A Lifetime in Storage

A few things from my grown son Ryan's closet.

A few things from my grown son Ryan’s closet.

When is it the right time to clean out an adult child’s long-unused room, go through years of accumulated possessions and decide what stays and what goes? Do you let your son or daughter make that decision or take matters into your own hands?

I’ve talked to friends who are still waiting for their long-departed 30-year-olds to deal with their stuff left at home. They are afraid that they will make the wrong decision if they do it themselves, incurring their child’s lasting resentment and years on a psychiatrist’s couch. Maybe they secretly hope this accumulated detritus will exert a magnetic field pulling their young adult closer. And I think on some level, parents worry that tossing their child’s moth-eaten stuffed animal, broken action figures, headless Barbies, awkward prom photos or yellowed high school compositions will send a message that it is no longer their child’s home.

I thought about this yesterday when I went through our son Ryan’s stuff. Ryan, now 25 and working in Europe indefinitely, gave us the OK to repurpose his room, which he had not inhabited steadily since 2006. With a few exceptions – his strongbox, three books and his most beloved teddy bear — he left it up to me to decide what stayed and what got tossed or donated.

“I think that anything I really wanted I would have taken with me,” said Ryan from his apartment in the UK, over a FaceTime connection that kept cutting out.

I told him I would pack everything that stayed into a box; offer any unwanted clothes to his brothers and deal with the rest.

That meant I was judge and jury for every artifact from his babyhood through his young adulthood crammed into his closet, drawers, nightstand and two rolling carts in his 11-by-13-foot room. Ryan has always been a relentless weeder, regularly giving away clothes that no longer interested him and tossing toiletries that outlived their usefulness. From his mid-teens he had a thriving eBay account, regularly buying electronics and other items that intrigued him then selling them when he tired of them. This made cleaning out his room even harder, because most of what remained was not trash, but a carefully curated collection of relics, all of them precious to some degree.

A few decisions were easy. I threw away expired vitamins and half-used toiletry bottles, decorated shot glass souvenirs from places he visited long ago. Notebooks from his college business courses got tossed, but not before I gazed at the dizzyingly complex mathematical equations, written in my son’s distinctive hand, and felt proud and amazed that he understood them. Letters from friends that he no longer talked about, photos from the summer camp where he spent six weeks, his old textbooks…all went into the discard or donate piles.

Some things that were saved: the three books he requested, including one that we had given him as a Christmas gift, a photo book with pictures from our former home in Pennsylvania, a tiny porcelain baby shoe engraved with his name, birth date and weight. A book entitled “20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair.” A Spanish/English dictionary that will be saved for Ryan’s younger brother, now in Spanish I. Paperwork for Ryan’s successful attempt to gain Irish citizenship, which paved the way for him to work anywhere in Europe and the tremendous opportunities of his current job. The binoculars left to him by his grandfather. A presentation booklet written by our long-ago babysitter in Pennsylvania, listing the dozens of special times she shared with Ryan and his sister Rachel. A strong box without a key, its contents a mystery.

But other decisions were not so easy. Deedee, the small white teddy bear that was his favorite, was easily a keeper, but what about the lesser stuffed animals? These ursa minors included a purple velveteen bear given to him by my long-ago work colleague; “Poochy,” a tiny bear with an adorable face and a purple sweater; and others that once crowded onto his single bed. Only Poochy made the cut, and I felt regret as I threw the others into the maw of the dark green trash bag, growing heavier by the minute with discarded memories.

I found a big cardboard poster created for Ryan’s high school graduation in the back of his closet. It was filled with photos that I thought I had misplaced long ago, but now realized they were here all along: the photo of him as a one-year-old wearing a seersucker onesie decorated with trains, Ryan dressed as a cheerleader at age 8 for Halloween, a closeup of Ryan as an infant with Rachel, Ryan on the fishing dock in Martha’s Vineyard. The photos – along with the eager acceptance letters from colleges, glowing with praise for Ryan — can be easily stacked and saved, but what about the heartfelt graduation messages scrawled on the cardboard? Likewise, what about the graduation cards that spoke of pride in our son’s accomplishments and confidence in his future? What of the notes from long-ago friends, thanking Ryan for his faith in them and for helping them through a difficult time?

