Here’s a picture of my great-grandmother, looking on as I helped clean out my mother’s attic last week. I can’t tell if her expression is one of bemusement or horror. For decades, her portrait has been the silent guardian of family archives and objects, in a house that’s been in my family since the 1920s. When my grandfather passed away ten years ago, my mother and stepfather moved in, having inherited not only the house but all the generations of junk — er, I mean treasures — stored upstairs. We then added to the heap — uh, collection — by moving our own boxes up there. My sister and I both packed up our entire childhoods very quickly. I’m sure we planned to sift through them. But we both moved out of state, traveled a lot, and never quite got around to it. Years passed, and dust snowed down on our boxes.

For as long as I can remember, this unfinished attic has been a massive repository for our family’s memories. Among the keepsakes my grandparents stored there were furniture, stacks of old letters, vintage clothing, and assorted remnants of my great-grandparents’ life in Norway (a violin, an old trunk, a giant gilded Norwegian Bible, various fading photos). There was also a marvelous collection of my mother’s old toys — tin wonders from the 1940s, paper dolls with stunning wardrobes, and fun board games like The Nancy Drew Mystery Game. There were volumes of children’s books, mostly mysteries — all the Nancy Drews, and other gems, like The Clue in Blue, by long-forgotten authors.

My grandfather used to take me up to the attic to choose a toy or a book to borrow. I would stare at the shelves in awe, while dust danced around us and sunlight leaked in through the one window that was not papered over. It was like time travel, being up there, and thrilling, as there was always a risk (I was warned) of falling through the floor, or tripping over boxes. The attic offered an endless scavenger hunt. I guess I thought someday my own son might experience a similar thrill, foraging for generations of old toys and books.

My mother, understandably, would prefer not to be the caretaker of everyone’s memorabilia. The attic is enormous, and could be refinished. The ceiling needs insulating. It was time to start dealing with stuff.

I dove in to the boxes and found a few gems. My old record collection. All my childhood books — the old Nancy Drews I loved to read, both my mother’s and mine, and the horse books I used to devour. I found some disappointments, too, like toys I’d hoped to pass on to my son that had not aged well. (A family of mice had lived like kings in the Fisher Price castle; I found signs of nests in the turret). I discovered bizarre things,  like a high school boyfriend’s skis. (Why?) Like someone’s false teeth. (Whose??) The attic, as always, offered up intriguing mysteries, and items that had sifted together in bizarre juxtapositions.

(Pictured above: My grandather’s fedoras, hung on antlers from moose shot by my great-uncle, next to an old boyfriend’s skis. Too weird).
But the biggest mystery I found up there was the question of why we hold on to things so fiercely. I’m an archivist at heart, a lover of musty documents, ancient books, family photos, old maps. Also, as a writer, I know I tend to hang on to information — especially books and documents and zillions of printed-out drafts — thinking it will all become useful.

The Internet and digital storage have altered this need. I also live in close proximity to six libraries. This realization made it easy to throw out a lot of things in that attic, like all my college papers and notes. Am I really going to teach Romantic Poetry someday? If so, am I really going to refer back to my college lecture notes from the 1990s?

The other compelling reason to hang on to things is for the memories they evoke. Yet it felt okay, and got easier, to look at childhood mementos one last time and send them on their way. Do I really need to hang on to years of ballet costumes? A report on the Plains Indians? 3×5 index cards for an eighth grade speech I gave about wigs? (Yes, wigs. For the record, I got an A. And I’m sure the wigs can be found up there too, somewhere, if I look hard enough).

I managed to whittle down my section of the attic to just two small boxes, filled mainly with juvenile writings and art projects that predate electronic storage, and my grandfather’s Coast Guard cap. I salvaged some  childhood books in good enough shape to enjoy with my son. Everything else went to the Goodwill or trash.

For a paralyzing few seconds, as I looked at the cleared space and the dancing dust motes, I felt I had thrown out twenty years of my life. But then I felt an incredible sensation of lightness. I have my own mental attic to visit if I need to rummage around for material. And I’d rather spend my time creating new memories and experiences instead of sifting through old ones.

It’s easy to think our family histories and childhoods can be found in things, but I think they live on in our character and our values. And of course, in the stories we tell.