eMail as (lazy) memoir

I mentioned on Facebook the other day that I had nearly 4,000 emails in my Sent folder that I needed to clean out — a chore I detest and obviously hadn’t done in a long time. I spent all day today, many hours of my last day off, going through and deleting around 3,200 of them, so far. Three thousand two hundred interactions with clients, colleagues, friends, family wiped away one by one.

It made me wonder how these interactions would have happened in the olden days — like 25 years ago. We didn’t use email then (did it even exist?). When colleagues and I needed to exchange information, we talked to each other, or called, or left notes on each other’s desks. We didn’t have voicemail; if you called someone who wasn’t at their desk, you called back later or left a message with an actual person. We all had little, check-the-box “While you were out” pads that made it easy to communicate — let someone else know that someone had come by to see them or that they had had a phone call from X about Y. We relied a lot on our memories of what was said in conversation or notes that we, you know, wrote by hand — no CYA email trail in those days.

And friends, family? We didn’t have instant access to share a funny picture or interesting article — except by fax, and no one did that. We talked by phone (but not when we were anywhere but at home or work, where the phone was) or sent cards and letters. Sharing a picture was a big deal — you had to send your only print from the roll you had to get developed or have copies made. A lot of people sent their film away by mail for processing because it was cheaper. You’d wait anxiously to see how the pictures turned out. A lot of them didn’t turn out so well — you might look silly, eyes closed or mouth open or hair askew, and you’d have to rip it up or hope no one would show anyone. If a card or letter someone sent you made you LOL, you might call them to say that, but more likely you’d have to write them back — and an LOL several days later just isn’t the same.

It’s a wonder we could function at all. What with having to walk uphill both ways to work in blizzards and all, too.

It’s also weird to think that what in days of yore would have been simple, easily forgotten conversations or phone calls or notes are today all countable and “rememberable.” Four thousand interactions over the course of several years recallable in an instant.

Imagine if you never deleted any. Ever. If all the email exchanges you ever had were there for the perusing. Of course, not the boring work ones you’d never want to see again. But the others — the chats with friends, the shared jokes and memes, the advice given and received. A little like a living journal. In my case, I had a lot of emails pertaining to my mom’s care, illness, and death. About our work to clean out the house, settle the estate, sell the house. I have some giving or getting advice from friends. I even have a few about 9/11 — written on or in the days following the massacre. Some of them, though painful to remember, I still couldn’t delete. Not yet; maybe not ever.

I don’t plan to let my emails pile up that high ever again. Not that many years ago, I was vigilant about keeping my Inbox and Sent mail to 400 emails each. That’s probably not feasible anymore given all the projects I need to track over time. But I won’t let it reach 10x that number again. It may be an easy way to document slices of life — an unconscious journal — but I don’t think it’s worth a day of my current life to relive them.

What you need to know about the past is that
no matter what has happened, it has all worked together
to bring you to this very moment. And this is the moment you can
choose to make everything new. Right now.

~ Author Unknown


It’s been 10 months since my mum died, and we’re still struggling to clean out the house. We knew she was a saver, and had joked for years about “Heaven help us when the time comes…” But I don’t think any of us truly comprehended the magnitude of the task — I, for one, figured all 7 of us would pitch in for a couple weeks and just get it done.

So naive.

I kid you not when I say my mother saved virtually everything. From her entire 93-year life. The ridiculous as well as the practical, with very little discrimination about what was important or valuable and what was not. From big pieces of furniture to tiny, unidentifiable doohickeys from some long-broken trinket — in her eyes, it was worth saving. A product of the Depression, she simply did not throw things away.

And don’t get me wrong — the house did not look like an episode of Hoarders. She wasn’t living in chaos or squalor. Things were generally “redd up” (basement and attic notwithstanding). But every possible unvisible nook and cranny in a large, three-story house that could be filled with something was filled with something. And for us, her post-middle-age children, it’s like opening a time capsule of not only our long-forgotten pasts, but of her past, long before any of us came to be.

It’s overwhelming. It’s maddening. It’s bittersweet. It’s caused endless laughter as well as a few tears and frustrations that really only the 7 of us can understand or appreciate.

It makes me wish, on any given day, both that I could just turn the keys over to a clean-up company and say, “Here, make it go away,” and that I had a big empty room at home that I could bring a thousand things to to save, share here on the blog, or possibly eBay away at my leisure. The memorabilia alone is fascinating — pamphlets and cookbooks from the war years; ads from a fancy radio or hi-fi my dad had coveted; the sales receipt from their 1949 stove (still in use in the kitchen), heck, the sales receipt from her flowers for their wedding…so much interesting point-in-time, slice-of-life stuff. Her beautiful hats and suits from another era. Knickknacks and doodads galore. The WWII letters between her and my dad before they were married. The hundreds of cards she received over the years, from all of us as well as from long-ago passed relatives and friends. My grandma’s recipes. My great-aunt Sister Augusta’s wonderful notes to each of us on our birthdays. Stuff from her childhood. Stuff from our childhood. Stuff from 30, 20, 10 years ago. Stuff from last year.

So much stuff.

We;re just not not able to save everything, even some things we’d like to save. I struggle with how much time and attachment to have to all these “things” and with how much of my own life to spend attending to the remnants of someone else’s life. If I didn’t know something even existed, do I really need it now? And what about when I’m gone? — I have no children to pass it on to.

And so we persist. Slowly winnowing the mountain into smaller hills of ever-more-agonizing decisions. Always wanting to do the right thing, but not always knowing what the right thing is, and fighting our growing fatigue and waning ability to be as thoughtful and discerning as we started out to be 10 months ago.

And still, with each item picked up, considered, and too often put right back down, with each thing recognized and recalled, and even with things never seen before, there’s a “mumory” attached. And a realization that she’s gone. And there’s so much you wish she could tell you about and laugh with you about. And so much you know she’d never let you throw away. And you miss her. A lot.


To live in hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.
~ Thomas Campbell

Would you forget?

I heard part of an interesting story on NPR the other day featuring a (very funny) scientist who was studying memory. As she recounted her research — dealing particularly with painful memories — she used the example of her father, a Holocaust survivor. He refuses to talk about, or even acknowledge, his experiences, and she wonders if he has literally forgotten the memory. Or something like that. I, of course, was in the car, came into the story late, and missed the ending. Frustratingly, I can’t find it online to read or listen to it fully.

But still, it got me thinking. If I could forget a painful memory, would I? It made me think about what memories I have that I consider painful, and it made me feel fortunate that not a lot comes to mind. What I did think about was my mom’s death, still a raw wound, and would I choose to forget the pain of that if I could?

Somehow, I don’t think so, as I think to forget would somehow dishonor the experience and, by default, her.

But some other painful experience, perhaps less personal? Maybe. Something I saw that haunted me (in looking for the story I heard online, I skimmed this article that led with that idea); a memory of embarrassment; an annoying person or experience perhaps?

I don’t know. Maybe my reticence has something to do with the “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” philosphy. Or the idea of owning your life, warts and all.

But still. What about forgetting a memory of failure? Maybe if you can forget falling off the horse…or the wagon…or the relationship…you would lose the fear that holds you back and keeps you from trying again. Or does that simply mean you wouldn’t learn from your mistakes? Is memory a gift? Or a curse?

Maybe someday we’ll have that choice to make. To remember or to forget. I’m glad I don’t have to decide right now.


One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.
~ Emily Dickinson, “Time and Eternity”

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