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  • Clémence R. Scouten

That's not junk! Oh, wait...

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

What are we doing with all this stuff? And how do we get rid of it? Or should we?

Do you get overwhelmed at the idea of cleaning out the attic or basement? Even just one box of stuff can send some of us into real panic.

Why? Because there is no easy answer for how to make decisions about what we should toss or keep.

I don't mean junk like the stuff that routinely needs to be eliminated like clothes the kids grew out of, or broken kitchen appliances. I mean the stuff that we can't seem to let go of.

Items to which we assign sentimental value get us all tripped up. Normally rational minds go haywire. Suddenly, it makes sense to rent storage to keep box after box of objects we don't know what to do with. Or worse, furniture that doesn't fit in our homes. China we'll never use. Photos of people we don't know. Books we read in high school. The list goes on...

It's stressful to make decisions about emotions. It really is. But it doesn't mean you have to keep everything.

Sometimes, it's as easy as just figuring out whether an object really is meaningful to you. If it is, keep it and preserve it. If it's not, out it goes! How to tell if an object is meaningful

Let’s take a second to dive a little deeper into what makes an object meaningful. Objects can be meaningful for a few reasons:

  • It is loved.

  • It is unique in some way.

  • It is tied to an important memory.

  • It represents something or someone to you.

  • It is the only object tied to a person or memory.

  • It has real historical significance.

On the flip side, watch out for fake reasons (wishful thinking) that commonly inflate an object’s value:

  • It may be worth something one day.

  • It may be useful to someone one day.

  • The kids will want it.

  • This could be restored and become valuable.

Try using these criteria to evaluate an object of your own.

What to do with meaningful objects

Let’s think through one example together.

“I have a collection of 100 photos of great grandmother Betty. There are photos of her as a baby, child, teen, and adult. Betty was the only daughter of one of the original settlers of her hometown in Washington state. She is with other people (who I cannot identify) in many photos. Betty was an important person in my father’s life, but I never met her. There are a few stories about Betty my dad told me, which I think are sweet, and good stories about the family.”

What should I do?

Well, there are a number of options.

  1. If you’re a fan of old photos, keep them (though you may want to throw away old frames, damaged photos, or duplicates.) Even if you’re a fan of photos, you probably don't need ten photos of Betty when she was a baby. Take steps to properly store and preserve the ones you do keep. That means archival quality storage boxes, scanning, and labeling.

  2. If you’re a fan of stories, write down the stories you remember, and keep only a handful of photos of Betty. Don’t worry about the quality of the writing, just get the story down on paper. Don’t forget her basic biographical information (birth, death, marriage, children, whether she worked, etc.)

  3. Do both things above and combine the two to create a book or e-book for family.

  4. Contact the historical society of Betty's town in Washington to see if they want the photos.

  5. You can see there is no right or wrong answer. It really is a judgement call about what works for you. A lot depends on how much you care about cultivating the story of your family. If you're in charge of the family archive, then it's really up to you how you will capture your family's legacy.

Here’s another example:

Grandma’s dishes. The dishes are somewhat worn and chipped; they have no monetary value. I was very close to my grandma. I remember what breakfast tapioca looked like in those bowls, the pattern of the dishes, and how I loved being in her kitchen. I remember the larger family get-togethers she organized. But, I don’t entertain. I have a lot of plates already.

What should I do?

Family archives aren't limited to photos.
Preserving family history can mean using what ancestors made, and telling those stories, as opposed to keeping those things in storage.

This too is a judgement call. In the end, I decided to use the dishes. They serve no purpose packed up, and I couldn't bring myself to throw them away. If they break, they break.

This is also what I did for a set of embroidered napkins and matching tablecloth. Incredibly, I have a photo of her embroidering the tablecloth when she was young!

When the fabric wears out, they will be gone, but they will have served their purpose. I think my grandmom would be very proud to know I use them.

If I didn't like the dishes and linens, and if I didn't have the opportunity to use them, that would be a different story.

In that case, I could throw them away or donate them. But what good would it do for them to be packed up in a box, unused and at the mercy of moths, mice, and time?

Family legacy, family history, family archives... call it what you want. But it's your family, and you have the power to capture the stories of the people you know and love.

Maybe it's junk, maybe it's not. Maybe you'll keep it all, maybe you won't. But the stories aren't junk. They're family.

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