A short while ago a friend who had undergone surgery decided that she needed to clear out the piles of paper she had at home. As a trainer, she had kept copies of everything she had done and now she realised that it was unlikely she would be out on the trail again, so handing over to the next generation the benefit of her experience was her way of passing the baton.

Visiting her to see what she had that I could use some time, I thought back to a couple of decades ago when my parents decided that it was time to move into the safety of their son's property after spending about two decades of their retired life in good health and independence.

Without knowing how much time was left, practical Mom cut down to the minimum. Possibly in sheer dread of leaving to her children and grandchildren the task of sorting out her things once she was gone, she wanted to do it herself and get rid of all the excess.

So she took a minimal number of clothes, her piano, and the basics of her kitchen. The rest, she felt was extraneous. The photograph albums were open for us to pick up whatever we wanted — her memories were all she needed.

In memory

Her music books went to someone who was still in the learning process: she had long passed the need for them because she just allowed the music to flow from her heart to her fingers without the benefit of printed scores and readymade chords.

As we looked at everything she gave away (mostly to us), we couldn't understand it. Why the minimalism? There were years to go and no reason to live without the memorabilia that most people grow attached to — but she was firm. Just the basics were good enough because she had all she needed stored safely in her head — and she wouldn't have to dust and polish those!

Father, on the other hand, wouldn't part with a thing. He kept his collections of photographs on the bedside table. His books — hundreds of them — were carefully packed and opened up in the new home, to be re-read one day if he and his eyesight held out long enough.

He kept every box of fishing tackle, every instruction he had ever read on angling or hunting — and when age finally kept him away physically from his many loves, he transferred all his enthusiasm and knowledge to eager grandchildren or nieces and nephews and their children.

Now, I survey my precious collections, and I wonder when I will have not only the wisdom but also the energy to go through and discard what for anyone else would be the equivalent of a pile of junk: reference material on all the subjects I'm interested in, once spiffy-looking journals that are now yellowed with age but still unwritten in because I couldn't bear to ‘deface' the smooth pages, half a cupboard of wrapping paper and handmade paper bags, old greeting cards and calendar prints that I cannot discard because they will ‘someday' form the base of the decoupage mural that has been decades on my ‘to do' list.

All of us are collectors. For some it is clothes, for others decorative pieces, precious photographs, ornaments ... we cling, we think we can't live without these accoutrements. And suddenly one day we find ourselves weighed down by them — cupboards and shelves overflowing with souvenirs and papers we'll never look at again.

Most of us just shut the doors firmly and turn away, resolving, like Scarlett O'Hara, to think about them at some tomorrow in the distant future. And there they stay — our version of our footprints in the sands of time.


Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.