Decluttering a Life, Memory by Memory

Some time ago, I had an idea for a story. Well, it’s not a story as much as a concept, or a setup for one. What if, at some point in the future, we have the ability to manipulate our own brains — through science, through some procedure or technology that would allow us to delete something learned, or even better, a memory or series of memories? Items could be chosen from a menu. What would you like to forget: a person, a place, a series of events? A skill, a belief? For example, you could delete all memory of your fourth-grade teacher, a man who belittled you. (I’m making these up.) Or, you could delete the memory of a Lake Powell summer vacation when you were twenty-nine, because during that trip, you accidentally ran over the family dachshund. You might choose to forget altogether about your mother — good and bad — because both types of memories are just too painful. Electing to have a procedure like this would come with a series of waivers and warnings, of course. You should be aware that eliminating that teacher from your memory might also affect other memories from fourth grade. Forgetting that trip to Lake Powell will mean you also forget how to waterski, because that was when you learned. Etc.

Along with memories, we accumulate tangible items throughout our lives. Photographs, letters, certificates, diplomas, records, and all sorts of non-paper objects as well. If you have children, maybe you collect things that document their experiences and achievements — or, as I did, you might have containers of art they brought home from preschool and early elementary school. If your parents have passed, as mine have, maybe you have some of their tangible items, some of their photographs. I have pictures and mementos from both sets of grandparents as well. All of it piles up. The ending of a marriage creates its own distinct brand of accumulation, particularly when it ends unkindly, traumatically. When I moved from a larger home a few years ago during the tsunami of my divorce, I kept most things, thrown into boxes to deal with later. And now, it seems, is later, as I prepare to downsize once more.

It’s an interesting word, isn’t it: “downsize?” Literally, to make oneself smaller. I prefer to think of it as a paring down to some essential, leaner form.

My mother grew up never knowing her biological father. She never saw a photograph of him, as my grandmother had famously destroyed any that might have existed of her first marriage. She cut out his image from some, my mom told me, but mostly, there just weren’t any photographs. I always thought this was quite controlling of my grandmother, and inconsiderate to my mother, who might want to see what he was like. Recently, some facts have come to light about my grandmother’s early life, thanks to DNA analysis kits, and this is something I may write more about soon. I can say, however, that I now have a richer understanding of her actions.

For my own current downsizing, I start to dismantle some of the photo albums I’ve put together over the years. So. Many. Photo albums. Who’s going to look through them, if not me?

And it occurs to me as I go through this process that some of the memories these photographs bring to mind will probably never surface again, without that pictorial prompt. As I choose which memories to keep and which to abandon, I think a lot about my grandmother, again reassessing her decisions with my evolving knowledge and new, liberating power. One day, I make a list of the homes I’ve inhabited. If I try, I can imagine the surrounding objects in each one. Some of those tangibles remain with me, physically, some are in my mind — frayed edges and all — and some (I guess) are lost forever. In the back of a cupboard, I find a green and yellow afghan that was my other grandmother’s and the smell of it brings tears to my eyes. That, I’ll keep. This is a newer, leaner me. Choosing to let go of certain memories isn’t a spiteful or fearful decision, but one of practicality. There’s only so much a person can carry. And that afghan, wrapped around my shoulders, keeps me warm and weighs almost nothing at all.


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