A few weeks before Thanksgiving, I received the following stone-cold e-mail from my mother: “You have until December 31 to clean out your things. Everything you don’t take is going in the garbage.”
Though my mom certainly wasn’t sugarcoating her instructions, she wasn’t being randomly cruel, either. My parents are selling the suburban house I grew up in to move into a much smaller apartment in Manhattan. While there is ample basement storage space in the ‘burbs, their new city digs just don’t have room for my collected juvenilia. And there’s a ton of it. My mother is extremely organized—she painstakingly arranges the coins in her coin dish from largest to smallest—and she’s also a bit of a hoarder. She had saved papers dating back to my preschool report cards. (You’ll be happy to know that my large motor skills were top notch, according to my nursery-school teachers.)
In theory, I accepted the necessity of throwing away spelling tests and book reports dating back to the mid-’80s. In practice, it didn’t quite play out so smoothly. Thanksgiving night, my mother broached the subject. “Are you going to clean out your room tomorrow?” I was sitting on the couch, fighting over the remote control with my 31-year-old brother. “No. You can just throw everything out.” I surprised myself with the vehemence of my response.
What was my problem?
“You really don’t want to just go through the papers, see if there’s anything you want to keep?”
“No. Whatever. Burn it all!”
My husband, sensing a total regression afoot, gently suggested that I take an hour to look through the things my mother had lovingly saved for the past 28 years. “You would regret throwing everything out without at least looking at it one last time.” Ugh, fine, I thought; I’ll go through this stupid crap. “OK,” I said brightly, trying to be a good sport. Throwing things out shouldn’t actually have been difficult for me. After all, I never was into keepsakes. Except for an old tin filled with furtive notes passed in the seventh grade that I saved out of laziness (not because I wanted future generations to know that I thought Timmy was sooooo cute), I had already tossed almost all of my childhood junk.
The next day I woke up early and while my husband read a magazine, I thumbed through a big pile of paper, starting with those glowing pre-K reports. As I started going through those old report cards, it was sort of great. My teachers loved me in elementary school, because I was such a spunky little dork. I loved Greek mythology and wrote a play about Henry VIII’s six wives when I was 9. There were two standouts from the Grose archives in my grade-school years. One was a letter I had written to my parents when I was 10, for some grave offense that no one remembers:
It was somewhat delightful to imagine what sort of damage they had inflicted on my young self. Had they denied me a sleepover party? Refused me cookies? Beheaded a stuffed animal? The second noteworthy clipping was from our local newspaper about my fifth-grade performance of Taming of the Shrew. I was bossy, and I read at a 10th-grade level, so I was Kate, naturally. I schooled the reporter from the Rivertowns Enterprise on man-woman relations in the 16th century: “Men don’t want a woman unless she’s passive,” I told one Diane Alaimo. “In those days, they bossed women around.”
The middle-school portion of my papers was much less satisfying. Like so many other girls, I went all Reviving Ophelia in middle school. I stopped confidently telling local reporters about my feminist theories and instead started going to Contempo Casuals at the Galleria. I got report-card comments from my math teachers about how my work was no longer up to snuff, about how my study habits could be improved.
Things got really cringeworthy when I made it to the high-school section of the archives. I did well in school, but I spent much of my time trying to publicly sublimate my cynical nerd self so that my fellow field-hockey players might like me better. I had to go through my SAT scores and my field hockey awards and worst of all, my yearbooks. Specifically my senior yearbook, which included a section in the back for each graduating student to write a shout-out to all their pals. First of all, my half-page was festooned with hearts. I am not the kind of sincere sap who embraces hearts and stars and little clovers and eager smiley faces. Furthermore, I had pledged undying sisterhood to many girls I didn’t even like, and certainly no longer am friends with, except in the Facebook sense.
Seeing myself try so hard to be someone I wasn’t—a common pastime among 17-year-olds—was surprisingly painful. This archive had no power when it was safely ensconced in the bright white confines of my childhood bedroom. But when I actually had to sit down and reconcile my teenage self with my adult one, I realized I wasn’t quite as archly removed from that scared adolescent as I wanted to be. I still recognized myself in that Contempo-clad striver, and I didn’t like what I saw.
At that point, it was obvious to me why I was being so snotty about the entire cleaning process: I was having trouble accepting that it was officially time to be a grown up, time to put away the yearbooks and move forward. My parents were selling the house we had moved into when I was 3. In a few short months, I will never be able to go back there and sit on our old blue couch and fight with my brother about watching SportsCenter. That couch will be gone, and so should my tendency to behave like that teenager.
My psychiatrist mother watched my struggle with a bemused detachment. She didn’t say so, but I suspect that if we had talked about it, she would have told me that I was experiencing a textbook case of displacement: I was really upset about letting my childhood go, but I was unleashing all that emotion on the concrete act of cleaning out my bedroom.
In the end, I decided to throw away pretty much everything. It was easier to come to terms with the past when I didn’t have to look at it. My mother sent me several follow-up e-mails about this seemingly hasty decision. “You really don’t want your Brown yearbook? Dad couldn’t bring himself to throw it out. And what about your red person chair—would you want us to save it for you?” she wrote. But I had made up my mind. My parents have saved all the really important stuff—photos from family events and graduations—and my future children will survive without seeing hard evidence of my goofy high school self. I had my mother scan a couple of sacred texts that I now have in digital form, but for the most part, my childhood memories have been carted off to the landfill.
Last week, my parents put the house officially on the market. She sent me the link to the listing. As I clicked through the photos, I barely recognized it as the place where I grew up—the furniture looked cold and dated, the lighting was bright and glossy—the traces of our family had been scrubbed out. I clicked through all the images and closed the browser.