Honoring Your Past Without Cluttering Your Present

That’s one of the bracelets my mother wore in the hospital after she had my sister and I. You  see the ‘B’ there after her name?

That’s for me. I was the second born twin.

Years ago my mother was going through her own sentimental keepsakes and asked me if I wanted this bracelet. I’ve kept it with my jewellery collection since then.

Right now that means it lives in a small leather pouch with a few necklaces, two sets of earrings and a set of four stacking rings. Every few weeks I put some earrings on and I get a glimpse of the bracelet.

I like thinking about how this bracelet was made. That a nurse or clerk in the maternity ward at Lions Gate Hospital in December of 1977 sorted all the beads and strung them by hand. And that that person made two bracelets, almost identical except one had a ‘B’ and the other had an ‘A’.

This bracelet will be with me for the rest of my life.

Some day my son, or maybe even a grandchild, will sort through my things and probably end up tossing it out.

It won’t mean that much to them. They might not even connect it’s significance.

It might be so out of date, so far away from what they know, that they don’t recognize it as a mark of my birth and a connection to my own mother, their grandmother or great grandmother.

At some point, all of your keepsakes and trinkets and markers of the past will just be trash to someone else.

Obviously I’m not without a sentimental side. I’ve kept a small file of report cards, awards and even an essay or two from elementary and high school. I have one of our wedding invitations and the menu card from our reception in there too.

Once a year I might browse through them while pulling out a copy of our mortgage or filing a tax statement. Is that reason enough to keep them?

It’s reason enough for me.

I’ve had a lot of comments and questions about sentimental clutter. What to keep, what to send away and how to break strong emotional ties with a few pieces of paper that hold so much memory.

This is a hard one.

No one can make those decisions for you. You have to go through those concert ticket stubs, locks of hair from a first hair cut and letters and decide for yourself.

I can tell you what’s worked for me and what others have had success with. Here are some strategies for culling sentimental clutter:

  • Give yourself a set amount of space. It could be a shoe box, a file cabinet or your attic. Decide how much room you’ll give yourself for mementos and keepsakes and then prioritize what you have to fit in that space.
  • Keep track of how often you look at it. That once a year peak into my Kindergarten report card is enough to for me to keep a 1/4 inch legal size envelope of papers in my little folder of files. If you have a basement filled with boxes of sentimental items, and you’re not even sure what’s in them, sort them, label them, and then put a date on the box each time you take an afternoon to look through them.
  • Display and archive. Take your craft skills and put them to work. Make a memory album or a display box to remember that beach vacation instead of throwing seas shells in a Ziploc bag.
  • What do you want to leave behind. It’s a morbid thought but when you’re gone, what do you want your family to look through? Boxes of junk that means nothing to them, or a curated collection of keepsakes from your life?

The other thing that’s helped me break away from some of my sentimental clutter is living in the present. Nostalgia can be fickle. One moment you’re enjoying the picture of your young 20 something self, the next your wistful for your unlined face and the next your lamenting the burden of your present, the family, the responsibility.

Honour your past but don’t pine for it. Loving your present, even if it includes diapers, middle of the night wake-ups and grey hair, can help you let go of the need to store every keepsake and piece of memorabilia.

I’ve got a few things to remember my childhood, my university days and my rowing career but a lot of it is gone. I don’t need it. If I want to think of those days I’ll talk to my mother or siblings or call someone that was part of it all and reminisce. Much more satisfying than looking at my athlete ID card from the 1998 Under 23 World Championships.

Has anyone else pared down their stash of sentimental items? How did you decide what stayed and what went?

PS. I’ll have another post dedicated to kid clutter and art work soon.

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  • This is a huge issue for me and I blame my paremts (lol). I am 34 (another 1977 baby) and from just before my birth to now I have every birthday and Xmas card, christening cards, ticket stubs, programmes, present lists, newspaper articles that featured me etc etc from those 34 years. They are all in scrapbooks with dates and explanations where required. I think I am at number 53 right now and they take up bookcase. If you take a look at the sixth picture down at http://lessismoreihope.blogspot.com/2010/11/chaos-that-is-my-flat-at-moment-this-is.html the red material covered bookcase is all scrapbooks and some photo albums!!
    They have come in useful, I traced a long lost friend by being able to go back to some of those newspaper articles but truthfully most of the time they just sit there covered up.
    I dread getting them up to date and having to go through all the accumlated stuff and sort it into date order then sit and cut and stick it into the books.
    It looks like I will be moving in the next couple of months – do they come with me?

  • I have had a major declutter over the last couple of years, and all things from my childhood are now in a large plastic box. I never look through them and am wondering whether to declutter further. I am thinking of scanning my old photos (again I have got rid of lots already) onto the computer, possibly also some of my old school reports etc., as then I know they are still somewhere, without taking up any space. I also have a box for my 3 children’s special things, like their first pair of shoes, first bodysuits, a few special toys. I was thinking of trying to find a way of displaying their shoes, rather than just have them hiding in the cupboard.

