The price of the purge

In this world, there are two kinds of people: the pack rat, and what I like to call the “purge rat.” In other words, there are those who squirrel away every item that could potentially be of importance, no matter how trivial, including but not limited to: buttons, newspaper clippings, receipts, concert tickets, foreign currency, dried-out magic markers, hard candies, broken watches and old golf tees, “just in case.” Then, there are the rest of us. We are the few but proud, repulsed by the site of such “nostalgic clutter,” and berated, oft times unfairly, by the rest of our housemates for our overzealous habit of “putting things away” and relegating documents to the recycle bin before they even see the light of day.

Granted, I wasn’t always this way. For years I carried around a guitar pick from Prince that was scrounged from a front-row seat on his “Purple Rain” tour. You could practically smell the sweat on it. However, after several moves, which I consider the most loathsome of activities, I came to realize that many of my formerly cherished mementos were hardly noticed missing while sitting in a box in storage for several months. As a result, I gradually learned to part with old, worn-out sneakers and sets of mismatched dishes. And after a while, I began to relish that certain feeling of accomplishment that comes from weeding out the closet and newspaper rack.

Obsessive compulsive, some may say. I prefer “organizationally gifted.”

So, I guess you could say it was true irony – not to mention a series of unfortunate incidents – that led me to a task I was assigned last week: that of helping my mother move from the house that had operated as my family’s homebase for more than 30 years. Talk about the Odd Couple. Unlike myself, my mother had managed to save every knick knack, letter, photo, poster, cassette tape, school uniform, yearbook, birthday card, note, homework assignment and art project that any of her four children brought home. But this wasn’t all. She also happened to be a rabid crafter, and over the years had cornered the free market on baskets and ceramic chickens. Of course this had nothing on her true passion: nutcrackers. She had developed an uncommon fetish for the wooden figurines on a trip to Germany and ever since had set about amassing the largest collection of ornamental nut huskers the world had ever seen. Instead of a “Nutcracker Suite,” she had a whole darn Nutcracker Hotel – some 200 at last count.

“You know, you can buy nuts pre-shelled these days,” I offered. But she would have none of it, and carefully packed them up for safe storage and the day the Smithsonian would inevitably call.

In the meantime, I was left with the dubious task of cleaning out the “crafts room” – a space in the basement that had been untouched by the hands of time since 1982. As horridly daunting as it was, it also was a dream come true, a veritable purger’s paradise. With the help of a brother-in-law, I set about making piles: one to save; one for the Goodwill; one for an estate sale; and one for the trash.

“What’s going on down there?” my mother called from the top of the steps. I could hear her starting to make her way down.

“Don’t come down here!” I shouted, a warning she uncharacteristically heeded.

And then the purge to end all purges began. As my brother-in-law held the trash bag, I would hold up an item just long enough for us to make a split decision, and toss it in its respective heap.

“Eight glass vases?”


“Mayonnaise jar of mismatched buttons?”


“Box of dismembered doll parts?”


Soon, we had made impressive headway, with each bag destined for the trash stealthily snuck out the back door. Old earrings, Styrofoam balls, pom poms, googly animal eyes, and half-finished latch hook rugs all met a timely demise. Which is not to say we did not salvage a few items from the wreckage. A foray into one cabinet netted a gold mine of vintage T-shirts. Although my other siblings had already looted the Journey, REO Speedwagon and Doobie Brothers Farewell Tour tees, I was able to gleen the “cream” of the crop: an original Eric Clapton concert shirt, circa 1982.

“Sweet!” I exclaimed as I held up my trophy, much to the chagrin of my cohort, who has forced to take a Twins homer hankie as consolation.

When we eventually conquered the room, we moved onto the last of the purge-a-toriums: a hall closet that housed the family’s historical archives. As we swung open the creaky door, I could hear my mother’s nervous pacing at the top of the stairs. “Don’t throw anything away, there are priceless antiques in there,” she called down, testament that she still had the sharpest hearing of anyone I knew. Able to hear snide whispers from across the room, she also could miraculously detect the sound of paper hitting plastic from half a mile away. As before, we began sorting through the photos, keeping those we deemed worthy and tossing the rest. And that’s when I came across a heretofore unseen black-and-white portrait of a beautiful sleeping baby girl taken almost 37 years ago. OK, so it was me, and I’m a bit biased. Nevertheless, my infant visage bore a striking resemblance to that of my own year-old daughter, who until now I had sworn off as a reincarnation of her father. I set the photos aside for safe keeping. However, somehow during our purge-a-thon, the photos vanished. I frantically began searching through the bags, wading through the castoffs in hopes of finding them. But to no avail, and emptiness consumed me.

“It’s like I never existed. I’ve been wiped from the earth. A nobody,” I murmered.

“Well, it’s not like you weren’t before,” the BIL quipped as only a BIL can.

In a strange and perverse twist of fate, I had become the victim of my own guerilla purgative tactics.

The next morning, I awoke to give one last look through the bags in the hopes that the pictures had magically risen to the surface. Standing in my pajamas in the freezing morning air, I rifled through the Hefty bags of broken glass, dried flowers and scraps of paper until an unlucky encounter with a can of Raid convinced me to give up.

Or so I thought. A week later at home, I inexplicably found myself drawn to a desk that had become the repository for my own family photos. I picked up a photo album that still had some empty pages and methodically began sorting through the photos and slipping them between the sleeves. After a while, I had run out of pages and put the photos and book away, with plans to return soon. Because in all the mess, I had realized that although losing oneself is tough, rediscovering oneself makes it all worthwhile.

– Missy Votel



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January 26, 2024
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January 11, 2024
High and dry

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