The past can become obsolete, but we can create relevance

IRON MOUNTAIN — There is a fine line between being a sentimentalist and a hoarder. I find that I often waiver between the two, but I don’t hold myself fully accountable, as I come from a lengthy line of those who border on extreme hoardism.

My husband has always been amazed at the many reasons that I can come up with as a valid excuse to hold onto something. He’s found pencils and pens that I’ve had from high school, and I say, “I wrote my first paper with that” or “that was given to me by so and so,” but they don’t work, and there’s no ink left in them, and yet despite the logical reason to toss them, I’ve decided to hold onto them. Thankfully, he’s entered my life, and throws them away for me.

My baby sister graduates high school this year, which 1. Makes me feel old, and 2. Gave my mom the much-needed desire to literally clean out every nook and cranny of her home. She went through every box and cabinet in the basement, cleared out old files and bins of our old schoolwork, tossed dishes that had sat in the china cabinet for 20 years and thoroughly cleared the shelves of the garage. She washed windows, emptied closets, tore down old swing sets and trampoline sets that had aged over time and discovered secret pockets in drawers where mice had stored stolen cat food. She was on a mission, so much so that the dust and must from years past gave her a sinus infection but even that didn’t stop her.

I helped her clean out her closet — I’d hold up a dress and say, “This should never have left the ’80’s,” or “good” after I asked if she had any attachment to a certain shirt and she responded with no. She had me help her because she knew that I would be honest, and together we made the hanging racks that held blouses and jackets much happier.

We cleaned out the drawers of my old room, where my hoodies and tees from high school were stored — they were the pieces of my history that I’d chosen to keep, tees that were for my extracurriculars and hoodies with my class year, but I hadn’t looked at them in nearly a decade, so did I really need them all? We cleaned out my bin of old shoes and dresses that I’d deemed “savers” years before but didn’t really want anymore.

On her own, she found an old slide projector for photos that had belonged to my dad’s parents, and she found my Grandpa Swanson’s old leather bank pouch with bank statements still in it, as well as the face of one of his watches. She found hand-painted dishes that were from her aunt on her mom’s side, and all of the birthday items she’d used to bake us igloo and Barbie cakes when we were growing up. She found her old high school yearbooks and college photographs. She found the senior portrait of my father that my Grandma Hazel had hidden behind her dresser, because she loved her “Peter Boy” and refused to not hang his picture, but she also hated his shoulder-length hair and refused to look at it every day. She found the “Pretty, Pretty Princess” game that I used to play religiously, and the Lincoln Logs that my brothers used to make homes of every Sabbath morning. These are the things she found that she kept, because while towing the line between sentiment and hoard, these items clearly fell into the former of the two categories.

She did, however, toss a drawer full of cords that dated back to VHS players and old video cameras. She threw out the old bunk beds my brothers slept on in their adolescence because not only do their legs now stick out far beyond the edge of the bed, none of us wanted them, and why should she store them any longer? Together, at the kitchen table, we went through a giant box of old CDs — ones that were hers, mine and my sister’s — and we kept more than we tossed, but we organized and moved discs to their appropriate houses. As we were going through the old CDs, the CDs that got me through teenage hormones and long car rides, I realized that what records were to me growing up — an antiquated way of listening to music, yet a classic nostalgia to know — CDs would be to my kids. Would my children ever know what a cassette tape was, or a VHS for that matter? Would there even be CD players anymore, or Walkmans, so that I could show them how they worked?

In today’s ever-evolving world, everyday items are continuously becoming obsolete. I grew up in the age where technology was at its highest. The internet took off in my youth, and smartphones were created when I was a teen, but I’m privileged to still remember a time when cell phones were nonexistent. As a kid, when I had to write a research paper, we used encyclopedias, not Google. I remember as a curly-haired 5-year-old sitting in my mom’s reading room, pulling the large, black, leather-bound books off of the shelve and, according to alphabetical order, learning all about plants and volcanoes and frogs. I remember when we had to use a dictionary to find the meaning of the word, not just Siri on our phones. In college, digital cameras that had a “flip” function so that “selfies” could be taken were all the rage, but now, you never see someone walking around with a camera of any kind, unless they’re a professional. Paper maps and GPS devices are no longer needed, as long as you have your cellular device, and don’t even get me started on fax machines. Landlines are becoming few and far between because no one wants to pay for the pleasure of having a phone twice, and alarm clocks are a thing of the past; I don’t even think my sister would know how to set one.

Paper bills in the mail are no longer needed, and the idea of setting aside a day to pay bills is even outdated as you can set mostly anything to autopay, and you can go through your life being “responsible” without even trying. When I was in grade school, we used floppy discs to store info, then it became external hard drives and USB sticks, and now it’s “the cloud.” Car keys are ceasing to exist, as many models now only require fobs and a push start, and receipts are less and less as you can email or text them instead of printing. With the amount of streaming services that there are, services that allow you to watch your favorite TV shows and movies at a much lower cost than DirecTV does, cable companies and DVD players will most likely bite the dust in the near future. Even print magazines and newspapers are going online more and more.

My mom has always said that she wonders what her grandma felt like. Her grandma had seen both the World Wars, witnessed cars being made and factories put into place; she’d seen decades of fashion changes and gone from milk being delivered to driving to the store to pick it up. She’d seen computers come into play and gone from once listening to her president on the radio to watching him on the television, in black and white and then in color. We have always been a world of progress and change, and with that, fossilization.

As I mentioned, in her cleaning state, my mom made the decision to tear down our old swing set. It was the right decision. The set had been rotting for years due to no use, and it was a set that was nearly 30 years old. But it was my childhood. I used to pull splinters out of my hands because it was made of wood, but I loved the monkey bars. We had all carved our names and initials somewhere in its groves, and through the years while the stain color had changed, the blue of the felt awnings and slide never had. It was the set my dad had mastered “underdog” on as he pushed me higher and higher until my toes touched the sky. It was the playground of my childhood, and watching it come down, piece by piece, was hard, but it was life, and it was necessary.

I’ve said before that progress is relative. Sometimes we move forward so quickly that we forget pieces of the past that should be remembered. We are so concerned with driving ourselves into the future that while in the present, we don’t stop enough and smell the roses. Helping my mom clean out her house and hearing her tell me all the things she’s found that she’d forgotten she’d ever had has been one heck of a trip down memory lane, and has even helped me form pictures in my mind of experiences that I was never a part of, but the purity of chaos rid is always a relieving feeling. Everything in her home now has its place. She didn’t throw out the things she’d found of value, but she was able to place them in newly emptied drawers so that she knew exactly where they would be.

Humans are a funny species; we’re a group of people that are always growing, but also forever taking things for granted. When I was teaching in Chicago, I used to make sure my kids used dictionaries and not their phones, but before they used them, I had to teach them how to look up the words they were required to learn. I had to put the effort into making sure a piece of history wouldn’t be forgotten. We can’t stop progress, and we can’t make time stop, but we can bring it with us, if it’s important. We don’t need a drawer full of old, useless cords tagging along into the next generation, but a road atlas wouldn’t hurt.