    • Wish I had more displayed too. My sister is great at making little display boxes for trips and events. I like the idea of a few of those, maybe even rotate mini collections in them.

  • I am a big supporter of the digital picture of it method. I used it while sorting through the masses of graphic t-shirts I collected in my youth and some other trinkets that seeing, brought good memories, but I really didn’t need to touch. The really interesting thing was after the item itself was gone, I would browse through the pictures and no longer feel a need to even keep the pictures (of some things). I used digital pictures for scrapbooks and printed photos, too. I also use the limited storage aspect, for instance one small portfolio for the artwork from my classes in school and a small shoebox for other memorabilia that doesn’t display well. I slowly sorted through and find myself about 8K lbs lighter. It took over three years. Just one more example that this is a process.

    • Definitely the digital method! I’ve been slowly sorting through things…if it doesn’t bring a memory, it goes out of the house. If it does but is bulky/big/unusable, I take a picture and that helps soothe the “pain” while releasing it! Did this just recently for my cowboy boots, my high school leather jacket and my Wendy Walker doll…all over 20 years old! This is from the gal who had a hard time letting her single mattress go to the garbage when I moved out on my end…I sadly watched the garbage men collect it.

      It does get easier, that’s the good thing. And I try not to hold on to as much now because once I make that connection in the first place, it’s hard to get rid of it later.

  • This is a major problem for me, compounded by my mom’s death and feeling like disposing of anything even remotely relating to her is a a betrayal. I am finally to the point that I can take pictures of items then let them go. A file on my computer takes up much less room.

    • Oh Sunshine, I so know how you feel. My Mom and Dad died 10 days apart last year leaving us a big old house full of 50 years of stuff. It is so difficult to deal with the sentimental items – I know and logic tells me that keeping her things does not keep her or bring her back, but those decisions are so hard.
      I am sure time will make these things easier.

  • A very computer-y friend of mine recently told me that he takes digital pictures of things, stores them on a hard drive, and then throws the things themselves away–like old t-shirts from high school, pictures he drew as a kid. He says he doesn’t even scan the paperwork b/c you can get such a good image with a camera and it’s quicker. I’m considering doing this.

    • I’ve read that scanning is actually more work, with less quality, than just taking a picture. I’m starting to take pictures of documents myself instead of scanning.

  • I’ve always kept my sentimental items to a large plastic container. Then I got rid of stuff and downsized to a smaller plastic box. Now I look at what I keep with the mindset that all I have that is not purposeful is part of my personal museum. I keep only that which holds significant meaning in my personal history. (I wrote about this idea of a personal museum here: http://minimalistmommi.com/reconsidering-your-story/425 ; http://minimalistmommi.com/offing-yourself-2/191; http://minimalistmommi.com/letting-go/67) Can you tell I deal with this issue a lot lol?

  • This post is good timing for me. As I am not generally a sentimental person, I sometimes regret that I have not created scrapbooks or kept a much stuff for my kids. I have a scrap book that I had good intensions of using, but it has 3 pages of photos and thats about as far as it went – and is sitting in a box unused.
    We do not have photo album, but I do have electronic albums set up so the kids can go through the photos by themselves. They also love to take pictures now too.

    • I still have Henry’s baby book partially filled in…
      Recently I uploaded a bunch of new photos to our AppleTV unit. The photos rotate as a screen saver on our tv. Henry (and Chris and I) love it. I put older photos of us on trips and lots of family photos on. Henry shouts out “Grandma” “Henry” “Mommy” and “Daddy” as the pictures change. It’s fun :)

      • It’s also become a real conversation starter when we have friends over. They’ll ask where we are in the photos, significance, who is who, etc. Fun to relive our pre-child travels.

  • Thank you for your timely post! I had just emailed you about sentimental clutter… I was feeling overwhelmed and not sure where to start. I went home last night and jumped in. I pulled two old, magnetic photo albums off the shlf and looked at them with a critical eye. From those, I pulled out 3 photos to scan and send to friends for a laugh (then tossed), one of me with my two closest cousins that makes me smile (a keeper), and I threw the rest away. They were horrible, uninteresting photos, taken between ages 8-15. My memories of those trips had nothing to do with the photos.

    I love your suggestion for a space limit. That will help tremendously. I recalled reading in The Happiness Project about having a designated place (she bought a pretty storage box – I’m not ready to BUY more stuff), so tonight I will set a limit. Still a LOT of photos to go – thinking about scanning – and lots of kids’ works of art, but I started!

    The other thing I noticed, looking around my house, is that my “treasures” are all stored, while my “decorations” hold no emotional significance. Hmmmmm… Are they really “treasures”?

    • Display those treasures, Cindy!

      I also went through all my photos and tossed ones that were repeats or uninteresting. Do you really need seven photos of the same view from a hotel room?

      Good luck :)

  • I have gotten so much better about getting rid of sentimental things after going off to university… I find I just don’t want to hold on to some of my earlier, unhappier memories.

