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Soon my husband and I are going to participate in a community flea market, selling off what has become unbearable clutter. But it was also a mass of memories. How can I release a ceramic flask that was laboriously painted by a dear now-departed friend? What about all the gifts chosen and bestowed on us with love over the years?
Things aren’t people. I know that. But each item in our incredible mess represents a moment of remembering. We aren’t people who surrounded ourselves with lovely, tasteful items—collectibles and other valuables. (In a way, I envy the people who did, because it’s easy to let money flow away—as we have all seen!) Our treasures are treasures of the heart: the tablecloth my grandmother crocheted, the painting my mom made, the fragile table my husband’s family brought from Sweden. Each item is beloved…and takes up space in our shrinking lives.
Yes, as we age, our physical lives shrink as we do. Many seniors move from house to apartment to a room in nursing care, losing space along with raw energy. We can’t carry with us the flotilla of stuff that marked moments in the past. Eventually, we’ll leave behind all that was material. Some things our descendants will claim, adding them to their expanding universe of hard memories. Are we doing them a favor or extending a curse?
I have an uneasy relationship with the past—not because mine was dark and damaging. Quite the opposite. The light of my memory eliminates the shadowy spots in my happy life. The aspect of the future looks grim in comparison. The beautiful loving world I hoped I was helping to create over the years appears more and more distant. The human road is never straight. What if my life is never as good again as it was when those items came into it? What if I’m giving up the threads of former happiness that could comfort me in darker times? I’m afraid of regret.
Secondly, I’m afraid of being a fool. I remember the garage sale we held to hurriedly sell off my mother-in-law’s household to pay for her nursing care. Certain buyers rushed in, pushing us to go ever lower with our prices on antiques about which we knew nothing…and then laughed outright when we relented. They were thrilled they had conned us. The fact that they were cheating a very ill old woman didn’t bother them in the least.
I think of an elderly neighbor who advised me to travel as much as I can, because memories are finally the best of what you have at the end of living. She had many magnificent treasures in her apartment—that were sold at auction by the state when she died without heirs. She was right. Life is an experience, not a yard sale. I need to sell off this stuff so my husband and I can decorate our final chapters with as much joy as possible.