I got to thinking about old photographs, birthday cards, letters and such like when I was up to my neck in sodden muddy papers after been hit by the Durban storm of early last month.   Beautifully stored in big plastic boxes stacked one upon the other in the outbuilding was no match for the torrent of water that spilled them higgidly piggidly in mud and debris.

What then unfolded was the unsticking and laying out of photos on the floor of my kitchen and dining room to try and dry them, which happened,  but then they curled into tubes, or just faded away.

My collection of greetings cards from friends and family, sympathy cards on the passing of my father brother and mother, cards given to my brother on his 21st, my father’s leather photo albums from Egypt during the start of the 2nd World War, holiday photos etc could not be saved.

So I sat for a few days disposing of items – amongst them 5 years’ worth of Income Tax returns (I kept them in case they had queries – now that was really silly), bank statements (why I wonder – the money was already spent) my brother’s apprenticeship papers from 1968 and his work promotion letters up to 40 years later, family photos including when my mother was a teenager.

Talking about my mother’s photos – during the latter 8 years of her life, she had Dementia and could not remember that much, or too accurately.    Every Sunday I would fetch her from the Old Age Home to spend the day with me and I would often bring out the old black and white photos from her era and go through them – saying “and who is this person” to try and get her to stimulate the memory.     I secretly had such a laugh because although she did not remember my dad (who passed on some 20 years before her), but when I showed her a picture of a rather handsome young man circa 1935 – she would delightedly say “oh, that’s Cliffie Barrett.”    So, no doubt an old love interest I would think.

My file with all my work certificates, degree, diploma, awards was under mud as well and I was a little panicked until I realized that it was unlikely that I would need all of them for my next employer — with my next employer being unlikely seeing that I am in my 60’s !

Having thrown away so much documented memories, I thought that perhaps it was a good opportunity of decluttering?    I do not live in the light of those people in the photos, or the cards to my family from people I did not even know – so why on earth keep them?     They are not part of my life, and quite frankly – I never used to look at them, or read those cards, or refer to really old paperwork – so why keep them?  

Another point is that I do not have dependents, so what would happen to this collection after I go to meet my Maker ?   Perhaps it would necessitate a stranger to come in and clear up – and throw everything in the bin anyway.    It would certainly be a heartsore moment for friends to come and clear up and have them make the difficult choice to dispose of everything – perhaps leaving them with a feeling of being disrespectful of my life.    It almost felt that I needed to be the one to dispose of those items, as it was an honourable deed to be done by the person who loved those to whom these items belonged.

One of my friend’s whose FaceBook page always features photos of her sons – one alive and one in Heaven.   If you had never met her in real life, you would not know what she looks like – as it appears that she uses that memorabilia almost as a shrine.     She does not feature at all in this public media life.   To my mind, if you spend time thinking about those people, does it mean that you are not spending enough time living your own life – living in the present.

Do you have collection of ‘stuff’ ?  Is it meaningful for you to keep it ?   Do you ever go through it ?    It you think it may be meaningful for others – say family photos, wouldn’t it be a wonderful gesture to pass them on to your children – your grandchildren.   All your greetings cards – make a collage, an artwork, give them to the people who recycle them for funds.   What about the Christmas decorations – if you no longer decorate your home at this time of your life, another lovely idea is to pass them on to another family (if your family has enough) – and if this other family would love to have them, but do not know how to decorate, why not have a little function at their home where you can show them how to decorate their home.   ‘Your’ decorations will then have a purpose and will continue to please and be meaningful.   There is no point in them being kept in a box.   Your stored ornaments, or excess of ornaments placed on your shelves – do your children want them – if not, then sell them or donate them to your favourite charity.   Maybe one of your favourite people has admired one of them – why not give that person a lovely gift, and you know it will be loved.  Then the item becomes purposeful.  

I am a great advocate of recycling – or repurposing as I prefer to call it.    So little needs to be thrown away.    Take broken or cracked items to the local Waste/Refuse Centre – there are people there who collect such items, repair them and sell them for money on which to live.  

