Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Proper Place for Sentiment

“Your Ukrainian book is in the freezer.”

Thus began an e-mail I wrote to my daughter at college last Friday following the deluge that left 26 inches of water in our basement.

Accidents, disasters, and near brushes tend to occur in threes, in my exerience - and the last one is usually the doozy. Recent events have been true to form: an earthquake, a hurricane, and a big honking rainstorm, with only the last one causing us any damage.

Really, we were lucky in all three cases. The only damage that caused me any grief was the soaking of my daughter’s documents and coursework from the various Russian courses and programs she has participated in. Over seven years of hard work, fun, and memories, all crammed into a plastic box with a lid that unfortunately did not stay put after being dumped into the water.

I spent the next few days, with few breaks, freezing the Ukrainian book and a spiral notebook, drying out other bound items, and lightly drying and xeroxing all of the loose sheets of paper - notes, tests, articles, and so forth. More than a ream of paper went into the effort. I dutifully tromped back and forth between the copier and the laundry room, as we were also washing and drying out soaked clothes and stuffed dolls and animals.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice finds wet papers...

and more wet papers...

and still more wet papers

The episode both interrupted and expedited our campaign to clean house and get rid of all the stuff we don’t need.

I suppose my two-day drying and copying marathon was motivated by a good measure of sentiment - these materials represent a major investment of effort by my daughter as well as an important part of her life - but it was also based on more practical considerations, because many of the items are still useful for reference. Heck, I was even able to engage in a little bit of grammar and vocabulary review as I copied some of the more advanced materials.

But the rescue operation probably also washed away any excess sentimentality as far as the contents of our basement were concerned. Exhaustion will do that.

We also realized that the less stuff we keep in the basement, the more latitude we will have to arrange the remaining items to make them less vulnerable to natural disasters. The benchmark was set: life’s work + memories = important; other bits = not.

A much improved basement

So throwing stuff out or giving it away became a positive pleasure.

Expeditious and felicitous disposal of items felt like triumphs: lightly used arts and craft sets found a home with our church’s Sunday school program; extra (now very clean) litterboxes will go to our petsitter, who actively supports stray rescue and pet adoption programs; and soaked potting soil now enriches an underperforming garden bed.

We are the rulers of recycling, the sovereigns of salvage, the masters of the makeover and make-do.

Meanwhile, after some conferring with both daughters, the truly beloved objects of their childhood stay: a kit of plastic medical instruments inside a Little Tykes pet carrier, two toy xylophones that still make music, and the awesomest collection of tiny little people and animals (Playmobil, Polly Pockets, and Pound Pets).

I did feel pangs when the girls’ impressive collection of plastic food and the last child-sized chair went out the door. On the other hand, the sight of the luggage my husband and I bought for our honeymoon in Scotland that is now leaning against the trash can out front inspires memories but not regret.

This process is not free of uncertainty and trepidation. What if I wake up in the middle of the night and realize that it was a mistake to give away my younger daughter’s go-go boots?

The circle of things that should come within sentiment’s protective and possessive embrace should not be so small that scant evidence remains of the lives we live, nor should it be so large that the items have no meaning. Determining the proper balance is not easy, but having a flood wash away a lot of flotsam and jetsam helps.


  1. Umm, Greta? It probably was a mistake to throw the go-go boots away. Go-Go Boots = Cool Cool Kitty

    I'm just saying.

  2. Greta, I'm sorry to hear of the reason for your cleaning campaign, but happy you have "lightened your load".

  3. So sorry to hear of your troubles. Nonetheless, you turned it around into a thoughtful reappraisal (and a lot of activity!). And hey. It may be some years before Go-Go boots recycle onto the fashion scene again :)

  4. Two observations from cleaning out well over 50 years of memories and stuff from my parents home:
    1. You can always preserve your memories of an item by taking a picture of it.
    2. If you decide you shouldn't have gotten rid of something uou can always go down to the Goodwill (or wherever and buy it back for a quarter!

  5. So well done! How do you create such beauty out of what must have been enormously stressful? I'm laminating your last paragraph and posting it in my office - and closet - and basement - and attic - and garage. Should probably have it in my purse, as well.

  6. Lightening the load of "stuff" in my house always lightens my spirits, but being forced to do it doesn't. It's always so hard to choose what to save and what to keep, even harder when there's pressure. I'm so sorry about your flooded basement. And yet, you found good in something awful.

  7. Cleaning house is such a great stress reliever. Instead of nesting during my pregnancy earlier this year, I purged. I even got to know the man at our Salvation Army site by first name.

    I am curious about the frozen book. What do you do with it after the freezer? I have never dealt with flooded papers or books before.

