KATHRYN OLMSTEAD

I hope I will have a chance to clean out the basement before I die

Posted June 21, 2012, at 4:39 p.m.
Kathryn Olmstead
Kathryn Olmstead

My mother often said she hoped before she died she would have a chance to clean out the basement. Well, she didn’t. She was busy until the day a stroke took her unexpectedly in 1984.

After my father died six months later, my sister and I spent a month in our family home and came to appreciate my mother’s concern about the basement — her repository for boxes of records, receipts and memorabilia — all neatly arranged in chronological order, but nonetheless there, to be sorted.

At that time I resolved to discipline myself about saving: either throw it away or put it in a scrapbook. Now, 28 years later, I am running out of shelf space for scrapbooks and still have boxes and files of stuff saved prior to 1984.

I hear myself saying, “I hope before I die I will have a chance to clean out the basement,” as well as various closets packed with stuff, all neatly arranged in chronological order, but nonetheless there, to be sorted. If I don’t get to it, those left to do the sorting will more than earn anything of value they inherit.

You view your stuff with new eyes after you have sorted someone else’s when they are no longer around. What would become of it if I died tomorrow? What has permanent value for anyone besides me? Who? Can I give it to them now?

Even if you don’t intentionally save things, they just accumulate. And after a certain amount of time, what you might have thrown away initially becomes historic — like the piles of 1970s Aroostook Republican newspapers in my basement that I meant to clip while I was editor but never had the time.

I gave myself a year after I retired from teaching to clean out my stuff. Almost three years have passed. I tried taking a room at a time, a closet at a time, a file drawer at a time, but most days I had more important things to do. When I cleaned out my office at the university, I sorted things into three categories: save, discard and discard, but not yet. I am trying to take the same approach at home, but the task is more overwhelming. The last category cut down time spent deliberating, but it meant I brought home that much more stuff to be dealt with later.

I bought a shredder and told myself I had to spend at least half an hour a day shredding. I looked at the boxes lined up next to the machine, calculated the hours I might have to sit watching it chew even 12 pages at a time and decided this task definitely interfered with my desire to spend the rest of my life in productive, enjoyable activities.

Then there are the clothes. I discovered thrift shops when we disposed of my mother’s perfectly good attire because it did not fit or suit anyone in the family. I have been shopping at thrifts ever since. Of course, there were a few of Mother’s dresses I could not give away. They still hang in my closet. I listened to a CD about “de-cluttering” titled “It’s All Too Much” by Peter Walsh. He told me I should make those souvenir dresses into pillows or frame pieces of them and hang them on the wall instead of in the closet. Great idea … some day.

We have been told to get rid of clothes we have not worn in the past year. But what if you are invited to a ’60s party or need a Halloween costume? I still have some favorite formals and, of course, my wedding dress. And miniskirts are making a comeback.

I am trying to accept that as soon as I throw something away, I will need it, want it or wish I had it, even though it sat unappreciated for years. When I applied for Social Security recently, there was no record of my five years on the staff of U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen. The SS claims representative was curious.

I was glad I had saved all my pay stubs from 1979 to 1984. I contacted Phil Bossie, who holds the comparable position in U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ Caribou office. The pay records helped him answer Social Security’s questions. And the process of locating them unearthed a collection of memorabilia from those years that was so amusing, I assembled it into a notebook and shared it with Phil.

Now that was fun. Perhaps that’s the way to tackle the rest of the pre-1984 stuff: A notebook or two or three of things worth saving from each significant period, career or location — a nostalgic trip back through my life. But where will I put the notebooks?

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.

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