The Rockwood Files: Sifting through memory lane

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

At some point, almost everyone has to go through all the stuff they acquired during childhood. Some people do it before they leave for college. Some do it when they get their first home. And some people do it only after their parents call one day and say, “You better come get this stuff because your father is turning your old room into his man cave.”

I never had to deal with my childhood stuff, you see, because my parents are “keepers.” They keep things. Keepers are different from hoarders, mind you. Keepers are willing to throw away the red plastic ring that you peel off a slice of bologna, whereas hoarders might insist on keeping 400 of those rings for several decades. Big difference. But keepers do like their stuff. They find it comforting, and they’ll house it indefinitely if given the chance.

Through some genetic freak of nature, my two “keeper” parents gave birth to me – a certified “cleanser”. We cleansers like wide open spaces. We need empty counter space. We like the lines a vacuum cleaner makes as it cuts across a room. For cleansers, saving sentimental things takes a backseat to the weird thrill we get from seeing a nice, neat closet.

So when I finally convinced my parents to move from their home of 45 years to the town where I live, I knew they’d probably need a nudge – or a big push – to start sifting through the decades of stuff tucked away in every nook and cranny of their house. During my last visit home, I kicked things off by cleaning out my old bedroom.

I felt like an explorer on an archeological dig through my youth. Even though my family has been using my old bedroom any time we visit, things were much as I left them 20 years ago, from the pictures on the walls down to the dusty compact of frosted blue eye shadow in the dresser drawer. I started with a few empty trash bags and one cardboard box. Trash went into the bags, yard sale items were set aside, and anything I couldn’t part with went into the box.

But I made a vow that once the box was full, that was it. After all, I was there to clean out a room, not to transport a mess from their house to mine. I forced myself to be selective on what made its way into the “keep” box and not let myself get sucked into a vortex of sentimentality.

In the beginning, it was easy to toss things out, even though my mother could barely stand to watch. But the further I dug into my bedroom closet, the tougher it became. That’s where I found the dolls I mothered as a little girl and the stuffed animals that were tucked in with me at night. I found the old Lite Brite game I spent hours with, plugging little multi-colored pegs into tiny holes to make glowing pictures of a sailboat or a flower.

I found a chest stuffed with mementoes of my “first love” – movie ticket stubs, sappy cards and old photos. The inside lid of the chest was painted with my name and his inside a bubble-gum pink heart. I remember painting it and thinking how wonderful it would be to show that chest to our future grandchildren. Back then I had no idea that, even though I was about to turn 18, I was still a long way off from “growing up” and needed to go through a few heartbreaks to find the right guy.

After several hours of hard, dusty work, the room was clean. My “keep” box was brimming full of high school yearbooks, my old majorette uniform (so I can remember the days it actually fit), folders full of papers I’d written in school, snapshots, the complete set of the “Little House on the Prairie” books, and my old Spirograph Plus drawing toy circa 1983 – because I just couldn’t imagine that anyone who might buy it in a yard sale would love it nearly as much as I did.

After snapping a quick photo of them with my iPhone, I even tossed out old trophies and plaques earned in school as well as the cap and gown I wore for graduation. I kept only the things that had so much love wrapped around them that they didn’t fall through the holes in the emotional sifter you must use when you take on a project like this.

Keepsakes are great, but at some point, too many of them become a burden or a monthly storage unit fee. It all comes down to memories, which are precious and important, no doubt. But the best place for memories is to tuck them safely inside the human heart.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here.