Sorting through 42 31-gallon basement bins

There’s a lot of stuff in the world. An antique dealer told me this in my basement as he picked up, turned over, then put down piece after piece of my mother’s, father’s, and grandmother’s—now my—stuff.

My basement was stacked floor to ceiling with 42 translucent 31-gallon blue-lidded plastic bins packed with the past. The bin categories were: mom, dad, Jack, Cora, Charles, me. Subcategories were: work, play, need, worth-something, or memory. The underlying theme however, was that each past calendar, each shoe, each ring, broken toy, bulging address book, or math worksheet held a life.

This became a problem. Space dictated that I needed to deal with my anointed high-level significance of objects I either knew intimately or knew nothing about except that they were saved by mom. Plus, I wanted to be surrounded by the present, by potential, and life which could include a ping-pong table if I could just make the space.

I went for the easy stuff first. I got rid of fabric from projects I didn’t complete in 1974, letters written and bad art I’d made from relationships I no longer even cared to remember, and ballet slippers from gym class in college. Then I moved on to what froze me with stories and unspoken rules.

As I held a lone blue willow chipped and cracked plate in my hand, I heard mom say:  ‘that was my mother’s’. While I unwrapped one silver-plated wedding gift of hers and dads after another, I pictured us sitting at the counter polishing them carefully. Her concentration and careful repacking of each piece signified a value way out of proportion with actual worth. Mom grew up in poverty and apparently lived with the fear it would return and in awe that it didn’t. Her buying and saving two cashmere white coats, a dozen long evening gown gloves, each broken bit of costume jewelry, diamond cocktail ring, golf glove, a box of bobby pins—equally saved, packed, and neatly labeled reminded me that this saving cycle was mom’s keeping and remembering, not mine.

Along with all the the stuff, I had inherited her stories but didn’t own them. I learned I didn’t even like those two shell encrusted round end tables. Now, after months and hours unearthing, consigning, selling, editing, photographing, and distilling stuff to fit my own description of want or need, I believe that the significance of objects, like the faded tissue paper stuck to a prom corsage, is wrapped foremost with the weight of its story. Maybe next I get to assign my own value to stuff. Maybe I don’t need so many memory prompts and maybe I get to define my own relationship to objects. Because, after all, there’s a lot of stuff in the world.

Written Feb. 2010 and still revising…



  1. “which moment? The ones in our hands or the one in the in-between…”

    I won’t go all Proustian on you, but they are all the same moment – time is a restraining or restrictive force, but experience is expansive, eternal. Our experience or memory of things are more “real” than the objects themselves. We load the things with meaning that isn’t immanent.

    Waiting for the context or revelation may just be our way of saying “I am not done with this yet…” (do we do this all our lives? Seems like it!)

  2. Yes, thanks for this- I’ve read his ‘Without’ and ‘The Best Day The Worst Day’- these are on my list now. And I love your thought of context, or revelation of which I’m learning about. It’s OK for context to be a reach and additive to the whole – this used to be uncomfortable for me, but not any more! And as I post this that is a few years old, I am still clearing out so I can live in the moment. But still the question: which moment? The ones in our hands or the one in the in-between…

  3. I love this post, Margo. It reminds me of Donald Hall’s recollections of his family’s life on a farm in New Hampshire in String Too Short to Be Saved. The very brief preface is written” ” A man was cleaning the attic of an old house in New England and he found a box which was filled with tiny pieces of string. On the lid of the box was an inscription in an old hand: “String too short to be saved”.

    For a poet, like Hall, strings too small to be saved are often the small lines of text we keep packed up in our brain that occasional resurface – intact units of meaning, but needing something more – context, or revelation – before they can become part of a whole. Like boxes of parts for tools or appliances that we just may need/use some day.

    In this book and is his memoir, Unpacking the Boxes,Hall writes of the reason of why we hold on to things: because they are tangible mementos of places (in time) we can never return to – of worlds we can never revisit. But – perhaps more regrettably, he acknowledges that trying to hold the past may prevent us from living in the moment – our moment, our present.

    I think you would enjoy both books.

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