Decluttering Lessons Learned: Dealing with Ephemera

I’m not sure, but I think maybe one of the things very few people recognize is that downsizing doesn’t happen just once.

Ideally, it’s going on kind of all the time. Or at least decluttering is.

Unless, of course, you are an extreme “keeper.” (Or a hoarder, but this post is not about hoarding. It is about how to keep from being an extreme keeper, which is not the same thing as a hoarder, not at all.) More about that, perhaps, another day…

The way I have been learning to do this is by a) writing a book about downsizing with my coauthor; b) trying to follow the advice we developed for our readers in helping our dads with their first round of downsizing in my subsequent rounds of same; and c) refining the advice we developed as I continue to learn from the protracted experience of finding homes for, or getting rid of, or otherwise dealing with the many many (many!) things that were stored in my parents’ home for many years. (Both my Mom and Dad, and both of my grandmothers, were extreme keepers. Those of you who come from families of “keepers” will know what this means…)

One of the experts I interviewed for our book was Mona Nelson, the director of a county historical society in Minnesota. When I asked her what kinds of things she wished people wouldn’t throw out when they were clearing out a house full of things that had been stored there for many years, she picked up a greeting card from her desk, and said, “This kind of thing. Ephemera.” She went on to explain that old tickets, theater programs, greeting cards and the like can be of great interest to museums and historical societies, and that rather than just toss old things like that into a dumpster, one might better take it to a local historical society or museum to see if they would like to have it.

While this is good advice for anyone who is a) going through a house in which there is a lot of such material that is already very old (let’s say 50 years or more, just as a loose, unofficial figure); and who is in a position of having the time and the means to get those boxes of ephemera from the house to the museum (or wherever).

Being of an archival mindset already, that conversation stayed with me for quite a while and compelled me to a) try to arrange to get such things to such places as I came across them in my continuing downsizing adventure; and b) to continue to hold onto such things as I received them. (It does not come naturally to many writers, and I would think most, or all, archivists, to casually toss such things into either trash or recycling…)

But the reality for me is that I really am not in a situation, nor do I have the means to contribute these kinds of things to such places anymore; or the space in which to hold onto the ones that I am accruing all the time.

Therefore, I have developed a new way of dealing with such things.

A couple of months ago I was finally able to roll up my sleeves and attack a box of old letters and cards that had been saved by my mom (and dad). In the same box as the letters my parents wrote to each other when they were first courting were a bunch of get-well cards that my mom had received during her final illness, and sympathy cards for my dad after she died.

For now I have kept all the correspondence between them, and am slowly reading it. To me this is an obvious thing to do, especially since I am writing a memoir which will include their stories as well as mine, and reading their letters is giving me valuable insight into the lives they lived before I came along.

The get-well and sympathy cards and letters I looked through: most of them had something nice to say about my parents. I read and appreciated these thoughts; and then I recycled the cards. I didn’t need to keep them anymore: the main takeaway was that my mom (and dad) had been deeply loved and greatly appreciated by a great many people. This is something I already knew, but it was nice to be reminded once again, and to know that my dad had had the support of a lot of people–friends, neighbors, my mom’s coworkers–in a very rough time for him.

And what about the continuing incoming stream of such material that I receive now, that I received in 2019, for example? I display the cards in my home for a while, and enjoy them very much. After the season is over, I may save one or two that have especially special messages in them. I also save Christmas cards from my sister and my cousin that are newsy enough for me to think that they (or their kids) will one day enjoy having this “slice of life” to help them remember the everyday details of another time …and I put them aside to be returned to them every few years.

As for the rest, I save the fronts of especially pretty cards that have nothing written on the back, to be used as festive holiday notes next year. I read the personal messages once again, I savor and appreciate them; and then I recycle the cards. (Those that can be recycled, that is: pretty as it is , we probably need to all stop buying cards with glitter, you know? Because it’s not recyclable… 😦  )

It will never be easy for me to get rid of such things: it’s just not in my nature. But I have to come to feel that this method allows me to make the most of these special things and fully appreciate them; and head off that inevitable moment in which, if I don’t do it, someone else will be forced to simply throw them away without having the chance to pay them this respect.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

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