Letting go of my history – or is it just clutter?

Mar 02


6 Responses


Helen Whitten

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Letting go of my history – or is it just clutter?

As many of you know, we are selling our Hampshire house looking to move to Kew for the next stage of our lives. [See https://search.savills.com/list/property-for-sale/england/hampshire#/r/detail/gbwnrswns170335]   So, as the snow falls outside, I am gradually working my way through a fairly massive job of decluttering.  Between us, having come together at the ages of 60 and 67 respectively, we have a good 40-50 years of adult hoarding, family photos and memorabilia, and life history hidden away in our offices, filing cabinets, sheds and attics.  I am usually reasonably good at clapping my hands and getting on with a transition but this process of letting go has been more challenging than I had imagined.

When I sold Positiveworks to Jackie and Chris of Sixth Sense Consulting in 2016 I naively assumed that it would be both easy and liberating to go to the filing cabinets and dispose of the 25 years of papers, presentations and articles that I had filed away in various cupboards and filing cabinets.  And especially the accounts and VAT books (sorry Jeremy!).  Of course – as those of you who have done this before me will probably know – it’s not quite as simple as that!  When I finally started looking through the papers, slides and the various brochures that took me from 1992 to 2016 I found I was far more emotionally attached to things I had created and to the memories of clients, presentations, and geographical places I had visited on this wonderful Positiveworks’ journey than I had thought I would be.

And so, gradually, I have made myself shred this, chuck that, bit by bit. It does clear the mind somewhat.   I am now on my third stage of going through the files, each time more capable of being a little more stringent than the time before.  “Will I really ever need this again?”  I ask myself.  I know I won’t but I am also sort of aware that in later life, when I am perhaps in my 80s and more vulnerable, I might need the confidence boost of looking back at the books, articles and programmes I produced and feeling a little more pleased with myself than I might if I only have a rather elderly face to look at in the mirror every day!

I know that David is experiencing the same hesitancy, the same rerun of old memories in his head, the patients he has seen, the research papers he has written and the good work he has done.  Ultimately, it’s about identity.

But there’s no way there will be space for all these old boxes and papers when we move to a three-bedroom terraced house in Kew!

And of course at our stage of life there is also what they are, I believe, calling the ‘death declutter’ – eg going through papers and items to ensure that your offspring aren’t (a) horrified by what they find of their parents’ past  (b) not overwhelmed by the amount of clutter they may have to go through when they are anyway extremely busy with work and family and (c) wondering where on earth you have put your wills and bank details.

I don’t want to put them through that.  My own parents were wonderful – I think the paperwork had come down to one small file of banking, accounting and insurance documents and that was it.  It made it so easy for us.  Luckily, though, my mother had written some pages documenting her memories of childhood since her birth in 1918, snippets about the war, her life with my father in Portugal, and beyond.  Invaluable social and personal history.

So I believe we should all leave our children a little glimpse into our lives as younger people, to give them an insight into how, socially and politically, the world has changed.  There is a real danger, with computers and passwords, that much will get lost.  Where will be the love letters when so many are written as disposable emails and texts?  Where will be the diaries, poems and photos?

As a probably rather over-sentimental historian I have assembled a photo album each Christmas of David’s and my year, alongside another annual album tracking the events of my children and grandchildren.  They give me such joy to look at.  I have also had the love poems that David and I wrote to one another assembled into a printed book.  And when I get the chance and inclination I am also pulling together poems and the odd paragraphs documenting my own life, which I have so far entitled the Life and Times of a Baby Boomer, with memories of the 60s, seeing the Beatles and Stones in 1964-5, powdering Elton John’s nose in 1976, and more!  Far more, of course.

And the trouble is that these items in my desk – my History finas essays and notes (I kid myself I might use them again), my sons’ old school reports (why?), the contracts of house purchases and sales (*** taxmen), the collection of Positiveworks’ papers (ah) – represent so much of what helps me to piece my memories together.  The adventures, the lonely moments, the transitions, the many countries I have visited with my sons and with work.