  8. I was also forced into the great basement clean out during the recent earthquake, hurricane, and the tropical storm that finally flooded my basement. Grabbing all the genealogy research out of the basement was first priority. I was lucky nothing got wet, but now my office is on the 3rd floor of the house. Good thing the roof was just replaced this past spring. No chance of a leaky roof in my new office.

  9. Taking something that could have been so negative and putting a positive spin on it is always a good thing. Enjoyed the article, sorry about the events that led up to it.
    Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. Painful to read, even though I knew you had had a flooded basement. Joyful to read, as you really have your act and your priorities and your life in order. I think like Susan, I need to laminate the last paragraph, or maybe tatoo it on my arm, well, no, no tatoo, I don't think I could stand the pain! LOL

  11. So sorry to hear of the disasters that have befallen you but, well done, with the clean up and discarding of flotsam and jetsam. I went through a similar cycle of disposing of "stuff" when I downsized two years ago in order to travel and live in my van!

    Whatever I own is either with me now or in a 5x10' storage space! And some of that will probably be disposed up when I return to it... if I haven't needed it in two years, do I really need it now? But it is "my life" that is in storage, so we'll see how much more is actually gotten rid of when the time comes.

    It is liberating to clean out the closet now and then... Hopefully the disasters are over and you can breathe a little easier.

  12. All - Thank you for your kind comments and wishes.

    Sheri - I know, I'm having minor panic thoughts about those boots even now....

    Laura - We definitely feel lighter!

    Brenda - I'll just have to shut my eyes if go-go boots come back (and put blinkers on my daughter).

    Michele - We are lucky to live pretty close to a Good Will. And you know, I'm going to try that for items that are hard to give up but I know have to go - I'll take a picture - thank you for that great idea!

    Susan - Oh, you are so kind! We probably have kept a few things that could go, but there will always be time to do that - they just didn't meet the threshold this time.

    Nancy - I feel the same way; at first I didn't feel like doing anything, but I knew I had to save my daughters program and course materials, so I just did that like a zombie. It was really my husband who came through on a lot of the stuff.

    Sierra - When defrosted the items will be wet again - but everything else will be dry, so we will have time to focus on drying them slowly and carefully. My husband has thought a vacuum chamber would be handy for sucking the water out while they are frozen, but don't know how we would get our hands on one - probably just have to dry it out.

    Barbara - You went through the same triple whammy we did! I am glad you did not lose anything. One of our early floods occurred when we were putting the addition on the house - the roof was half open (just a tarp on that side) - and we had a huge rainfall before the sump pumps were put in the basement addition (where our new kitchen cabinets were stored). Insurance money saved that situation.

    Karen - Thank you! I don't know how I would have coped had we had any major losses. When I saw how floods were affecting people elsewhere, I truly knew that we were getting off very easy.

    Carol - It's funny how we all share many of the same dilemmas - what to keep, what to give/throw away? It will never be an easy choice.

    Becky - You have embarked on a brave adventure that I could never do, and getting rid of so many of your possessions was a big part of what I could not do.

  13. So sorry to hear about your flooding, but happy it has resulted in a more organized basement. I've experience my share of broken pipes and flooded basements, though thankfully never in my current home. Such a mess is never fun.

    As someone who has spent the last several years sorting through endless items from my mom's house, I agree with Susan that your final paragraph is profound.

    I'm also sad to hear you had to toss your daughter's go-go boots and the memories that go-go with them. I still have fond memories of mine--black patent leather--though at this point their appeal might be more from a collector's point of view and their potential value on e-bay.

  14. You are so amazingly philsophical about this.

    And an inspiration to me. I think even hard-core exhaustion would have made me weepy...

  15. Sorry to hear about the disaster.

  16. Greta, Bravo for the drying and copying marathon!And a huge thank you for reminding me (and your faithful readers) of the meaning of balance in our lives --- and collections.

  17. I'm so sorry about your flooded basement. I had a basement flood this year as well, so I can feel your pain, as well as your joy about having a clean, lighter basement. I am hoping I can keep the lessons I learned during the cleanup this year.

  18. Cynthia - The go-go boots were in good shape, and I asked my daughter whether it was okay to give them to Good Will - she was fine with it, so I put them in the bag. But it's just an item that I'm hoping she won't regret giving away. (I had platform shoes once, but no go-go boots.)

    dee - I was close a couple of times, but keeping busy, oddly enough, kept my mind off of the damage.

    Mavis - Thank you for your sympathy - it's pretty much all cleaned up now, but I sure would like to have a dry winter....

    Joan - Exactly! - The less stuff we have, the less we have to worry about being damaged, but it's still hard to sort out the most meaningful items.

    Shasta - There were definitely a lot of lessons learned! Mostly about the "how" and the "what" of storing things.