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Haunted by artifacts of personal history

Not the Retiring Type

Not long after the moving van deposited the bed and boxes in the condominium that has become our new home I woke one morning with a baby dress on my mind. The dusty rose baby dress that my grandmother crocheted for me. The baby dress I put in a donation box as we prepared for this move.

A decade ago I plucked the dress from a trunk of musty clothing when clearing my mother’s home a final time. I tucked it into a plastic storage bin in an upstairs closet of our house and put it out of mind. Now, it woke me with wistful memories.

It wasn’t the dress so much as the threads of connections it contained. If I chanced to catch a glimpse when looking for something else, it released an instant image of my farm-worn grandmother—thin, almost gaunt in her late years, sharp of nose and eye, bent always over some handwork—crocheting, quilting, leather tooling—or in the kitchen filling canning jars with green beans, peaches, or tomatoes to see her through the winter. Or though the imminent Armageddon she warned of. Those days she lived alone in town but memory flashes me back to the farm on the outskirts of Lebanon where her garden would have filled a city block. The ample cellar dug into in the hill behind the house released a heady mixture of potatoes, apples, and homemade root beer.

Now I worry—will I remember my grandmother as vividly without the dusty rose baby dress that flashed her image at each encounter. What other memories had I tossed aside too callously while culling the keepsakes of a lifetime?

What, for example, about the Guatemalan market blanket—coarse wool woven in strong patterns of blue and grey. For years it languished in the closet, brought out only on occasion of a picnic or an outdoor Cuthbert performance. Should I have kept it, not just for the picnics but for the memories it sheltered of early marriage travels in Central America? Fearless adventurers in a VW van, bargaining in the tumultuous market place of Chichicastenango for hand woven artistry.

We never unfolded that blanket with out recalling a beloved Costa Rican friend who disdained our market purchase. “Se pica” he said with an apologetic grimace when we offered it as a gift. “It scratches.” He’s gone now, and so is the blanket that projected his presence for so many years.

Acquaintances who traveled before us on this path to leaner living assure me that letting go of all this “stuff” is freeing. They insist they feel lighter and more alive without the dust of history spilling out of closets. I hope they are right. So far, the lightness I feel is unsettling not liberating. I feel adrift in the waves of a transition.

The reaction surprises me a bit. We planned this change and made the move with a conscious commitment to downsize into a more manageable living space before age or infirmities made the decision for us.

In the tumultuous final days before our move, with the house sold and deadline pressure building, I grew ruthless. The Guatemalan blanket went. So did the tea service we unwrapped as a wedding gift. The little Hummel music box from my mother-in-law went too. It didn’t fit anything in my decorating style—but resonated at a touch with her love and support. Where would I put it in reduced space, I asked myself as I left it on a table of sale items.

After the moving van transferred us from house to condo, I returned to walk through rooms filled with history and stories—tables piled with a timeline of our years, readied now for a weekend sale by a team of estate sale professionals. Who would have thought that we had this much “stuff?” In five decades of marriage, we’d amassed a daunting hoard of mementos, treasures, bad purchases, forgotten gifts, and things “too good to throw out.”

Each evening when sale shoppers departed and the house was empty I slipped back to assess the losses and test the strength of my willpower. Each visit brought one or two items snatched from potential loss. A mirror. Four salad plates. A crystal serving bowl. But three months later I’m still mulling things left behind. I wake in the morning fretting about tossing memories too carelessly aside.

“Discard anything that doesn’t spark joy,” advises a currently popular approach to decluttering or downsizing. Pick up that Hummel music box or the dusty rose baby dress. Hold it in your hands. If it doesn’t bring joy the moment you touch it, let it go, this guide suggests. But it’s something more than joy I’m missing. It’s not so simple as that. It wasn’t joy that nestled in the music box or baby dress. It was my history. My past. The stories and people and places that have shaped me.

This may not be the Armageddon my grandmother tried to prepare me for, but it’s delivered days of reckoning nonetheless. In the end, I think my grandmother would be satisfied. I brought along my old sewing machine and a box of canning jars.

Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact her at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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