To Save or Not to Save

Have you ever noticed how some family traits skip a generation? Maybe it’s cooking or musical talent or a fondness for knitting. My mother made her own wedding dress. I’ve never used a sewing machine in my life.

Sometimes it’s genetic. Two of my children have beautiful blue eyes – a gift from their father but also from their great-grandfather, whose recessive genes snuck through my mom and me before popping up in my kids.

Other times, I think there’s a reactionary pendulum in play. We sometimes form ourselves in differentiation from our parents, with our children pulling back the other direction in due course. Some people save things. Some people toss things. My mother falls into the former camp, while I inhabit the latter. One of my daughters saves so aggressively I once googled “hoarding tendencies in children” after trying to clean her room.

It’s not that I lead a minimalist lifestyle. I have more than my share books, candles, art supplies, small kitchen appliances, and other accoutrements of the American middle class. But I recycle birthday cards, can part with outdated clothing, and (gasp) throw away 90% of the paper my children bring home from school.

Some parents threaten to throw away their grown offspring’s childhood belongings if they don’t retrieve them from the familial attic. I have begged my mother to get rid of some of my stuff, but she won’t. I have also learned to hide any boxes bound for Goodwill as she is likely to “rescue” things from them, given half a chance. And there have been several threatening conversations between us regarding the state of her basement and my eventual role, as an only child, as the unfettered Discarder of Things.

I actually think that my mother’s desire to save, and my daughter’s, both stem from the same place: their huge hearts. Both of them imbue their belongings with love and remembrance. My daughter loves every gift she has ever received, whether it’s a stuffed animal or a bird feather, because she loves the givers so intensely. How could she ever be expected to part with a physical manifestation of their affection?

My mom’s closet overflows because she remembers where she wore the outfits and how she felt when she wore them. She loved reading books to me as a child and holds onto those books, cherishing the opportunity to share them with her grandchildren. She recently put together a document for me, detailing the stories of the important pieces of family furniture, including several pieces made by family members over the year. The stories are beautiful and helped me see the worth in pieces I might never have valued.

I’m less sentimental by nature and the vast majority of my furniture comes from IKEA.

I do recognize the potential downsides to this character quirk, however. Family history is maintained by the savers. When I was in college, I undertook a research project about my great-grandmother, a project made possible by the fact that I was able to page through her personal effects. I savored the letters she and her fiancé exchanged while they were apart in the months before their marriage and read the diary entry for the day my grandfather was born in 1920.

It was that sense of history that led me to save a box of memorabilia from my marriage. My instinct was to toss it all, but I know my kids might want to see it someday, so there’s a box in the attic with our wedding album and the letters we sent each other while we were engaged. It is sitting next to a box of Indian saris and glass bangle bracelets – relics of a year I spent abroad that were simply too beautiful to discard.

I also kept my children’s crib mobile. Of all the paraphernalia that accompanied my early years of motherhood, that was the item I couldn’t part with. The song it plays is forever embedded in my mind and heart and when the time came to turn the page on that chapter of my life, I found that I couldn’t let it go. So it also lives in the attic, next to the Christmas decorations and boxes of out-of-season clothes, waiting for its turn to be loved again.

Some day my children may roll their eyes in despair at the assemblage of “stuff” living in the attic. Or maybe they will bemoan the fact that there isn’t more. We’ll just have to see how the pendulum swings.

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