It happened on a sunny Saturday morning. As I put away breakfast dishes, my sister phoned and asked me to come help her clean out a couple of closets, dispose of some things. For 20 years, she had thrown remarkably little out. After vain attempts to cure her, I had finally come to accept her for what she was: A pack-rat. Now, she was asking me to wade through old photographs, cards, letters, souvenirs of her former self. The unbelievable had happened.
Confident I would see she kept no more than necessary, I quickly accepted her offer, before she could change her mind.
Cheerfully, I drove to her home, rang the doorbell, let myself in, and strolled to the back bedroom. There she stood, surrounded by a heap of cardboard boxes. Smiling, she motioned me in.
"Just getting started," she said, heartily, reaching for another box in the dim closet.
Surprised by her enthusiasm, I eagerly accepted the bulky carton she handed down from the top shelf, carried it to the bed, dutifully opened it.
"No, no," she said, waving her hands. "Don't open them; I'm just going to trash everything."
"Without even looking at it?” My voice had a peculiar ring.
"Yeah," she said. "If I haven't looked at it in this many years, why bother now?” She laughed.
I said nothing, but wondered what had come over her.
And then—unable to stop myself—I peeked inside the large brown box in front of me.
"You're not throwing this away!" I gasped, pulling out a small cardboard plaque.
"Why?" she said, not looking. "What is it?"
"What is it? It's Humpty-Dumpty-Sat-On-A-Wall. That's what it is!"
She cast me a look.
"Do you have any idea how old this thing is?" I asked, sounding so quivery I sat down. "This ... this is priceless!” So extreme was my statement, I hesitated to be sure I had heard myself correctly.
Silently, I stared at the colorful picture of Humpty Dumpty straddling a tall brick wall, all the king's horses and all the king's men looking up from below, pale and panicked.
On the flip-side I saw Little Boy Blue, fast asleep under a haystack. Then I spied a tiny, rusty circle at the top and recalled the countless nights I fell asleep with this little plaque thumb-tacked above my bed, my sisters sleeping peacefully beside me.
I felt an odd stirring in my chest. I looked at my sister, but she was reaching for more stuff, unaware of my inner struggle.
Cradling Humpty Dumpty in one arm, I dug deeper into the open box. Here was the miniature cedar chest—a souvenir from Alabama—I used to pack with shiny buttons and polished stones, pretending they were costly jewels from a boyfriend. Carefully, I lifted the lid, stuck my nose inside. The scent of cedar had long since vanished, but the little chest seemed like a childhood friend; one who kept my secrets and shared my dreams.
From all appearances, the boxes before me were stuffed with similar objects. If we threw all these things away, I could never again recapture this feeling of discovery. I felt downright weepy.
I turned to my sister. "Look," I said, firmly, "I don't think you should throw all this stuff away.”
"You could at least have a garage sale,” I said. "Something!"
She laughed again.
I knew she was laughing at me. For years I'd been the one hassling her about saving things; about not being able to separate the past from the present. If you didn't use it, I preached, sell it. Trash it. Clear the clutter. She had finally come to her senses. So what had come over me?
Appearing thoughtful, she said, "Just lay the things you might want over to the side. When we're done you can take them with you. Or whatever ...” Surveying the relics before me, I almost wept with relief.
The rest of the afternoon moved smoothly. For every item my sister tossed, I found one to keep. Her closet was so empty, it echoed. My pile, however, rose dangerously high, yet I couldn't part with a single thing.
When at last it came time to go, I could not believe my eyes. Boxes on top of boxes lined the trunk of my little car. Meekly, I waved good-bye and drove out of sight, the rear of the car sagging.
On the drive home I was totally converted. I began seeing my relics as a person might view her life—the events they represented, whether wonderful or painful, created the person I had become. The contents of these boxes were pieces of history; to destroy them would be to destroy a part of myself. For like bleached shells scattered aimlessly along the sandy shores, vacant, stony houses of nothing, so are we without our memories; without our treasures of yesterday.
This essay first appeared in The Dallas Morning News. All rights reserved.