Tag Archives: decluttering

Our roots and their keepers

Another box to look through as we declutter. This one sat in the basement, out of sight and definitely out of mind, since we moved in 14 years ago. The weight tells me it’s either very important or something once important, now useless.

Inside is a magnificent old family history book, 1,315 pages long, published in 1883 by an ancestor of my father and given to him, according to the inscription in the flyleaf, at Christmas in 1937. I’ve seen this before, but also in the box is an envelope containing two sheets of paper that I never read or even knew existed: “Will of Adin Swan of Rome, N.Y.”

It’s a transcription of the original document, probably typed up by my Aunt Rowena, the family historian. It reads like a typical will: Considering the uncertainty of this mortal life and being of sound mind and memory, Blessed be Almighty God for the same, do make and publish this my last will and testament. But when I saw the name Adin Swan, my heart beat faster as I sat there staring at the papers, trying to fully absorb what I was holding in my hands. For these are the last known words of a man who fought in the Revolution.

According to Ro’s research, Adin joined the Continental Army at the age of 14 and spent most of his service in Rhode Island. Like many people in those times, he had a large family: I give to my oldest son George Swan and Philander Swan and William Swan and Alonzo Swan and Edwin A. Swan and to their heirs forever all my real and personal estate…and the furniture that my wife Martha leaves at her decease is to be equally divided between my daughters Polly Brainard and Ann Mosely and Palmire Rudd.

Twenty years after Adin’s death in 1842, his grandsons, George Swan’s sons, would join the Union Army and one would die in Louisiana. My own grandfather, Hoyt Swan, was born in 1879, just fourteen years after the Civil War ended. Now I sit here in 2016, reading First I give and bequeath unto my loving wife Martha Swan during her widowhood…

Thanks to Ro, who took the time to find, copy and file away the will, Adin and the early life of our still young country are no longer remote or abstract, but close and very real. Blessed are the genealogists, the librarians like my amazing wife, the archivists, and all of those who preserve our collective heart and soul, from inaugural addresses to postcards, cassette tapes, and floppy discs. (If you don’t know what cassettes and floppies are, ask your parents. They’re really not as clueless as you think.)

In this hyperactive, here-one-second-and-gone-the-next digital age, the tasks of preservation and organization must be harder than ever. I’m certainly not vain enough to think anyone will be reading this blog in 174 years, the age of Adin’s will. But I hope we leave something tangible, so if humankind is still around in 2190, someone whose world we can only dream about will still have the thrill of opening the envelope.

Will of Adin Swan.


Stuff and sense

Braun 1960s desk fan

My dad used to sell these. It still works, too!

Luggage tags from the 1996 presidential campaign. Cub Scout insignia from the early 1960s. An extremely cool-looking desk fan from the same era (pictured at right). CDs I’ve forgotten buying by bands I no longer know why I liked. 40th-birthday banners. Socks that are old enough to drink and vote.

These are just some of the things I’ve found as my wife and I begin, in earnest and with a vengeance, to declutter our home. And boy, have I got clutter.

A pair of AR-710 speakers (great treble, good bass, but big and heavy). Nesting dolls from the flea market in Moscow, plus others from Kiev, Ukraine, and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Trophies from playground chess tournaments. A framed Patti Smith concert poster from 1978.

We’re really not rattus keepeverythingus (pack rats) and are definitely not materialistic, having been raised by parents who lived through the Depression with the philosophy, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Even today, when considering a purchase, I remember my mother’s frugality and her way of getting the maximum use out of everything (which is why I still have those socks).

But we’re not spring chickens either, and as we age, we unavoidably acquire stuff. We also have the material (as well as the spiritual) things that come from our parents, grandparents, and beyond. It adds up.

Hillary and Bill Clinton nesting dolls

From Moscow in the 1990s. Probably worth more now.

Two boxes of files from my last job, which I may never touch again. A 1972 Kalamazoo Civic Youth Theatre program for “Kiss Me, Kate,” featuring Dave Swan as Harrison Howell. A box of very old photos of ancestors who I can’t identify.

Of course, a lot of this carries memories and other emotional attachments, from our families or from important moments in our own lives. But what about letters my mother saved, from people I knew only slightly or not at all, and who are now long dead? Or my dad’s World War II Army discharge papers, which she kept in a safe deposit box forty years after the war just in case I ever needed them?

Twenty-six boxes of books, not counting three or four I’ve already given to the library. A few milk crates full of vinyl LPs, most of which I’ve either replaced with digital tracks or stopped caring about. $1.29 in pennies.

I know perfectly well I’ve got too many books, especially those freakin’ heavy hardcovers, yet the thought of not having them there on the shelf is a bit disconcerting. The same thing goes for all the CDs that are now on our own personal cloud. And what if one of my relatives ever wants to look at those letters?

I can see how this syndrome can cross the line into madness. But there’s something good at the end of the tunnel: an uncrowded home, with more room for the things that matter, like people, sunlight, and laughter.

All these “old” things also remind me of how lucky I’ve been, how far I’ve traveled, and all the wonderful friends I’ve encountered along the way. The “junk” reawakens parts of my soul and girds me for whatever lies ahead. Now: does anybody want to buy a few dozen or a few hundred really cool LPs?

One of the vintage "New Yorker" covers my mother saved (and I'm keeping).

One of the vintage “New Yorker” covers my mother saved (and I’m keeping).