The Boomer’s Dilemma

Editor Mel Allen finds that breaking up with memories is hard to do.

By Mel Allen

Aug 26 2020


The Boomer’s Dilemma

Photo Credit : Yankee Staff

In 2020, an unprecedented American public health crisis profoundly changed the way we live, prompting editor Mel Allen to begin posting regular “Letter From Dublin” dispatches from Yankee‘s home in southwestern New Hampshire. This installment first appeared on August 26.

Even though this summer continues to be a gift of lake swims, and Annie’s garden is erupting with tomatoes sweeter than any I have known, today I am thinking about mortality. Every day numbers fill our screens, and always the numbers increase, sometimes by thousands. I am careful, I am masked and socially distanced and well scrubbed — but I have no illusions. I read that 70 percent of those who do not survive the coronavirus are baby boomers, or older. In early March, before the severity of the crisis had sunk in, a young colleague joked that millennials had given the virus a nickname: “boomer remover.” By late March, the jokes had stopped.

So for me it is time to consider what if? My two sons live far away, and of all the legacies I could pass on to them, the one I do not want is to make them return home to paw through the sediment of my life. I am not being morbid — simply practical, with a dash of compassion. I grew up with two parents, a brother, and a sister. I alone remain. My sister left a husband and a grown son to do the sifting and storing and cutting loose, but it became my task to deal with what my mother and father and brother left behind. I had to decide what to keep, what to give away, what to drive to some obscure place that took things that no longer belonged to a home. I had to pretend to not know that some of it would likely be crushed in a dumpster. I do not want that burden to be a legacy I leave.

Spurred by those thoughts this past weekend, I ventured to a place I had been too timid to visit for so many months I could no longer recall my last time. A place I knew could disrupt my life for weeks, even months, could even haunt me a bit while I slept. A place I have avoided because I know that beyond its door lies my personal black hole.

What a lifelong journalist picks up along the way: newspaper clippings, phone messages, the notebooks and cassettes where all stories begin.
Photo Credit : Yankee Staff

I am talking about my storage unit. For years I have paid $105 every month for a sturdy 10-by-10-foot metal and concrete square that sits about two miles north of where I live, among hundreds of other similar units in one of those storage neighborhoods that take root on otherwise barren land. This cold, cell-like structure holds stuff that once filled the lives of my parents and my brother. After my former wife, Carole, a professional photographer for many years, died, I emptied thousands of photos from her file cabinets into boxes and brought them here too, where they all teeter rather haphazardly. When our sons, Dan and Josh, moved away and sold their mother’s house, their collections and video games and mementoes from proms and sports — all this squeezed into nooks and crannies too. And then we come to the crux of the matter, and why I knew the time had arrived for me to take action: my own stuff.

I keep things. I am not a “hoarder,” because that implies a sort of aberration. I do not hoard. I keep things that should not be discarded. Some years ago a friend told me he gave away his mother’s furniture but kept everything that told a story: a knitted wool hat, a scarf, a miniature porcelain swan boat. I understood. But what do I do when so many things here hold stories for me? Stories that likely hold little interest to anyone else?

Which is why I have not gone to see it all for so long. I know the time is long past to trim it all back, to put this storage space on an austerity program. So even though I do not know where to begin, on Saturday I found the key, and opened the lock.

Conversations frozen in time: tapes from Mel’s interviews with Doug Flutie, Alan Shepard, and Stephen King.
Photo Credit : Yankee Staff

The door is heavy and seems to groan as I raise it. Inside, I stare into what to my eyes seems to be a chaotic land of boxes and crates. My first instinct is to close the door, retreat. I need a friend to take this all away, the way a friend will take your dog to the vet when it is too painful for you to make that final ride. Annie has long hinted at this solution, offering to be that friend. Her mantra is if you have not looked at any of this for months, for years, you will not miss it. You will feel lighter. You will have $105 each month that now simply goes to a closed door. And I know she is right. But I hold on. This stuff once meant something to people I cared about. I hold on to my own boxes and boxes of notebooks and newspaper clippings, and interviews of writers ripped from magazines, and more boxes of audio tapes, because they were the tools of my life’s work.

But I cannot have it both ways. I cannot leave the chaos to be sorted out by others. So I lifted one box and placed it in the trunk of my car. Then another, and another, until the trunk was full and then the backseat too. I drove them home and carried them into the sunny backyard. To prepare, I had gone to two stores and bought 10 plastic storage crates that hold manila folders, and two large clear plastic crates for mementoes: I labeled these “keepers.” I bought a box of folders and index cards and scotch tape. I set a large container for discards beside the table. I began.

Parental snapshots from Mel’s family archives: photos from a collage celebrating Adele and Al’s wedding day, left, and a picture of Al as a young G.I.
Photo Credit : Yankee Staff

I opened a box, and inside was a framed photo of my dad in his Army uniform from World War II. He is only a few years older than my sons. Beneath it was a framed collage my mother made long ago showing them on their wedding day. My sons never knew them. I have nowhere to hang these things.  I place them in a “keeper” crate. In another box I find an old dusty brown leather satchel. Inside are large manila envelopes that have not been opened for decades. One holds letters my father wrote to my mother during the war; another holds his Army papers. When I leave this earth, nobody will ever want or need to see them. I am supposed to be thinning the herd so my sons do not need to. But these, too, go into the “keeper” crate.

I have been to many flea markets where the displays include framed portraits of men and women and children, families staring into a camera from a long-past era, and I have wondered how those photos ended up being sold and bought by strangers. Will the photo of my dad, his arms flung open, one day perch on a flea market shelf, a symbol of a GI off to war?

A reminder of life before emails: a leather satchel stuffed with correspondence between Mel’s parents — and emblazoned with a sticker commemorating the country where they first met.
Photo Credit : Yankee Staff

In another box I found a set of audio tapes with my handwritten scrawl: S. King. Hours of Stephen King talking to me about his early life and his first novels from 40 years ago. Another set read Alan Shepard.  An hour passed, and all I had accomplished was to stack dozens of tapes into a crate, each cassette filled with the voice of someone whose story I wanted to tell, and did. In another box was the notebook I used for my first story for Yankee, a profile of Ma Dudley, the wife of a Maine potato farmer who would feed a dozen farmhands every day and who opened a small restaurant in her Aroostook County homestead after her husband died. I started reading those notes, and another 20 minutes passed. The notebook found its way into a “keeper” crate too.

I discovered a yellowed paper, slightly crumpled, beneath a few notebooks. It was a handwritten letter from a girl named Jamie. She would have been 8 or 9 years old when she wrote to me. She was on a youth baseball team I coached in the early 1990s in Keene, New Hampshire. There were only a few girls who played then, and she had been unsure she fit in. I read: “You have showed me so many things that I never knew I could do. If it weren’t for you I would still be that whimpy scardey cat I was when we started. But now I’m someone who can go up to the plate and hit, swing hard and not strike out and be upset…. Thank you so much for getting me to be the ballplayer that I’ve dreamed of being.” She had decorated the top and bottom and both sides of the paper with colored stars. Tell me, how do I put that in the discard pile, even if I have not seen it for over 25 years? Because now I have, again, and it fills me with the same flush of pleasure when I read it long ago.

Among letters from colleagues and friends, a little girl’s voice can carry most clearly across the decades.
Photo Credit : Yankee Staff

Maybe, in the end, I will make peace that I did my best. That each day I will carve an hour or so to sift through all the papers, keeping only the ones I could not bear to not see ever again. Which, as of today, four days into the project, is nearly everything.

Have you had to tackle clearing away the leftovers of a lifetime? I’d love to hear your story. Drop a note in the comments below.