Giving Away Memories

Lowell L. Getz

There is a penchant for most of us to accumulate "things" over the course of our lives. Even though we may not have used something for years and know we never will again, we hesitate to get rid of it, rationalizing that we may need it again sometime. Thus, we accumulate an inordinate amount of things. Shelves become packed, drawers tangled, closets jammed, stacks of magazines on utility room floors, and books everywhere. This is especially true of clothing. We buy a piece of clothing, wear it for a while, grow a tired of it or gain weight in the wrong places so that it no longer fits. So, we buy something new. Do we get rid of the old one? Of course not! It is still "perfectly good" and we may want to wear it again. Or, so we say.

True, some of the items of clothing are so associated with sentimental memories we simply cannot part with them-the dress you wore to your College Senior Ball, the dress you made when first married and could not afford to buy one, the maternity dress you wore when your first baby was on the way. But, mostly the clothes are pieces we grew tired of, which no longer fit or, we simply saw something new we "liked." The "old" clothes become compressed more and more into the back of the closet as we repeat the cycle over and over and over. Soon all the closets, chests of drawers and cedar chests are packed with old dresses, suits, blouses, skirts, sweaters, and jackets. And, still we continue to buy new clothes.

OK, I know. I am displaying extreme sexism by implying it is women who display these behavioral characteristics. Although, knowing full well some men exhibit these saving tendencies, I do think women are the primary perpetrators of clothing hoarding, at least in our house. Well, yes, there is that heavy navy blue sweater Molly Stock knitted for me while taking my ecology course over 50 years ago at the University of Connecticut. Although I have not worn the sweater for years, it is a piece of my "history", as well as being very warm should I need it again. And, then there is my last army uniform, the worn ragged arctic parka I used in my doctoral field research 57 years ago (Figure 3), the raincoat I wore on our spring trips to England over a decade ago, the weirdly colored scarf my oldest daughter, Colleen, knitted for me when she was still in grade school (she is now more than old enough to belong to AARP), and a few other items. But, these are part of my heritage, not simple hoarding! My rationalization.

All good things must come to an end. Eventually we have to downsize when moving to a retirement home and the kids have to empty and sell the house. Someone has to clear out the accumulated clothes. Typically the clothes are placed in bags and given to the Salvation Army or some other charitable organization. It is, of course, an emotional task for the kids to remove the clothes. They are going through and giving away a part of the lives of their parents. As they do so they sense the number of times and events for which Mom and Dad wore these clothes. So long ago, when they were young and vibrant.

This is the situation in which I find myself. My wife, Mary Ruth, always was a "pack rat", refusing to throw away anything she thought might be of use later ("You never know when we will have another depression."), which included most of her clothes. For the last three years she has had dementia and has gained weight such that almost none of the clothes that she could wear only a few years ago, still fit. We have purchased additional clothes that she can wear in their place, but she resists all attempts to get her to give away those items that no longer fit. She is convinced they still fit.

Both our daughters, Colleen and Allison, will be involved in clearing the house or sale. Our youngest daughter, Allison, who lives nearest to us, has begun clearing out some of my wife's clothes the past few months. Allison does not want to wait to do the clearing out after we are gone, feeling it will be less emotional for her and Colleen do it while we are still living in the house. She insists that I help her sort out clothing I know my Mary Ruth cannot fit into any more or that she obviously will never wear again. When Mary Ruth takes a nap, we go through the closets and cedar chests removing old clothes and placing them in bags and the bags in Allison's car before she awakens. Allison then donates the clothes to a resale store associated with the assisted living facility to which we eventually will move.

Whereas my help with the disposal of my Mary Ruth's clothes eases Allison's emotional stress, I am not certain she understands the emotional drain I feel as each piece of clothing goes into the bag. Most of the items of clothing have associated memories, memories of good times and not so good times, but all reminiscences of our life together, now more than sixty years. Each dress, each skirt, blouse, or jacket brings back visions of our past: the brown taffeta dress she wore to a dance at Blackburn College when we were dating (I still sense how slippery the dress felt when I held her); a yellow formal she wore when in the Queen's Court at Blackburn College; the beige topless formal she wore to the University of Illinois Military Ball just a couple months before we were married (Figure 1); the red and black plaid maternity skirt and over blouse she wore when pregnant with both daughters (Figure 2); the plum colored dress and matching sweater she got at G Fox, in Hartford in 1964, the year plum was the "in" color--we really could not afford the outfit at the time, but it was so pretty on her; the gold, with a thin brown plaid, skirt and matching jacket she made while we were on sabbatical leave in Madison—she was so proud of that suit; the dress she wore in the very large photograph placed at the entrance to the University of Illinois Department of Horticulture Mom's Day flower show when the students dedicated the show to her, the first non-faculty member to be so recognized; the white dress with a black top and red jacket I bought her for a Valentine's Day Dance, just two years ago. And, so it goes with each piece of clothing that goes into the bag. The memories flow and the eyes are misty.

Finally, we come to the large plastic clothes bag at the back of the closet. In it a flowing white dress with a veil and long train. I still see Mary Ruth in the dress as she came down the aisle over sixty years ago. (Figure 4) I cannot part with it. It is too much to think this will be disposed of. Yet, it must be, sometime. There is no one left in the family that would need it. But, giving it away will have to wait until we are both gone. No matter how much it will hurt, Allison, it will be less for you than it would for me. For, you were not standing at the alter watching your Mom wearing this dress as she came down the aisle, on the arm of her brother-in-law, with a wide sheepish, scared smile on her face. She was so beautiful. It marked the beginning of our life together. It remains on the clothes rod. (Figure 5)

I'm sorry Allison, but you will have to take care of the wedding dress later. Enough of my memories have been given away.

Fig. 1
Fig. 1: University of Illinois Military Ball

Fig. 2
Fig. 2. Mary Ruth's red/black plaid maternity dress. With brother Johnny

Fig. 3
Fig. 3. My Arctic Parka, used in all my field research from 1957 to 1984

Fig. 4
Fig. 4. Mary Ruth in wedding dress, 5 July 1953

Fig. 5
Fig. 5. Wedding dress from closet, 2014