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What We Keep

Nancy's office memorabilia

I can’t recommend any filing system that entails tossing papers, photos, ticket stubs, calendars, cartoons, letters, cancelled checks, children’s school projects, doodles, and doodads into drawers, telling yourself: Someday I might want to look at these.

Today is someday. The contents of my file drawers now span six decades, and, in truth, I can’t say I want to look at any of it. Over time, those drawers have grown weighty.

I know, for example, that somewhere in there I will find correspondence marking my estrangement from my brother. Records of medical crises, divorce papers, seven years’ worth of day-by-day notes from my parents’ caregivers (B completed her PT exercises. She then needed a break. It was rainy so she decided to stay in and we played a few games of Chinese checkers.)

On balance, and so far, has mine been a life well lived? This question hangs over my files as I begin the pruning and pitching.

Some papers are easy to discard. Case in point: a drawer full of pre-internet travel research consisting of (imagine!) magazine articles and notes on recommendations from friends. Others, like the folder of “blooper” resumes I’ve gotten over the years, still bring a smile. One young writing candidate, touting her marketing campaign for a physician’s medical software, illustrated the dangers of misplaced modifiers: Unveiled at a conference, our good doctor was swarmed with interest.

Playbills go into the trash, but I keep stubs from concerts I’d promoted with my ex when we were young, broke, and reckless: REM, Burning Spear, The Residents, Emmylou Harris, The Chieftains. I toss out literature from volunteering on political campaigns but keep old NOW credentials.

A basket full of post-its and scraps with notes from my children are coming home with me. I pitch greeting cards but not photos. I also keep letters from old college boyfriends. Is it time to reconnect? Dear Larry, on second thought, I will move to Miami after all.

What I find, above all, is serendipity. Decisions made, opportunities taken and missed, the twists and turns, large and miniscule, that have shaped my life. I find evidence of times when I was not kind, but otherwise find little to regret. That is the surprise. Digging through old job offers, I feel certain I made the right decisions in declining. Looking at the sketch of a wedding dress I had envisioned in the 1980s, I realize how poorly it would have suited my short-waisted figure.

I find a photo of my Kentucky Avenue townhouse, with my paltry belongings for sale on the stoop, as I laid the groundwork for a move to Seattle. I am wearing impossibly silly running shorts. What if I’d gone? Would I have had other children? In a photo beneath that one, my son is almost two and rides on my shoulders. Some researchers say that photos override our memories and displace them, that once we have the photo in our memory, we lose the real memory. But I remember how cold it was that day, the sound of his laugh, the feel of his small feet in my hands.

Love to all and don’t sweat the small stuff,

Nancy Reese