Making a Pillowcase from the Upholstery

You can’t go home again and all that stuff. An essay about getting rid of the childhood possessions that weighed me down.

When I went home a couple weeks ago, I molted my childhood possessions in an attempt to take everything from my old life into my current life. When I moved in with my dad ten years ago, some furniture was put into storage before we moved into a new house, including an old upright piano mom had given me for Christmas. I kept a lot of things from my mom’s house but a very small fraction compared to what was actually there. I hoarded some possessions and then others were given away without my knowlegde. A lot was left in that house, a lot of things I’d love to look through again, including everything that was in the basement; vintage records, a typewriter, things packed up to be used later.

When I went to college, my dad made my room a den for my brothers. All of my possessions either went with me to NYU or went in boxes to my grandma’s house. When I’d come home for summer vacation and then return to college, my dad would put whatever I left up in the attic afterward. A few years ago, I made a first attempt at clearing it out; I went through the attic and gave away any stuffed animals or things I hadn’t used. I also went through my grandma’s basement that time and threw away porcelain dolls and other toys I had kept. In my most recent trip, though, I was a little less forgiving.

Almost everything in my parents’ attic went, except CD cases (which have since been tossed), my high school art portfolio, a cassette tape of Mike and myself reading stories, and a Christmas music box. I had kept the pillows with dead roses from my mom’s wake for ten years, and I threw them, along with all of our Christmas and holiday ornaments, away in a trash bag. My step-mom told me to wait, not to throw them away, but what was I keeping them for? My dad even asked me about getting rid of the piano, and while it stung, I can’t imagine a place where I’ll be to enjoy it. It was a little harder at grandma’s. There were 8 boxes full of things; figurines and collectibles I had tirelessly collected as a kid, yearbooks (mine and my mom’s), an entire box full of photos, report cards from kindergarten to high school, art projects, mourning cards. So I hawked two boxes of collectibles for $40 at a flea market, which killed me a little since I had spent thousands of dollars of birthday/allowance money on that stuff and I knew my 8-year-old self would hate me now. But I will never depend on possessions again because I know that in ten years, everything I value that is material will be garbage. Over the past few years, this change has really helped (coupled with living in New York, where I have little choice about being a pack rat, of course); I try not to buy anything I don’t need and really think about this, and I don’t keep anything I don’t really use.

The rest, though, it had to go with me. How could I throw away pictures and drawings? The old trophies, piggy banks, music boxes, snow globes went in the trash bags, but the story I wrote at 11 came with me (I could only get the courage to read it to Anne over wine but I’m glad I kept it anyway). Even the countless VHS tapes, CD and DVD cases—what are they good for now? Did I really miss those tapes for 10 years? I kept all my children’s books but I even feel guilty about that. I have curbed my pack rat tendencies yet I still have hundreds of books. Are they making my life fuller? Maybe reading some of those books to my children will make me happy but not more happy than the act in itself. For a while in high school, I wanted my CD and movie collection to define me, like someone looking at my music would suddenly realize, “Ah. This girl. She’s got value.” In some ways, this is a result of our culture, this feeling that possessions define us, but I’ve never missed the things I’ve thrown out. The only sad part is that I forget them and therefore it’s like they never existed in moments that were important to me, and those moments go, too. But how much memory can we really preserve? How much control do we really have over possessions and our related memories? By keeping things, I’m not holding onto those moments, I’m just left with the skeletons.

Most people my age have an old home to go to, where their rooms are still preserved, or their possessions are sitting neatly in storage, awaiting their arrival. Grandma’s dishes, homemade Mother’s day cards, first blankies. I had to go through everything at 13 and decide, “You’ll want this, you’ll need this, don’t forget this, hold on to these.” But I was wrong about a lot of those things. And so they went to the garbage ten years later rather than immediately, and it didn’t feel good to know I had them waiting for me. Those things, they are much more precious when you know your mother and father saved them for you and your future, but not as sweet when you know you had to play that role yourself. Even now, with boxes of photo albums and loose pictures and my mother’s diplomas to go through and inevitably take up room in my Brooklyn apartment, I don’t feel more connected to my past. They’re still good to look at sometimes, and trust me, I showed Anne my small box with school achievements with pride, but it took me ten years to realize that carrying her life around with me (because I was the only one who would) didn’t bring her to back to life. And sometimes I wish that after she died, we could’ve set fire to the house like in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and her body and the possessions would’ve all went together.