My parents downsized from my childhood home 10 years ago.
I was relieved. They were empty nesters, and their knee and back problems were no match for two sets of stairs. Plus, I was a budding professional organizer and was hungry to address the decades of stuff that hadn’t had a place in their lives for years.
Like most people who downsize, they held onto easily containable boxes they didn’t feel compelled to immediately address. One such box was filled with love letters they’d written to each other over the decades. You see, my parents met each other when they were 12 while living on the same street in Brooklyn, and they’ve been married almost 50 years.
Now, owning a minimalist coaching business, I get a full report whenever they make a minimalist effort or achieve an organizing triumph (even now that they’re in a condo). Recently, my mom told me that they finally found the time to go through the box of love letters. They read them aloud to each other, laughing and remembering their own lives and love through their young words and stumbled poetry.
Given my mom’s continued desire to save family-related memorabilia, I was surprised that the final intention of this activity was to recycle all of these letters. I felt an internal reaction of “no!” No matter my encouragement for people to let go, these seemed far more important than the latest Marshall find or another Chico’s top. This was the good stuff—irreplaceable and loving, a perfect time capsule. But I was nonetheless proud.
My mom’s story feels different now as I sit in my apartment sorting through my memory box of letters. An approximately yearly routine, it feels different this time. Aside from the sweetness and moments of humor, I find some pain poking through.
It’s all there. The letters from my ex-husband feel so of another life. The beautiful cards that chronicled college and early 20s from an old friend who, too, feels like someone I used to know. My high school best friend’s letter where he wrote that he loved me and that there was only one Dara, yet we haven’t spoken in years.
Finally, letting go of my high school yearbook but not before ripping out the back pages of notes filled with inside jokes amongst friends. I’m sorry letters and recalling the strange pain of friendships while also reveling in their unique card-making creativity. Cards from the dead and seeing their handwriting feels like being called from the beyond. The birthday cards my younger brother made me on our family’s first computer publisher program. The goodbye notes from my dozen year-long career at the U.S. Green Building Council. The letter my mom wrote me when I left my family, friends, and hometown to start anew in Austin.
I’ve left so much behind.
It’s usually so easy for me. It’s so easy for me that I created a career of it.
I sit on the floor of my minimalist apartment, knowing that my current, profoundly fulfilling life is right there outside the walls. Yet, the memories from the most loving to those born from a distressing event are all pain to me. The pain of connecting back through my past feels different each year I’m separated from it. The people who weave in and out. The yearning for more love letters and the instinct to close the box.
The organized piles I made start to lose their meaning. I wonder why I torture myself.
Many artifacts are tossed through my emotional and practical sieves, but the process alters something in me. Even more empathy for my clients, with whom I sit in a similar fashion as they dart across time in their hearts. And more compassion for myself—what I’ve lost and let go. And for the space, I seldom go to, where an unexpected emotional wave crashes over me, even if it’s a simple note my sister passed to me between classes in high school.
Then I think about the love letters my parents held onto for so long. They weren’t holding onto them, really. For most, it’s simply easier to keep than release. While for me, it’s typically the opposite. But their love and memories existed in the present moment—each day. My box of letters holds emotions, people, and periods I never touch in the present. It’s jolting.
Minimalism is often a solitary practice. And what began as a fun organizing project hits too many heartstrings in that solitary space. Suddenly, I feel separate from my current life too. No one here can ever know the past me.
I’m the only one who knows all of me.
The written word has an uncanny ability to reach across time, and I almost wish I could burn them all. But I have to remind myself that there is a rare beauty in keeping—selectively and with love. It helps me better understand people with an attachment to other types of possessions. It’s a way to stay honest and not rewrite the past.
Maybe one day, I will read pieces from this trove, and someone will be there to listen. They’ll understand it all perfectly and laugh with me because they’ll know me just the same.
And that day, they can all go into the fire.