My father’s family tree goes back to a Roger de Buckenhale in 1327 and continues up to the latest additions of my granddaughters and great nieces and nephews in 2013, though it doesn’t yet record the birth of my latest grandson, born in January 2016.  But there are the names and places of family members long gone.  I don’t know enough about them and have a note in my diary to go up to Staffordshire to get a feel of the place my ancestors came from.  It is heart-warming, too, to be reminded of grandparents, aunts , uncles and cousins of whom one has distant memories.  We recently took my granddaughter to see the rather spooky cartoon movie Coco, which is set in the Mexican Day of the Dead.  Its rather deep message was that once there is no-one alive who remembers the dead members of the family, their spirit fades.  Made us think!  I have a vague recollection of my great-grandmother and my maternal grandmother but no grandfathers…

Last week I came across my mother’s memoir again, and also the small brown envelope she kept in her desk containing philosophical and spiritual quotes that represented her view of life after death, or the lack of it.  I found again the notes I wrote to my parents as a small child, the cards I had written on my father’s death, her letters to me in difficult moments of my own life.  They bring tears to my eyes but I wouldn’t be without them for anything.

I don’t know what my own sons will think, or my grandchildren.  I don’t want to burden them with memories but equally I don’t want to deprive them, when the time comes.  And so the slow but steady progress of letting go carries on and more must go before we move.  It’s hard work and yet it is also a wonderfully poignant experience to touch once again many happy and fulfilling moments.  Even memories of the difficult times are precious.

I still haven’t made any major dent in the massive paperwork filling the cupboards of our filing room, let alone the outside shed – I had better go and do another half an hour now.  Downsizing certainly focuses the mind on that hard decision of what is clutter and what is not!  And that, I guess, has much to do with who one thinks one wants to be in the next phase of one’s life.  How are you doing, on defining and managing clutter I wonder?


6 Responses

  1. Dear Helen – I know just what you are going through. I went through that process when I sold my previous house after 26 years of family life (4 children) and had to sort the past. I felt I was in between the past, looking at and handling all those possessions and papers again, and envisioning the future. In a poem about this process I likened it to being a magnet, picking things out a) to keep, b) to sell and c) to give to charity d) to take to the dump and dropping them into the relevant pile.An interesting process. Now, in a new life, I feel I have still kept too much!! Though, of course, every so often I could do with one of the books I donated to the Oxfam bookshop… for teaching.
    All the best for your work and for your new life.

  2. Hi Dear Helen,
    Oh, yes! I share your angst! Been there and am still refining and sorting.
    A dear friend taught me to say, ‘Release with JOY!’
    For years I have repeated that mantra (sometimes through gritted teeth or tears) as I pare down the treasures and precious things.
    I wish you good clearing and much JOY!
    Vanda xx

  3. Dear Helen, thankyou for sharing your experiences. Just two points for now. When this virus clears up, perhaps I’ll add more.
    Your memories bring to mind a poignant time. Staying in my mother’s house at a time shortly after her death. My brother and his family lived nearby. We’d spent the day clearing out the loft. After Stephen and Lynne went home, I decided to empty another bin liner. It was late but I wasn’t tired. The contents comprised mostly, of greetings cards received over the years. There were a few gems though. One was a list of various drinks purchased for my parents’ wedding in 1950. I can only guess that my Grandparents must have paid for bottles of Sherry, Orange squash etc, separately. Or maybe there were pre-wedding drinks at their house.
    Then there was a notebook containing what we would now call a to do list. It outlined my mother’s activities for the fortnight leading up to Peter’s and my wedding.
    The final item was a small diary. The only one my mother saved. She was sixteen years old and each page was crammed with writing so small I could only just read it.
    I read most of it and should have put it somewhere safe. But I was tired by then and pushed everything to one side. I never saw those three gems again. I’m so glad she kept them, at least I have the half forgotten memories.
    Helen, you mentioned business accounts. I believe you’re legally obliged to keep them for a number of years.
    I’m sure you’ll whittle down the clutter. It’s overwhelming to think about all of it at once. You’ll get there though.

  4. Helen, we are going through the same transition! I handed over the keys on Monday to our Burnham home after 21 years renting on the estate. We are now surrounded by so many boxes at our new ‘smaller’ home in Chichester harbour and I’m hoping the sea air will help with the unpacking, sorting and next layer of clearing. Like you I am trying to clear the paperwork and clutter, layer by layer. Many items have gone to new homes which feels better, still lots to do. We can follow each other’s progress over the coming months…now back to those boxes!

  5. Dear Helen
    I was thumbing through Emotional Healing for Dummies once again and thought to check out what you’re up to. I find myself at one of life’s big crossroads as time rushes by and am looking for the right sign posts! Decluttering is definitely high on my agenda as is the need to document family history and personal anecdotes. I’ll be in touch to catch up properly but thanks as always for your positive guidance. Love Prue

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