I have been thinking a lot about “clutter” over the last months.
Partly because of the number of times Ninesh has had to pull important documents out of the recycling bin: cheques, passport applications, insurance documents, all enthusiastically binned by me in my constant desire to keep our house free from unnecessary “stuff”.
But mostly because we have spent many weekends over the past year, trying to help my parents-in-law empty their 4 bedroomed home of the clutter accumulated over almost 50 years of marriage.
We started gently with the shed and the garage, getting rid of old flower pots and mouldy books.
But all of us knew, right from the beginning, that the biggest problem, was the attic.
It’s a big attic, running the width of the house and it is piled from boarded floor to pitched roof with “stuff”.
Huge suitcases, paper-filled tea chests, children’s toys, christmas decorations, curtains, duvets, newspapers.
Like unpeeling the layers of an onion, the attic reveals year after year of my parents-in-laws married life in reverse chronological order: the most recent unwanted Christmas presents balanced precariously on top. the love letters of their courtship buried right at the bottom.
When, at last, we pulled down the attic ladder and ascended into the chaos my decluttering fingers were itching to recycle, throw away or donate the seemingly insurmountable mountain of debris.
I could feel the words of Dr Seuss burning on my tongue.
” This mess is so big and so deep and so tall,
That we can’t clear it up,
There is no way at all.”
But with the house sold and a moving date pending, surrender was not an option. there had to be a way.
And so, grabbing a dusty, overflowing box from the furthest corner, we began.
We worked and worked.
By the end of the day we had driven to the tip and local charity shops so many times that our car could probably have driven there by itself.
But, like the porridge from the magic porridge pot, the stream of objects flowing through the attic hatch seemed never-ending and the ocean of chaos in the living room seemed to be constantly growing.
And in the middle of it all, stood my mother-in-law.
“My father always used to drink from this” she says, stroking a small, dusty cup.
” Look, this is Ninesh’s certificate for coming second in athletics when he was 6″ she hands it to me, “You should keep it.”
“And here’s the horse his sister used to play with. I’ll give it to her when we visit next weekend.”
And for a moment I pause.
My decluttering frenzy halted by the anguish in her voice.
To her, these are not just dusty cups or bits of paper or broken toys.
Instead, they are something precious and irreplaceable.
They let her touch her past and bring it back to life.
We are not just throwing away rubbish, we are dismantling her memories.
When my parents-in-law were first married, they left Sri Lanka to live in Canada. My father-in-law worked for the High Commission, so they knew they would probably spend their lives moving from country to country.
But while they were away from Sri Lanka, civil war broke out.
As Tamils, their relatives were forced to flee and my mother-in-law’s family home was burnt to the ground.
Her niece narrowly escaped with her life, everything else inside the house was set ablaze.
A whole family history destroyed.
Nothing left to hold in your hand and remember.
Perhaps that is why, over the years, everything has been kept and moved to the attic:
A baby tooth, an old pram, a worn-out blanket, an electric heater, a single earring, a newspaper announcing the death of Lady Diana.
Any of them could be important one day.
It is hard to know which of your possessions will form the invisible scaffolding that holds your life together and gives it meaning.
Anything could be an important something.
So best to keep everything, just in case.
Perhaps it is too easy to imbue objects with meaning.
But it is also too easy to think they mean nothing.
I walk over to my mother-in-law and touch the cup that belonged to her father.
“You have to keep it,” I say.
By the end of the day, we are dust-covered and exhausted but the attic was almost empty.
I survey the piles of torn magazines, bagfuls of airmail letters and boxes of bric-a-brac that are strewn across the living room, dining room and kitchen floor.
” Well,” I say proudly, ” The worst part is over, the attic is empty. What a constructive day.”
My father-in-law smiles and pours us each a big glass of wine.
” True,” he said, “that’s great. Now there’s just the other attic. The one above the extension, it’s quite full…….?”
And I am left wondering if it is possible to have just too many memories!