“I burned the letters,” my mother said.
“The letters” needed no explanation. She was referring to the two hundred pieces of mail my parents exchanged in the early years of their marriage, during the time my father was stationed at Army bases in the South and my mother was living in Astoria, N.Y.
I was staying in her house at the time, and in the 10 minutes it had taken me to do my morning meditation in another room, they were gone. Tiny bits of paper lingered under the smoldering logs, but no discernible words remained.
“All of them?” I asked.
“I saved two.”
I was devastated. I remembered the little bundles tied together with bakery string in a shoebox in the cedar closet of my childhood home.
But are we going too far?
I understand the impulse. In 2014, when Marie Kondo’s book was first published, I took on the task of going through the modest Santa Monica home and garage that I shared with my 14-year-old son. Despite being a minimalist, I still managed to fill 28 black garbage bags with unnecessary stuff. The most daunting task was tackling the papers from four decades. Bills and taxes. Letters and cards. College papers. Early drafts of essays and novels. When taken from closets and drawers, they filled my entire office. I reduced them to one filing cabinet drawer for important family documents and one small box for sentimental keepsakes. It took three weeks.
I felt lighter. Free. And this past year when I packed up that place to return to the East Coast, it made things easier. So why did I want to throw up over a lost box of letters?
The obvious answer was that I’m a writer and I treasure anything having to do with words. In my own purge, I kept my refurbished Smith Corona typewriter, my composition notebooks filled with tiny scrawl and many books.
My mother doesn’t have an attachment to words like I do. She loves stuff. In recent years, she’s become a bit of a hoarder — a very clean and organized hoarder but a hoarder nonetheless. If you lose a pair of sunglasses, don’t worry. She’s got 40 spares to choose from. And if you need a creamer, rest assured there are 17. Blank birthday cards. Zucchini spiralizers. Countless tchotchkes from yard sales and TJ Maxx. I dread the thought that someday I’ll have to deal with it all.
So, when I set up her birthday iPad and the first show she binged on was Kondo’s “Tidying Up,” I was optimistic. The next day my mother took to her closet with purpose, but eight hours later she had just three small bags to give away.
Burning those letters, though, brought my mother the same feeling of freedom I got from eliminating stuff. “I feel much better. I’m so glad to be rid of all that,” my mother said while setting the table for dinner that night. I instantly teared up, and she took me in her arms. “I’m sorry. I should have asked you first.” And then she said, “But you weren’t even born then.”
She’s right, I wasn’t born. And it hit me — that’s why they meant so much. They were love letters, heightened by separation and the Vietnam War, but without question, love letters. Two hundred pieces of tangible evidence that love did once exist between the people who gave me life. By the time I came around their relationship was far from loving, but the shoebox and its contents were proof that it had once been different.
Then I understood that my reason for wanting the letters was hers for needing to let them go. My parents’ love didn’t last. They fought for decades, then finally divorced. For my mother, it was time to let all that go.
I still endorse having less, but the tricky part about decluttering is that the very same item can mean different things to different people. Is there an obligation to ask or initiate a conversation with others who might care about something being discarded? Or is it the right of the purger to decide for themselves?
Over dinner, my mother and I shared our different perspectives: her liberation, my loss. But I started to understand that they were hers to burn. We empathized with each other. And at the end of the day, that meant more than the letters.