Friday, August 22, 2014

Sorting Memories

Over the past few months, I have been picking away at the colossal project of organizing my office. As I’ve taken to working on my laptop in more convenient (and less messy) locations, this third-floor room has lately become a dumping ground for various stuff. Old camping gear and mismatched picture frames were chucked haphazardly into one of the small closets. Files and writing clips and photographs for unassembled albums were stacked in every corner. To hide the clutter, I would simple close the door and pretend it didn’t exist.

But this summer I have finally taken it on. I’ve cleaned out many years’ worth of junk from the closets. I’ve sorted my children’s art work and other keepsakes neatly by year into individual storage containers. I’ve recycled hundreds of gift boxes, which I’m not sure why I saved in the first place, since I’m a lazy present wrapper who generally skips the box and goes straight for the paper.

Amid the muddled mess were several boxes of personal items returned to me when my parents moved into a smaller house. For four years, these have been sitting in a disheveled heap in the corner of the office farthest from my desk. Occasionally I’ve peaked into a box to find an old journal or photograph. Inevitably, I’d end up sitting on the floor, flipping pages and digging through memories until one of the kids called for me or I remembered there was something on the stove or an appointment to keep.

The boxes contained my high school and college diplomas, VHS tapes of school performances, college reports, old ski passes, and faded sepia photographs of my great-grandparents (which will someday be hung in the hallway, if I ever get around to painting it). Some of these relics from the past have been easily sorted into the throw away pile, others reorganized and packed away more neatly.

Then there are the letters.

Over the past several days I have sorted through thousands of letters filed into shoeboxes and Christmas cards bundled by brittle rubber bands. The correspondence stretches back a bit longer than 20 years – before e-mail, certainly before abbreviated text messages. Some of the letters came from friends, a few from people I don’t now remember, and many from my parents, who were loyal correspondents of the news from home during the decade I spent elsewhere.

There are graduation cards and wedding cards, 20 years of Christmas greetings and birthday wishes, dozens of congratulatory notes from when my children were born, thank yous from kids I coached or people whose stories I shared in newspaper articles. The majority of these letters and notes have found their way to the recycling bin. But before I toss them away, I’m reading each one, gaining glimpses into different periods of my life, difficult to recall as I make my way through the now.

The biggest collection of letters arrived in my college mailbox during my first year away from home. These letters from my childhood friends are filled with all the insecurities and anxiety of being away from home – and from each other – for the first time in our lives. Amid hastily scrawled lines of uncertainty are stories from college, of classes and parties, new classmates and potential romances.

Most of the news contained within these letters is irrelevant now, more than two decades later. But I have enjoyed reading them, trying to remember the girl I was then – one who had great friends, was crazy about soccer, and had some kind of cow fetish. (So many soccer books and magazines. So many cards featuring cows!) One hockey-crazed friend wrote the names of Boston Bruins players in the return address instead of his own. Another sent me 15 handmade birthday cards one year. Many called me by nicknames I’d long ago forgotten.

As we all grew more comfortable in our worlds away from home, the letters evolved from college angst to news of new friends, anticipation of graduation, then the beyond-college adventures of 20-somethings moving to cities or out west, tackling grad school or med school or new jobs.

By then, e-mail was becoming prevalent, and long letters became increasingly rare. (One exception was the blue air mail envelopes containing pages-long letters filled with the left-handed-slanting scrawl of my former soccer coach in England and all the news of what was happening across the ocean, along with newspaper clippings with the scores and standings of English soccer leagues.) But occasional brief notes and stacks of Christmas cards each December still arrived in the mailbox. Eventually the notes and cards contained word of impending weddings, professional achievements, the arrival of children.

In my parents’ letters, their excitement and joy at my accomplishments and adventures is practically palpable, as is their shared disappointment and worry during challenging or indecisive times. My mother caught me up on what my brothers were doing, which friends of mine she’d run into recently around town, and other day-to-day happenings. My dad’s letters are a bit shorter and generally a little goofy. These contained soccer advice, notes on my finances, and reminders to get the oil changed in the truck.

I’m nearly through the boxes now. The journals will be filed by date and tucked into one of the cleaned-out closets along with a few photographs I’ll save. The school reports have, for the most part, been discarded. Most of the letters that filled three good-sized boxes have been recycled, and those saved now fit into one much smaller box.

Sorting through so many memories has made me feel a bit older, sometimes melancholy, often contently nostalgic, and relatively stationary. For a decade after leaving the only town I’d ever called home, I moved – beyond the region, across the country, abroad. The items contained in those boxes documented each new phase: the college freshman thrilled at making the soccer team, the graduate heading to the mountains of Colorado, the traveler moving to the west of Ireland, and – eventually – the New England girl coming home, getting married, starting a family.

Now, I’ve lived in the same house for nearly 10 years – longer than I’ve lived anywhere other than my childhood home. My parents are around the corner. New friends have come into my life and others faded away, although I’m still in touch with many of those who wrote me letters a long time ago, before we turned to shorter e-mail messages, fleeting texts, and notes passed through Facebook.  

I’m not sure what compelled me to save all those cards and letters, or why I am content now to let most of them go. Perhaps I was afraid of losing track of where I’d been or who I was. Probably it was just easier to move the boxes than to unpack them. Either way, it’s been good to sort through the memories while cleaning house – to hold on and let go all at once.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. A version of this essay also appears in the August 22, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

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