Last weekend I cleaned a friend’s grandfather’s old house in East Meadow, Long Island. An octogenarian, Seymour Mausner recently moved to an assisted living home and his family is putting his old house on the market. To do so, they are emptying the house of anything personal. Enter five college kids, 100 garbage bags and an endless attic filled with the possessions of a man who owns, among hundreds of other things, a copy of every “National Geographic” since 1959.
Cleaning out a non-relative’s old house is a lot like a reverse archaeological dig. Instead of diligently toothbrushing out a preservative chasm to gingerly recover a trove of inner treasures, the amateur houseiologist (me) roughly seizes, glances at, and hauls out most of the artifacts to be thrown away, buried and forgotten. I quickly tossed out dog-eared photo albums, a 1938 Bushwick fourth-grade class portrait, and endless numbers of old college books to the Salvo/family heirloom pile in favor of keeping a faded canvas bag, a particularly ‘retro’ jacket and even the ink tape companion to a pilfered typewriter I will likely never repair. Fifty-year-old bar mitzvah invitations that Seymour had worried over, made a to-do list regarding, and sent around to his closest friends became recycling.
As I carried bag after bag of attic paraphernalia to its final resting place, I could not help but feel a little guilty and sad. Guilty because every round trip to the dumpster included a quick, “Well Here Goes Your Childhood Stuff!” shuffle past the very family members named in the bar mitzvah invitations, and sad because for the first time in my life, it occurred to me that some day in the far but not-that-far future, some other group of college kids will be cleaning out my attic not as a favor to me but for the dollars, new books, and laughs they were offered to do it.
The observations about our increasingly digital lifestyle that Kathryn Olivarius ’11 made in her column two weeks ago adds a twist to this sadness. The column begs the question: will the attics of the future be less full as more bar mitzvah invites become e-vites? Ultimately, objects only have meaning as long as there are people to convey it upon them. What happens when these objects cannot be held, when their textures cannot be recalled and are only preserved (if it all) by pixels on a screen?
For Seymour’s relatives, cleaning out his attic was a memorialization process. It was one method of paying tribute to his life. As the family to whom I apologized repeatedly reminded me, it was part of the grieving process. Prized treasures were appreciated and kept, unpleasant memories forgotten in the same way apocryphal family stories never truly represent the events that inspired them.
In many ways, memorialization is the recognition that someone might be remembered in the way we hope to be. That she might dodge history’s landfill. We want to believe our family members will do the same. But most of us won’t. I went into the weekend expecting nothing more than selfish rewards, but looking back, I can’t help but feel unexpectedly grateful. Grateful for a renewed appreciation of my youth while recognizing the tragedy built in to it. Fearful for my attachment to .jpegs that are even less tangible than Seymour’s photo albums. And, ultimately, relieved that I’m not in his place. At least, not yet.