Experience over memory

I remember reading once that a uncluttered home makes for an uncluttered brain and heart.  A person can feel more present and content when there  is a peaceful feeling when there isn’t extra “stuff” cluttering one’s space. As an encouragement to get rid of things, the author wrote something like:

“Getting rid of your grandmother’s fancy teapot is not the same as getting rid of your grandma.”

Sorta obvious when it was written down, but it helped to think about that. It made sense to me.

I’ve watched Husband go through his late wife’s things, both before we were married and since. He was thoughtful and offered various family some of her things…and, as he has been ready, he empties out the boxes of memories. Seeing that, I had a very real realization that I won’t always be here, and whatever I don’t get rid of, someone else will have to get rid of after I’m gone.

So, in the continued saga of two households becoming one, I’ve spent time this summer going through old boxes and deliberately making hard choices to let things go.  Oddly, some of these decisions are about stuff I haven’t looked at (or even thought of) since the last time I went through things and made hard decisions about what to do with them (and then kept them).

It’s time to let that stuff go!

As we were going through the pile of boxes we hadn’t looked at properly when I moved in, there were two containers marked “Wedding/Marriage”. Husband was surprised about these containers…we are newlyweds with a simple wedding not long ago.

Yep, they were from Marriage #1. The one that ended tragically and frighteningly over a decade ago.  First Husband left. It left me in a confused, terrified mess, raising JTM’s in a big house with a too-small-budget and the 1000’s of challenges single parents face at the beginning of the end of a marriage with parenting hurting children, making separation agreements, navigating a couple’s world as a single, all the while scared and hurting and exhausted.

The wedding tub of Carolyn Bergen

It was time to let those boxes go.

In fact, many would say, it was about 10 years past time to let those boxes go!

Why remember a failed marriage?  One that ended so fraught with pain? Why hold onto the start of something that was on the long road to destruction? I hadn’t let go of these containers…why?

I knew I needed to rumble with this.

So, I spent a few days asking myself the question.  So I asked myself:

  • What sort of loser woman holds onto wedding pictures, etc, of a marriage that ended so long ago, and badly, at that?
  • Am I some sort of sick woman who is somehow holding onto the cadaver of a marriage long dead when I am deliriously happy with Husband now?

The first day, my questions were judgey–even harsh.  Not kind. Not helpful.  And no good answers.

No surprise there…who would answer such biased questions in a meaningful way?

Then, as often happens, when I kept asking questions of myself all the while encouraging others to be self compassionate and curious in my day job as a therapist, I began to hold space for more compassionate, curious questions:

  • In what way does holding onto these boxes serve me?
  • What stands between me holding onto these boxes and me letting go of these boxes?

Now, these more understanding questions were ones my spirit could answer!

The answers I came up with had to do with my children.  It seemed that somehow there was a part of me that felt that if I heartlessly threw away the memorabilia that I had so lovingly packed all those years ago, that I would be denying the context into which I birthed my Junior Tribe Members.  I married their father in love, honesty and integrity, planning with all my heart to give my JTM’s a forever family where they would learn of love by being immersed in a household full of it.

It was years ago that I listened to a TED talk on memories.  Daniel Kahnamen related a story about the difference between reality and memories:

[A gentleman] said he’d been listening to a symphony, and it was absolutely glorious music and at the very end of the recording, there was a dreadful screeching sound. And then he added, really quite emotionally, it ruined the whole experience. 

But it hadn’t. 

What it had ruined were the memories of the experience. He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.

How do we remember stories that were great until they weren't? Quote by Carolyn Klassen of Conexus Counselling

That story always stuck with me. I don’t want to lose huge periods of my life to the dark side because of a nasty ending. I’d like to keep remembering as much as my life as possible in the positive spirit I would have had at the time.

I wanted my children to know that we’d had years of glorious marriage…we’d had a honeymoon that we enjoyed, a first apartment that we loved setting up, years in California studying and growing and seeing the sites, grieved the loss of JTM’s born silently, and celebrating the miraculous live births of the JTM’s. I wanted them to know that I started out all those years ago hopeful and optimistic.

I wanted the space they were born into to count for something.

I didn’t want my JTM’s to only think of their parents as divorced…I wanted my JTM’s to know that the experience of marriage relationship was far more positive than the way the memories that were shaped for us all–by the dreadful screeching sound of betrayal and departure.

Of course, holding onto the boxes doesn’t actually give them that experience I wanted them to have!  🙂

My newfound understanding did make the next steps really obvious–and productive, in multiple ways.

A few Sundays ago, I sat down with the JTM’s I’ve raised from birth (and the daughter-in-law that I can now call my own!), and we ordered sushi.  And while we waited for delivery, we went through the boxes together.

Collage of old wedding images from first wedding with First Husband...a tribute to the children


  • giggled over the invitations with the RSVP envelopes and response cards (the digital age of email responses make these ancient archival documents that required explanation),
  • tossed aside the VHS tapes which we couldn’t even watch for lack of equipment
  • looked at the headlines of the Winnipeg Free Press paper from our wedding day that I had saved (Apparently, Winnipeg was discussing the possibility of FULL TIME city councillors each with their own office budget!)
  • looked slack jawed at the stack of letters he sent me in the months we were apart before our engagement (and before the internet)…the idea of buying stamps mailing letters and waiting days before reading “the latest” was almost beyond their comprehension
  • saw the enormous stack of cute little cocktail napkins that had our names and date engraved on them…because so few were used on the wedding day, we kept them, promising ourselves to pull them out for our 25th anniversary party
  • mocked and laughed over the records of the corny shower games we played, the poofiness of the sleeves on the wedding dresses, and the big 80’s hair
  • noticed the grandma’s and grandpas, visibly younger then than now…and fondly remembered those in pictures now gone.

We enjoyed the experience–all of us. It wasn’t sad or painful.  It was goofy and funny and lighthearted…the way I dreamed it would someday be when I packed the box in the early months of marriage and imagined going through it with my children.

I told them that they had to take a few pictures and tuck them away, so that they could remind themselves that they had been born into love…and that the divorce of their parents didn’t take that away.  I told them to show their children someday…so that they could know that their parents were conceived in a home that was intended to be forever.

They each selected the pictures they wanted.

A few were set aside for First Husband with his family. Then we pulled out two garbage bags and loaded it all up, and carried them to the dumpster.

And it felt right.

Memories deserve to be remembered for more than the last screeching sound of an ending.

The goodness before the terribleness will count for something.



1 Comment

  • Marilyn Kroeker

    Thanks for expressing this so well. I too want to remember the beauty of what was and live life well in the present, rather than allowing the screeching to haunt all the good that was, is and is yet to come.

  • Write a Comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *