On Tidying Up

To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root. – Chinese proverb

The secret of our emotions never lies in the bare object, but in its subtle relations to our own past.
–  George Eliot

There is a lot of talk these days about the virtues of minimalism. People are downsizing, discarding all the stuff they have accumulated over the years to move into ‘tiny houses’. In tiny houses, there is no room for anything that is not utilitarian or does not serve multiple purposes.

They say the act of ‘tidying up’, of getting rid of all the excess stuff accumulated over the years, is ‘freeing’ to the soul. Live light, travel light, and focus on experiences, not things.

I get the point. We Americans have too much stuff, and it costs us too much, both in monetary as well as spiritual dollars. We can, and maybe should live with a lot less.

But what should we throw away, and what should we keep? And what happens to all our stuff when we are gone?

I thought about this trend last weekend, as I set the table in our dining room for our Saturday night dinner party.

I put out my Great Aunt Gertrude’s china, laid on top of my Grandmother’s lace place mats. The Noritake china and those delicate place mats sat on top of my old and elegant dining room table, another gift from my Great Aunt’s beautiful house in Winchester.


As I walked around the table, I noticed other objects that grace my formal dining room. An antique mirror, circa 1900, that hung in my Great Aunt’s hallway. I remember her wedding photo, where she stands in a 1920’s style flapper dress, her reflection captured in this very mirror.


Framed, painted photos of her garden hang on my dining room wall. My Great Aunt’s large garden was the talk of the town in the 1950’s and 60’s. My mother was married in this garden. My brother, my cousins and I spent many days running along the gravel pathways and picnicking with our family in the arbor when we were young.


I found these photos in a box of old stuff while cleaning out my parents’ house a few years ago. They were hand-painted by my Great Aunt. She was a true renaissance woman, and her home was a treasure – formal, but inviting, beautiful, but not ostentatious. She was a Latin scholar and an educator, a master gardener and a writer. She was the first assistant principal of our hometown’s high school, back when it was highly unusual for women to make it to the administrative ranks. She was unable to have children, so she and my uncle traveled all over the world. Objects from Greece, Italy and France were artfully displayed in her sitting room. I remember how proud she was at my high school graduation to see me accept the Latin medal and deliver my Valedictorian speech.


I even have the brass sign (in Latin, of course) that hung above the doorbell to the front door of her house. “Si non convivare, noli tintinnare.” (If you don’t swing, don’t ring.)

Now THAT has got to win the prize for really esoteric, totally useless junk. But I will never throw it away.


A Seth Thomas chiming clock sits on top of my piano. It was my Grandmother’s. My Grandmother became a widow at young age, when my Grandfather committed suicide during the Great Depression. She trained herself to type, and became a legal secretary to support her two year old daughter and three year old son. Those children were my mother and my uncle.


I thought about all this STUFF while setting my table for dinner. What would happen to it all when I am gone? What good is it?

I have no daughters to appreciate the Noritake china and lace.

My boys never knew my Great Aunt, and barely knew my Grandmother.

My Great Aunt died in 1988, in a nursing home, felled by a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and without the gift of speech. A cruel ending for such a talented and singular woman. My boys never saw her magnificent garden. They never smelled those climbing roses, or helped her weed the beds, never had a picnic in her arbor, never sat and wondered at the objects that came from foreign lands.

By the time my children came along, my Grandmother had dementia, and all they knew of her was her ‘crazy’ mind wandering back and forth between the past and the present in a mishmash that made no sense to them. They knew nothing of her strength, her grace, her beauty and her indomitable will to survive.

These things in my house mean nothing to them today, and probably will go for pennies on the dollar at a future yard sale they will hold when I am dead.

But these things represent my history, my pedigree. They signify a tradition of strong, smart and very determined women that goes back three generations.

And it’s their history as well as mine.

Perhaps one day they will have a daughter, and wonder where she gets that saucy mouth, or that streak of pure stubbornness; why she has such an affinity for languages, loves flowers, or longs to travel to the ancient world.

I think the answer, in part, lies in the history and in the genes.

Marie Kondo, the author of the hugely popular book, “The Art of Tidying Up”, uses a single question as the criteria for what to keep and what to throw away:  Does this spark joy?

“Keep only the things that speak to your heart.”

Maybe one day I will get tired of dusting the china, the table, the clock and the mirror. 

Maybe one day I will get tired of this big, empty-nest house and the miserable Charlotte summer weather, and Andrew and I will decide to move to California – or to the south of France.

But for now, these things still spark joy in my heart. I’m going to use them and enjoy them while I can, or until it no longer serves me to do so. And try not to worry about what will happen to all of it when I am gone. 

Throw away the excess, but keep that which is precious and dear to your heart.

What ‘stuff’ do you hold on to because it reminds you of your past and speaks strongly to your heart?

One thought on “On Tidying Up

  1. Jeri, Thanks for the memories. I remember these wonderful family members, who live in my heart, everyday. I think of Aunt “Kissy-Wu’s” home often ~ as I like to think I get my love for gardening from her and Uncle Alan. You are such a gifted writer. I love when you write about our family. ❤

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