The Museum of You Does Not Have a Gift Shop

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First Person

I had a patient who saved everything: Every piece of junk mail (usually unopened), postcard, ashtray and old shoe was stored or put on display. He never sold a house, though occasionally he’d add a new one.

This ever-growing stash didn’t bother him and it wasn’t the issue for which he sought my psychiatric help. When asked about this habit, he said, “Hoarding is for those without money. For those with money it’s called collecting.” Then, more seriously, he added, “Aren’t we’re talking about throwing out my life?”

It was a question I hadn’t thought much about, always tending to err on the side of discarding things with the vague thought that I’d be preventing my children from having to do it. But I knew that my patient was not alone. When I told an old friend that over the years I’d kept all her letters, she said, “That’s great. I kept copies too.”

This issue became more pressing one cold day this spring when my husband and his older brother had to move their 100-year-old mother into a studio apartment. Suddenly the largely theoretical problem had a new gritty reality. They were faced with sorting through the objects assembled during her long life: ivory figurines, poems for family occasions, a favorite hot-pink jacket, a baby grand piano their father had played jazz on, boxes of photos, wartime letters from an army outpost in the Aleutian Islands.

Which items were too laden with meaning to let go? And what, exactly, was getting lost in this process?

Curating her possessions, indeed her life itself, was hard enough, but within her apartment they discovered, like a Russian nesting doll, a trove of documents from their own lives. Unbeknown to them, their mother had collected every grammar-school essay, local newspaper clipping about their tennis tournaments and publication from their adult years. Suddenly their histories were on the block as well.

Back at our apartment, two dingy, prewar-era closets were being redone, and to my horror a box of my childhood and adolescent diaries emerged. I could have sworn that I’d thrown them out years ago. In fact I could remember doing it.

Perhaps my husband, a biographer who has spent much of his professional life searching for documents, had not been able to stand seeing the journals sitting out with the trash? Or I had misremembered, wishing I’d thrown them out but not quite able to?

In any event, there they were and we were awash in memorabilia. It was a life phase that no one had told us about: one in which a massive wave of objects, each representing a distinct shard of time, broke over us.

It arrived carrying with it the weird, disquieting distortions that all too often accompany memory. Our brains focus easily on the present and on the deep past, but the stuff between is elastic, dilating and contracting unpredictably. Whole swaths of time simply don’t compute for us. Whenever I’m faced with a standard online form requiring my birthday, I stare in bafflement as I scroll down the long column of years.

The reappearance of my diaries was disorienting. They didn’t feel like a quaint remnant of the past. They felt deeply, unpleasantly familiar: the baby-blue, fake-leather cover with “My Diary” stamped in gold letters with its little lock and key. My self-conscious 12-year-old entries seemed as if I’d written them yesterday: “I see myself with complete clarity reading this page … thinking how long ago that was when I was merely a schoolgirl not even in high school. I’m already that person of the future.”

Oh yeah? Well, here I am and I remember all too well being that annoying person writing in the diary.

So why save these remnants? In the past, relatives faded graciously into oblivion. Becoming dead and then even deader, as they were no longer known by anyone living. Their descendants easily maintained the illusion that their ancestors had never been real, breathing people like themselves. The ancient couples were quaint in the stiff, sepia photos posing in their Sunday best or in jerky 16-millimeter home movies. Or there were no images at all and they simply got out of the way when their time was over. They ghosted themselves.

To make matters even more complicated, our recent relatives, armed with endless videos, create their own highly edited narratives — virtual motion pictures — preserving what seems to them most engaging, flattering or fun. You won’t find their pictures of them eating lunch at their desk, sleeping contorted in the confines of an overnight flight, waiting on a subway platform or watching TV reruns. It’s all been a great holiday!

Will new generations need storerooms for this ever-increasing load of familial documentation? Actually, we may be the last one to have our experiences annealed to physical objects. In the future, descendants as well as historians will be able to experience their subjects’ lives virtually in real time through emails, texts, Facebook entries, Instagrams, videos. It’s exhausting to contemplate. TMI.

Yet for now, these lingering objects haunt us. Undoubtedly my patient was right. When we discard a person’s accumulated possessions, we are throwing out the record of a life. The soft thump of the garbage bags on the landing tells of a small, soft death. Is it necessary? Yes. But it’s an erasure that’s irrevocable. Like the ash that surrounds bodies at Pompeii, these objects preserve the shape of a life — even after the living being is gone.