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facts & arguments

The difficulty of holding other people's pasts in your hands

Books, files, knick-knacks, doodads – Laurie Lewis is ready to downsize, but purging the detritus of two lifetimes isn't easy

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The decision to sell my house and move to an apartment came quite suddenly last spring, after I returned from my winter in Mexico. The second night I was home, the sump pump failed and I bailed water and phoned neighbours and plumbers and handy-men for help. In the middle of that long night on a holiday weekend, paying double time for the plumber, bailing water into the sink in the laundry room, I realized that the time to get out was now. And so, I began the process that all old people must go through – the evaluation of the material things in our lives. Every single item must be looked at and pondered. Does it stay or does it go? And if it goes, where must it go? To whom?

I still have some leftovers of my mother's life, although she died 15 years ago. Books, files, knick-knacks and doodads. And some of my husband's old books and files have yet to be dealt with, although he has also been gone from the house for 15 years, first to a nursing home, and three years ago to the end of his life. The three of us lived in this house together for about 20 years. I feel as though I have already made so many decisions about them and their "objects." I have already weighed hundreds of items and decided stay or go. It seems never-ending, this sense of the past. Or other people's pasts, as well as my own. For, of course, I too, have both files and material objects that must be looked at and decided upon.

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The basement now is a den of sorts, which previously held my husband's office and my own. There, I sort through papers. Old tax files – his and hers – old manuscripts – his and hers. The detritus of our two lifetimes as writers. The manuscripts are (mostly) all on my computer anyway and have each been rejected at least once by a publisher. Ah, but must I shred them? I decided to remove the title pages, with their incriminating names, and just toss the remaining 500 or so pages (each!) into the blue recycled paper bag. There's nothing incriminating there, only the marks of failed literary effort.

At night, I watch old movies and shred files. Handling all that paper seems to be seriously dehydrating me; my skin is cracking. I moisturize and begin to take in liquids. Water is a big help. Also pinot grigio. Shredding and drinking, night after night. I have made some rules: I shred until the machine heats up and stops. Then I drink while it cools off. As soon as it's cool, I shred again. The evenings are long and lonely and I'm sometimes a little the worse for wear by the time I surrender to fatigue or booziness.

By far the biggest project is the disposal of at least half the books in the house, possibly more. The Symphony Association sale is coming up soon and I can donate a lot of books and other things there. And the used bookshop downtown will want some of the more-or-less current ones. I look at the old art books: Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, most of them very old. They will go, of course. What is the point, these days, of looking at black and white photos, when the originals were full of colour? A shelf full of biographies of jazz greats, Coltrane, Monk, Ellington, the whole swinging gamut. And Whitney Balliet, the New Yorker jazz columnist. Yes, him too, all dead.

The paintings and prints on the walls: which is it? Stay or go? Will my children, my grandchildren, want any of this art? Probably not, I admit. We live in different worlds, mine a world of used-to-be, theirs a world of still is, a world of right now and of the future. Stay or go? Which one is it for the books and objects, the "stuff" in my life. Decisions. My brain is tired.

Getting rid of things, of stuff: I see myself just standing here in the kitchen holding an old bowl. A cereal bowl, soup bowl. It's the perfect size. The maker's mark on the bottom says "Royal Ironstone China / Johnson Bros England." It's old and heavy. Keep it, or let it go? I have other bowls, many of them, in other sizes for other uses. What is so special about this one, I wonder. Memories, only memories. This one: oatmeal on a winter morning.

What does it all matter? The memory lives in my mind, not in the bowl, I tell myself. Stay? Or go? And the little brown bowl I like to use to scramble an egg – White Cloud Pottery, Canada, it tells me, with a swooping signature incised into the clay before firing. Stay? Or go? Who are you anyway, White Cloud? And where did I find you? I decide to keep them both. I'll throw out all the new modern stuff and keep these. Boney old relics, like me.

But that little old brown bowl – it had other plans. It leapt out of my hand one morning, to shatter itself on the kitchen floor, telling me, "No, no, I won't go. I'd rather die than leave my home." Choices, we all have to make them.

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Laurie Lewis lives in Kingston.

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