  • Sentimental clutter is my achilles heel in the whole minimalism and life simplification thing. I’m a recovering sentimental hoarder, and still have a a (much reduced) stash to prove it. But I am getting better. As I minimise other areas of my life, I am learning to let go. Sentimental clutter without a doubt is a fear of losing something or someone, trying to hold on to what has been. Your comment about spendng time talking about your memories is so very true and I’m afraid once again I’m gonna quote Baz Luhrmann;
    “Get to know your parents, you never know when they’ll be gone for
    good. Be nice to your siblings; they are the best link to your past and the
    people most likely to stick with you in the future. Understand that friends come and go,but for the precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young.” (ps have you noticed I may be on the verge of a mid-life crisis – is it apparent?)

    • You are sending some real gem quotes my way.
      PS. Are you on the verge of mid-life crisis? Or on the verge of something new??
      PPS. Or is it something in the water/air around here? I was absolutely balling at an episode of Parenthood the other night.

  • Some of my fondest memories of being a little girl would be sitting with either my mom or grandmother and going through their cedar chests filled with all kinds of things that were important to them. Old family photos, first shoes, outfits, baby books etc. I loved it everytime, eventhough I pretty much knew everything that the cedar chest contained. I think what I loved most was the time with my mom, and learning a bit more about our family history. Now that I finally live in a house with a basement (ie storage space!) my mom was ever so happy to dump off all my rubbermaid containers of memorabilia/junk from her basement. It’s overwhelming just thinking about going through them and sorting what really is meaningful and what isn’t. I’m worried I’ll throw something out that I’ll regret…. For me I think the key will be to take my time with it all, or I might make a hasty decision!
    Great post, as always. I especially loved your description of how your bracelet was made and the care and time that went into it. Do you think that would happend in a hospital setting today?!

  • Some of my sentimental clutter belonged to my mother and grandmother–beautiful hand-embroidered handkerchiefs, aprons and patchwork blankets. I store it in a plastic box in my closet. When I take them out, I don’t know how to incorporate it into my present decor. And it’s just too precious to use as an actual apron or handkerchief. So I just store it. My sentimental clutter lives in the form of books. They are books that have been mystified to represent my entire life’s journey. I need to disassociate my identity from books. I read your post on books, btw, but I didn’t comment. It’s inspiring me to reduce–please continue blogging!

    • How about framing one if the handkerchiefs.. it could make a nice piece of wall art, and then you could enjoy it more. Even if you have a more contemporary style, it could work, depending on how you matt and frame it. You could frame an apron too as decor in your kitchen, or if you have fond memories of your relative wearing it, place a nice hook on the wall and hang the apron there, even if you don’t use it to get messy in the kitchen in, you can still touch/feel/look at it.

  • When it comes to sentimental items I prefer to keep the ones that I will actually use. The vintage sewing machine my grandmother used and the blazer she made I actually use regularly. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a few items that I don’t use but I keep anyway like the dog leash and collar I found in my grandpa’s garage after he had passed away. He had labeled it with the dog’s name that had used it. The simple fact that he had kept it for years after the dog had died and that it was important to him made it special to me. It spoke volumes to me about how my gruff, rough-spoken grandpa did in fact have a soft heart. I would say that limiting the space you make available to the items that are purely sentimental and not used regularly helps to draw a limit. Dedicate a specific box to saving those items and do not overfill it. It’s worked for me when it comes to all those baby items from my three kids.

  • This isn’t the first time I’ve searched the web for sentimental decluttering advice, but it’s the first time I’ve found useful bits about WHAT, as opposed to HOW, to purge. So, thank you, to Rachel, and to those who commented…
    I now have a designated amount of allowable space (that will probable get smaller with time). Into this space are allowed only the items I would want in a museum of my life, items with a story I want to share with my girls or someday their children.

    Today I tossed the planner from my wedding, three hanging files of PreK activities, and a bag of souvenir “stuff” I didn’t even know I had!

  • I did my sentimental clutter a couple of weeks ago. I went through everything with both my boys (they are 14 and 15) and they each made a box of things that they wanted from their earlier years and the rest of it went out. When I went through my own things, they each picked one or two things that they had a connection to and added them to their boxes. You are so right, that the things that mean something to me are one day going to be junk to someone else. I got through everything and I’m left with a shoebox size keepsake box and my boys each have one rubbermaid bucket that still have plenty of room to add things from their highschool years. I went from a full storage room to two buckets and a shoe box. It was such a good feeling!

  • I too was born at Lion’s Gate Hospital…in 1970
    but I was adopted and picked up there by my adoptive parents when I was 10 days old.
    I WISH I had anything at all from those first 10 days of my life that I spent in the hospital…
    but the way things worked then…they didn’t even give my parents the outfit my birth mom had picked out for me (which I learned about 23 years later when we met finally!)
    I agree…sentimental items are difficult to “de-clutter”
    …but if you love it or use it…it has a place in your home :)

  • I wonder when they stopped doing this! I was born at Lions Gate in 82, and I wonder if my mom had one for me…

    OOH I bet my mom had one!!!

    Love your blog BTW!!!

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