I’m A Memory Keeper’s Daughter

Written by a cleaning expert, Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing sounds like the perfect spring read. One which, apparently, everyone and her mother are inhaling. (I have not, nor has my mother.) But this morning it came up in conversation around the topic of spring-cleaning. When doing so, Ms. Kondo suggests taking each item in hand and sensing how it makes one feel. Anything that does not “spark joy” should be discarded.

By nature of my semi-nomadic existence, I’m both lucky and unlucky to not have a lot of “stuff.” My moves have tended to be more “sparks” of inspiration than sagely planned strategies. Most latterly, a three-month sabbatical to California morphed into a two-years-and-counting stay. When this started to become apparent, I realized I needed to rent out my NYC home. I assumed I could rent as is but, upon finding the perfect tenants, realized to my dismay they intended moving into an empty space. Which gave me approximately two days to erase seven years of living. I decided neither to ship nor store; I purged and purified. I let go of almost every possession. I didn’t have the luxury of sitting and feeling into each item, nor thanking it for its years of dutiful service, as Ms. Kondo advises; the best I could do was find it a new home. And fast. It was frightening and freeing, exhausting and energizing, all at the same time.

However, my gypsy ways are only partly responsible for my being an epic purger.

I grew up in a house that’s been home to five generations of my family. As a child, it was a treasure seeker’s paradise. I’d spend hours digging in desks, trunks, bureaus, bookcases, hat boxes and tea chests, running my fingers over old books, old photographs, old wax seals, old family crests, old clothes, old top hats, old mementoes of old travels. It was endlessly fascinating. However, as I grew up, and a veil began to descend over my eyes, I began to see these rich antiquities as little more than really old annoyances.

As an adult, I came to covet and crave white space. The clarity of my environment affects the clarity of my mind; if I’m living amidst chaos, my mind feels chaotic. Sparseness is a wonderful canvas on which to paint. Yet, without life’s hidden treasures, I would have no palette with which to color it.

I recently had an epiphany around this, and my aversion to clutter. I’ve been working on a book inspired by a bunch of old family letters that found their way into my hands. One at a time, a bundle would surface from amidst the trunks, tea chests and hatboxes, as if conjured by magic. Mailed lifetimes ago, from all corners of the globe—Ireland, India, England, France, Portugal, Mexico, America—the letters have one thing in common: their destination was Rossmore, the home of my childhood.

Remarkably, although several hundred years old, and having been in no way preserved or protected throughout their concealment in a seventeenth century dwelling drenched with the damp Irish air, the letters have survived perfectly intact, albeit at times indecipherable due to my ancestors’ infernal habit of running out of paper. In answer to which, they’d turn the page on its side, and write across the words just set down. Imagine the puzzle this presents when done on both sides of a piece of tissue-thin airmail paper.

But I digress. My point is, were it not for generations of women, like my mother, who acted not just as house keepers but as memory keepers, this remarkable slice of his- and her-story would have never been preserved. My search for the corresponding correspondence has proved as much. Case in point: Lord Waterford, a regular writer, whose family records fell prey to the clutches of an overzealous house keeper in the 1920s who, in a spring cleaning frenzy, burned all the priceless, irreplaceable papers she could lay her hands on.

Now, does this make me a born-again fan of clutter? No. But it has allowed me appreciate anew the merit in feeling into the mysterious energy of an object and allowing it tell me its story. It may well be that I, too, am a memory keeper—a custodian of an apparently trifling thing that may, in the fullness of time, prove itself a priceless treasure.