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To Keep or not to keep

Memorabilia in the writer’s basement
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Memorabilia in the writer’s basement

A friend recently gave me a slide projector. It somehow came up in the course of conversation that she was on her way to drop it off at the Goodwill or the Salvation Army and I told her that I’d take it. We have hundreds of slides of our home and property dating back to the 1940’s when my grandparents bought the place. And I thought it would be preferable to view them on a screen or a white wall, or however one looks at slides, rather than holding them up to the light.

I’d even gone shopping for a slide projector online, even though I’d never been serious enough to buy one.

Getting rid of the device and whatever else she was taking to the Goodwill is part of my friend’s ongoing project to purge her life of anything extraneous as she approaches the grand finale when she won’t need anything at all.

I get it. We enter this world alone and unencumbered and leave it alone and unburdened and everything we accumulate along the way is mere vanity. But that doesn’t mean I plan to let go of my stuff, to release it from my icy grip, one second before I have to, or at all. Deacquisitioning, as noble as the sentiment sounds, isn’t for me.

I understand that the less your spouse, if she survives you, and your children, have to deal with, the better. But I’m perfectly content to leave the hassle to them. Loading your descendants up with stuff is a long family tradition.

When my father passed away my mother didn’t touch his stuff. To the best of my recollection his closet, in the bedroom they shared, remained unvisited until after she died fourteen years later. I don’t think she was trying to preserve his memory. Their marriage wasn’t that great. She didn’t consider his shoe trees sacred. She just couldn’t be bothered.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she’d actually gone to the effort of getting letters testamentary regarding his estate. I assumed she’d also left that chore to my siblings and me after she was gone.

My mother wasn’t delusional enough to believe she’d be able to take her valuables and everything else with her. But she wasn’t entirely free of superstition either. In fact, she was extremely superstitious. She consulted fortune tellers and astrologers the way other people do shrinks.

She was plagued by questions about where we go when we’re gone. The most reassuring answer came from her grandmother. “It can’t be that bad,” Granny, whose sense of humor was said to be legendary, mused, though probably in German or her native Russian, “since nobody comes back.”

Accumulating stuff was my mother’s hedge against mortality. “Everything passes so quickly and one can hardly remember after a while,” she observed in her diary. “This way there remains something.”

I don’t share her fears and superstitions about the hereafter. When my time comes I hope I’ll be able to go with grace and gratitude. That’s not to say that my desire to hug stuff closely is entirely healthy. Just ask my wife and children.

So why do I? One reason is that I think it might come in handy in some unforeseeable circumstance. That’s not entirely irrational. I’m planning to write an essay for my college’s 50th anniversary yearbook — I know, it’s ridiculous to think that next year marks fifty years since I graduated into something resembling the real world — based on all the mementos I accumulated in college and never threw out believing that it would find some future purpose: party invitations, letters of reprimand from Dean Wonnacott, those notes friends pasted to your dorm room door to let you know they’d dropped by in the days before email.

The other reason I haven’t jettisoned my past is because it contributes to my own story; also some of it is vaguely interesting. Political campaigns I worked on or covered. The famous or near famous with whom I crossed paths. Thousands of magazine and newspaper clips that my children may regard as trash and toss without even examining but that I consider to be small, very small, contributions to recent history.

For example, one of the earliest stories about the AIDS epidemic. It appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine after my editor and I convinced a skeptical editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown that it was an important subject. I’ve got all our back-and-forth correspondence to prove it.

Or a sign on a pole that reads, “Meet Lou Koch. He’s Ed’s father.” From New York City mayor Ed Koch’s first mayoral campaign when I carried it as a lowly campaign aide while campaigning with Lou in the Bronx and at the Brighton Beach Baths.

Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of why I might be unwilling to part with an undistinguished painting of gypsies that my mother liked and that her family brought over from the Old Country. I am making progress however.

I recently agreed to an amicable divorce with a couple of dressers that have been gathering dust in our basement. For a modest price. The recipients were friends who need them and will give them a good home.

Perhaps that’s the closest I or any of us will come to outsmarting mortality. When our furniture lives on, providing pleasure or purpose, even when we’re no longer around. I’m good with that.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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