I’m back from the weekend getaway…which, truth be told, was no leisurely vacation, but instead an apartment hunting trip, as I’m getting ready to move back to the city where my campus is located. My sabbatical year is coming to an end and in just two weeks from today [gulp!], my significant other and I will be driving a van full of my things cross-country.
I’m sad to leave my little apartment, the first place I ever lived truly on my own. It’s a cute 1 bedroom, 1 bath unit with a separate office, big walk-in closet and high ceilings, a perfect space for me and my little dog. It was my bachelorette pad, decorated just how I wanted it to be and with no one else’s mess laying around. I was free to watch all my Bravo TV shows and eat only salami, cheese and crackers with a bottle of wine for dinner, if I felt like it. The best part: the rent was only half what it would have been had this apartment been located in the city where I’m moving back to.
On the bright side, though, I’m looking forward to living in the place my partner and I just rented, which is a 2 bedroom, 2.5 bath townhouse in a great location of the city. Most significantly, it will be our first home that we share together, and I’m excited about this opportunity because I’m deeply in love and want to “nest” and make a comfy space for us to share with each other. (It helps that, like me, my boyfriend is a Virgo and keeps his things organized.) The townhouse is a good size for the two of us–not too big, not too small, and because it’s a townhouse, we’ll have more privacy and fewer neighbors than we would in an apartment complex. Moreover, it’s also in a part of town that I’ve never lived in before or even spent much time in, and so even though I’m returning to the city where I lived while I was married, it will feel like a new experience.
But for now, as my time at the current apartment winds down, I look around wistfully at my things and think about how much I’ll miss living here. Tied in with the wistfulness, though, is dread and a feeling of being overwhelmed by the prospect of having to pack everything up again. As anyone who moves to a new living space knows, you never realize how much stuff you have until you have to sort through and pack it all.
The last time I moved I was inspired to undertake a massive purging of belongings. At the time, I’d lost a lot of weight through the stress of divorce (I was barely eating), and so I got rid of all my clothes that were too big. And I didn’t want to keep much of the household stuff that I had with my ex-husband, as there were too many memories attached and at the end of the day, I just wanted to be out of there. Totally out. I looked at all the pots, pans, furniture, towels, etc. and said, “I’m just going to walk away from ALL of this!” Fortunately, my mom was there to talk me down from the ledge and point out that I should take some it to save the cost of starting completely over from scratch.
So again, wanting to pack as little and as efficiently as possible, I began the process of purging once more. I began with the clothes, trying on everything I own and putting on an impromptu fashion show for my dog, who weighed in (telepathically) on what looked good and what didn’t. However, because I did such a thorough job last time, I could only come up with two garbage bags full of clothes for Goodwill and one small bag of professional clothes that I’ll donate to an organization that helps low-income women find jobs. (Btw I encourage you to read “The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes,” a Slate article on what happens to the clothes we donate to Goodwill–it’s a real eye-opener!)
I got tremendously slowed down, though, by a box of old letters, planners and other mementos from my past. Because it turns out that when it comes to anything handwritten, I am *extremely* sentimental. I pretty much keep every single piece of paper ever mailed or given to me. Overwhelmed by the amount of paper (because in addition to this box are two others), I am instituting a new policy: I’m only keeping those cards and letters that (a) have an actual personalized message inside, not just a signature appended to a Hallmark-produced sentiment; and (b) are from people I actually like and keep in touch with today.
Amidst the letters, I found the following:
What I kept
- My weekly planners from 1998 – 2001, which detail the constant work of my early graduate school days. I decided to keep these. I like looking back and seeing what I was doing on such-and-such a date so many years ago.
- Letters from my friend Tom when he was serving in Iraq, one of which included a dinar with Saddam Hussein’s visage. We communicate a lot less nowadays, I think because we have a hard time tolerating each other’s political views (he’s extremely conservative while I’m extremely liberal). In any case, his observations about Iraq were entertaining and so interesting.
- Letters from my favorite high school English teacher, who whipped my writing into shape better than anyone else and who acted as a wonderful mentor to me long after I graduated. When I was sending out my Ph.D. graduation announcements, I was so sad to learn that she had died of cancer, and so these letters are that much more valuable to me.
- Long, thick letters from my friend Yolanda, who was also a mentor to me. She and I recently connected on facebook and seeing the sheer number of these old communiqués inspires me to strengthen our connection once again.
- Surprisingly, letters from my sister, who normally hates to write. When I posted a funny quote from one of these on fb, she responded, “A letter?”
- A ton of cards from my parents on every birthday and holiday. My mom’s handwriting is famously difficult to read, but she always signs off, “Love, Mother Hubbard.” My dad’s handwriting is neat and all caps, and though he doesn’t show much emotion in person, the notes he adds are always sweet and thoughtful. Of these, I only kept the ones with extra special messages.
- Well-wishes from my maternal grandmother, written in Spanish (often spelled out as things sound rather than formal and grammatically), which mainly consist of telling me how she prays the rosary for me every day and that God and the Virgen de Guadalupe are always watching over me. With these, I’m torn: the messages are almost always the same, but I love her handwriting and she’s currently so frail, I hate to toss any anything from her.
- Scraps of paper with ideas for short stories, back when I was still trying to write short stories. I kept most of these, in case I ever get inspired to do my creative writing again.
- Cards from my grad school roommate. I didn’t know who these were from at first, until I saw references to adventures we’d shared. For reasons unknown, she stopped talking to me back in 2004.
- Cards from my ex-husband. I thought I’d gotten rid of all of them, but some slipped through the cracks.
- Holiday cards from friends (featuring pictures of their growing families over the years), postcards from friends’ travels, even a “we changed our names” announcement from a couple who combined their last names when they got married.
Though the “tossed” list is much shorter, it is a miracle that I was able to throw away/recycle anything at all. Back home, in my dad’s basement, there are several boxes of letters and mementos dating back to my childhood. Seriously, like my notebooks from junior year AP US history; a draft of a five-page letter that I wrote to a high school crush, explaining why we should not break up; notes passed in class in eighth grade; letters from my seventh-grade pen pal; a Cabbage Patch diary I kept in fourth grade; artwork from first grade . . . . It is strange to look upon any of these items, especially the ones from my middle school years: Who is this strange person? I wonder. Did I really write these things?
What is the point of keeping all this? Even now, as I look at my “keep” pile, I know that I will never have the time to really reread letters from Yolanda, Tom or anyone else. If I’m honest, then I’ll admit that a part of me grandiosely imagines that one day, when I’m a famous writer, these will all be valuable archival materials: Perhaps another young Chicana academic will become interested in researching my life and work, and she will be pore over these documents, searching for elusive clues. It’s akin to what Brazilian singer-songwriter Chico Buarque so eloquently describes in “Futuros Amantes”:
E quem sabe, então
O Rio será
Alguma cidade submersa
Os escafandristas virão
Explorar sua casa
Seu quarto, suas coisas
Sua alma, desvão
Sábios em vão
O eco de antigas palavras
Fragmentos de cartas, poemas
Vestígios de estranha civilização
Roughly translated: And who knows, maybe Rio [de Janeiro] will be a city submerged, and divers will explore your house, your room, your things, your attic. Wise men in vain will try to decipher the echo of ancient words, fragments of cards, poems, lies, pictures, vestiges of a strange civilization.
FYI my favorite version of this song is performed by Gal Costa:
So it is in that spirit that I end up keeping a lot of personal documents. And one day, you just might see me on one of those hoarding shows.
But probably not because, I am, after all, a Virgo.