In my never-ending quest to declutter my house, I decided to get rid of some of the papers I’d been saving. First stop: a clear plastic box that I hadn’t opened in years. After dumping the papers onto the floor, I scanned the mess before me. It looked like trash.
“Hey, I’ll pay you five bucks if you shred all these papers for me,” I said to my daughter later that day.
The next day I borrowed my mother-in-law’s shredder and carried it into the family room where my tween was. “Why do you have all that?” she wanted to know, as she gazed at the huge piles of papers.
It was a good question, but the answer is complicated. I’m a saver and always have been. Worse, I’m overly cautious, saving everything just in case. Just in case what, though? I might need a copy of my taxes from 1995? An electric bill from 1993? Proof that I went to the eye doctor in 1997?
My girl got to shredding. Vvvrrr. It was music to my ears! But then something caught my eye, a letter addressed to my husband: “Dear John, This letter is to inform you that your school loan has been settled.” Ah. I recalled my husband sitting at the kitchen table of our first apartment, soon after getting married, writing the check.
“Here,” I said to my daughter. Vvvrrr.
I watched as she shredded paper after paper. What else was in that pile? I wondered. She had been shredding for a few minutes when I couldn’t help myself any longer.
“Wait!” I blurted out.
A group of receipts was scattered before me. One was for copies made at Staples, another for faxes sent from the local drugstore, one for an answering machine. Who leaves the house to make copies anymore? Do people even fax anymore?
I scooped up a bill with the name of a preschool on the header. I’m transported back to dropping off my toddler at class, scooting down low as she reached up to hug me tight before walking into the room. Nowadays, I’m the one who has to reach up for a hug.
“Can I get back to this now?” my daughter asked me.
Oh! A check stub for $303, won from a radio call-in contest when I answered a question correctly: “What never stops growing?” Answer: “Your nose.”
And what’s this? A pay stub from the trade newspaper I worked at in my late 20s. My boss at the time had thought I would like a reporter she knew. She arranged for me to cover a press conference the same day he’d be there. Two years later, John and I got married. The job was long hours, low pay and lots of stress, and in a small office where I inhaled tons of secondhand smoke, but I got a good husband out of it.
Splayed nearby was a yellowing receipt from the vet for our tiger-striped cat who died 12 years ago. Next to it, there was a receipt for $20 from the SPCA when we adopted a tiny black-and-white kitten, six weeks later.
So many papers. What to keep? Then I wondered, what if I wasn’t here and left all these papers? Would anyone want them? Would I want someone to have the task of looking at each paper and determining whether or not it’s important enough to keep?
The question depresses me, and I focus on today. Right now, I tell myself, if the papers stay, so do my memories. For a brief second, each time I look at one of these papers, time stands still, just like when I look at a photograph and am magically transported back to a specific day. I would never get rid of any of my pictures, but there are so many papers, and I have to declutter.
“Mom’s looking at these again!” my daughter calls out to my husband as she glances at the piles of documents and waits to earn her $5.
“Okay,” I tell her. “You can have these.”
And then, just as she inserts the next paper, I grab the pile, clutching it to my chest so none fall, and walk away. Maybe the next time I feel the need to declutter, these papers will make it to the shredder. But for now, I’m keeping them, and the memories behind them, a little longer.