I kept some things and tossed the others, grateful that the trash bag hid them from view, resisting the urge to peek in one more time and stoke my regret. What mattered now was the man Ryan had become, not the things he left behind. The purple velveteen bear, the letters from friends grateful for his friendship, the souvenirs from camp and from places he visited, are all part of who he is now. His future is a strong box without a key, filled with mysteries but secure.

Should We Part With Family Relics?


My Dad’s old flannel shirt, which I’ve kept but never worn.

On Monday the New York Times published a column from a Baby Boomer who was conflicted over whether to part with a mink coat that had once been her mother’s. It sent me upstairs to look at two of my own family relics, which I don’t use but hold onto for totally different reasons. I’m sure all of you have one or more of these!

The columnist wrote that the mink reminded her of how beautiful her mother looked wearing it, the considerable financial sacrifice her dad made to buy it, and the pride he felt when saw his wife. As she savored these memories, the daughter also fretted that she wasn’t tall enough to wear the coat with aplomb, and about the ethics of wearing fur in the first place. While she decided to donate it, she still felt guilty.

Many of the commenters talked about what they would have done (many would have kept the mink, even if it meant altering it into a jacket or blanket), their own family mementos and how they struggled with the decision to keep them or get rid of them.

After I read this I went upstairs to look at two of my own unused family treasures. One is my father’s old L.L. Bean flannel shirt, which we bought him for Christmas at least 20 years ago. I’ve never worn it but it hangs in our closet. He died 15 years ago this month, but looking at it reminds me of him. It is un-showy, sensible and comfortable…everything he was. The shirt was soft enough to cuddle a grandchild against and practical enough to wear for the many work projects that he undertook at our house. He wore that shirt or something similar when he taught me how to put up dry wall; when we took walks together with my mom and my children; and when he gave us common-sense advice, which was often.

The second relic is something I haven’t worn for more than 30 years. It’s a platinum cross, encrusted with diamonds, that once hung on a platinum chain around my grandmother’s neck. While the crucifix is a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice, this particular one reminds me of a woman who never sacrificed. My grandmother was not a good mother; my own mom and her brothers were often left alone while she gathered with friends to play card games laced with smoke and profanity. She never combed my mom’s hair; fortunately a goodhearted neighbor would often give he

This cross, usually a symbol of Christian sacrifice, but not in this case.

This cross, usually a symbol of Christian sacrifice, but not in this case.

r a bath and make her presentable. Strident and cutting, my grandmother would browbeat her family…especially my grandfather, a goodhearted man who loved whiskey and song (often at the same time). Sometimes my mom had to skip school because she did not have shoes, but my grandmother still wore that diamond-studded symbol of Christian sacrifice. As my mom grew older and went off to work in Manhattan, she dutifully turned over most of her paycheck to my grandmother. But every day my mom would visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, kneel in front of a big cross and pray for a man who would understand her family. This cross listened. Eventually a man who liked flannel shirts would rescue her.

In raising her own four kids, mom used her own mother like a photographic negative — imprinting us with the love, care and attention she never had herself. The cross, once my grandmother passed it on to her, stayed in mom’s jewelry box.

Eventually the diamond cross found its way to me and while I’ve kept it I can’t bear what it symbolizes – misplaced values and miserable mothering. But long ago my Aunt Theresa, my dad’s sister and a woman who truly combines both style and common sense — as well as a delicious touch of moxie — had some good advice about the cross. “Why don’t you wear it as a lesson?,” she asked.

That advice has probably kept me from giving the cross away or selling it. Looking at the cross, and at my dad’s shirt, reminds me of what’s most important. It’s easier to figure it out with the shirt, once worn by a man who was never selfish.  The cross perhaps has to be seen a different way: a symbol not of sacrifice, but of transcendence and forgiveness.

Do any of you have any family relics that you don’t use but can’t part with?