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Published: September 10, 2020

older man with letters - keepsake boxDownsizing experts warn older adults not to start with old photographs, love letters, long-ago journals and other “important” papers because the process is so time-consuming.

Or as tidy guru Marie Kondo puts it: “Starting with mementos spells certain failure.” 

But now we have (lots of) time and what better time than a pandemic to tackle such a task?

Let’s Have Fun

Let’s not think of it as yet another COVID-19 task. How about an excavation (think archaeologist)? Investigation (think private.investigator)? Muse (pick your favorite goddess)? Or just the Perfect Pandemic Project (PPP)?

Start with the bin, box or bag that contains something you are excited to dig through.

For me, that was an old wooden ammunition box painted deep red that I have been carrying around with me for at least 50 years – from Cincinnati to Athens to Cincinnati to Syracuse to Boston to Cincinnati to Berlin Heights and now back in my hometown, now sitting a few feet from my desk.

In early years of ownership, I protected the box like a mother protected her child. Inside I placed things I wrote (mostly about myself) on legal pads and in leftover school notebooks. I added magazine and newspaper clippings and lots of assorted-shaped journals. Eventually the box was full, and I quit looking inside.

I viewed the red box as an heirloom because of what it contained, but I wasn’t really sure anymore what was in there. This summer I decided it was time to unpack, literally and figurately.

My PPP is still underway but so far, I have written a “found” poem using only sentences and phrases handpicked from journals I wrote in my 20s, which I then rearranged under themes – love, health, parents, etc. I placed a copy of the 5-page poem in my (now mostly empty) red box.

I’ve heard of other people turning their journals into memoirs or novels.

If your bins are full of photographs think of how your visual memories can best be captured and passed down to your family. A self-published book of photos or a personal photo album for each grandchild? Or maybe a digitized file with the best of?

Speaking of sorting through photos, Marie Kondo says there is only one way.

“The correct method is to remove all your photos from their albums and look at them one by one. When you do this, you will be surprised at how clearly you can tell the difference between those that touch your heart and those that don’t,” she writes in “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”

She estimates you’ll only keep about 5 percent of the photos. As for going through boxes of unsorted photos, “someday” is today, she says.

Many older adults are also the caretakers of paper belonging to loved ones. Talk to your adult children about their stuff (school papers, comic books, baseball cards) and see what they want to keep (probably not much). Give them a deadline to pick it up, and then, well, practice tough love.

It’s harder going through papers and memorabilia belonging to loved ones who have died. I’m in the process of going through my mother’s mementos. So far, I have shrunk down one file of letters, and am pulling out funny greeting cards to recycle and send to my friends.

Next up, her travel journals. Maybe I’ll write a found poem of her best lines.

Time to Pitch

Much of our personal paper can be put out with the trash, but of course not any paper with any kind of medical, financial and other confidential information.

Most of us have access to a shredding machine, but if the pile is more than you or your shredder can handle take it to a store that provides a shredding service.

Fall weather is the perfect time for a bonfire so if you live in a neighborhood where an open fire is permitted, consider such an option. Nothing like watching your journals go up in flames. Been there, done that.


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Writer Molly KavanaughIn the past, Molly Kavanaugh frequently wrote about Kendal at Oberlin for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was a reporter for 16 years. Now we are happy to have her writing for the Kendal at Oberlin Community.