Decluttering / minimalsing  – call it what you want to – is a great and monumental gesture in simplifying your life.  Being able to find something immediately instead of going on a quest for it, gives such a sense of control.   Keeping the “just in case” items such as your thin clothes when you can fit in to them (which will never happen) or the old cell phones (Motorola left South Africa 15 years ago or thereabouts and never to return), or the text books from your Matric year, or the French CD’s when you wanted to learn the language to use on your year’s break between your studies – oops that was 15 / 20 / 30 years ago.

I would like to relate a story of connection through memories.    Being interested in Family Tree research, I have my family’s Tree on one of the genealogical websites for that purpose.   If another person registered on the site wishes to make an enquiry on yours, they email you.   Such was an email I received recently from a person not known to me mentioning my great aunt Mary Newing.   He said that his grand grandfather William Hughes had been married to a Mary Newing and he was doing research on his father’s family, but that has his grandfather had been adopted, he was looking for clues as to the biological parents.   Now, I was aware of some of the history through my mother having related her side of the story – been send to school in East London (her home was in Umtata) from a very young age and boarding with her father’s sister, Mary – the same Mary as mentioned in the enquiry.   Mom had mentioned to me that they had 2 adopted children.    I wrote back to my enquirer telling him this, unfortunately not being able to give any clues as to the biological parents, but to pass on a memory of his great great grandfather, Bill.    Apparently ‘Aunty Mary’ was a real sergeant major, and Bill escaped to his workshop of an evening.   Mom remembered him in vest – or singlet – as they termed it then, his long trousers and hat, gazing out the window, leg propped up on the workbench, smoking his pipe and drinking a beer.

However, I digress – but I need to say that memories are so much better remembered when they are ‘alive’ – when you can reminisce with a friend, or family member, of the stories of your mad Uncle Edward, or the funny thing that happened on the way to the seaside for a holiday, or Gran’s renowned Lemon Meringue Tart.

Unfortunately we are all seemingly running out of people with whom we can share these memories – we grow older and our connections depart this physical world, or immigrate and start new lives, and divorce is such a major player here.   The newer generation seems not to be interested in their/your heritage and of course, need we say, that we have lost the art of conversation and communication, especially with the generations after us older ones, who are lost without the alien appendage, the cellphone.

Strangely enough, during this time of throwing stuff away – I read an introduction to a “Borrowed Wisdom World Summit” sent to me by Joanne Fedler, one of the speakers.   Joanne is a wonderful author – a South African who has been in Australia for the past 20 years.    I met Joanne initially through correspondence with her in regard to one of her books that I had read, and then attended a weekend writing workshop at Dharmagiri, the Buddist Retreat in Underberg some years ago.

Her introduction was this:-

Many years ago I was travelling back after a year of studying in the U.S.   I had a ruptured disc in my spine and was carrying a backpack that probably weighed as much as I did (and that was just my hand luggage).   I happened to be sitting next to an African American jazz musician, and as we got read to get off the plane, he looked at me quizzically and asked, “Hell, girl, why you choose to carry such a load?”

He had no idea that those words summed up my entire life.   I always carried everyone’s load.   I was a baggage collector.   No wonder my disc got the hell in.  His question stuck and twenty five years later, I am still conscious that my job is to carry only what is light.”

My 5 big plastic storage bins of items have now reduced to a filing cabinet drawer. And I am comfortable with that. Eleven black refuse bags later have now gone – by the grace of Etekwini Solid Waste. Certainly the torn up sodden papers will be able to regenerate the earth, or become landfill.    Perhaps one day someone will pick up a photo, and wonder about the lives of the people featured. And that becomes someone else’s story, as it is no longer mine.


However, I did still keep a few things that I have no need for – but will at some stage in the future think of a way to pass them on; and these include :

  • My parents’ wedding day photographs that I saved
  • My brother’s Springbok Scout and Meritorious Service to Scouting awards
  • A few letters that my mom wrote to me and the 2 letters my dad ever wrote to me
  • A letter from my first boyfriend
  • My Grandfather’s Latin Grammar book circa 1904
  • My Dad’s Junior Certificate of 1935
  • War medals belonging to my dad and grandfather

So, going back to Joanne Fedler’s words – you need to carry what is light – to be light, to bring light into your home and space. Don’t be weighed down by possessions or baggage – yours, and others. Paper record is not the memory, what is in your heart is what sustains. Live for today and make that count.