, she would prefer that my boxes of memories not come for an extended visit.

Glamour shot of a girl with big blonde hair, very long earrings, and a leather jacket with her chin on her hand
As a thank you for reading this far, you get to enjoy this little gem

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