If it’s not beautiful or useful…

clutter.vintageLong ago, I was complaining that I tend to collect way too much crap in my house and that it’s high time I make the place a little tidier. Navigable, even. So Miss Corine, who had years earlier married my widowed grandfather, shrugged her shoulders and provided, in her very lilting Georgian accent, this: “Amy, if it’s not beautiful or useful, I toss it out.”

She said it with a tone of, “what other way IS there, really?” These words guided nearly every minute of this past weekend. I purged as if nothing were beautiful or useful. I purged as if I were a stranger who broke into my home, looked around, and sneered, “What is all this crap?”

I found myself in the throes of reassessing all that surrounds me. How much of this is useful or beautiful? Why am I hanging onto all of this stuff? If that makes me sound like an unsentimental, ungrateful, first-world jerk, know that there was no ROOM for sentiment or gratitude. They had been squeezed out by piles of clothes that fit no one who lives here, stacks of unopened mail, and kitchen drawers filled with keys to nowhere.

The last purge stop of Saturday was a kitchen desk drawer–hospital bracelets from 2000, a page of my husband’s wallet-sized third-grade school picture, a large envelope labeled “House Ideas” with newspaper clippings from 2005, unsigned permission slips, report cards from 2008, and a spiral-bound address book, replete with alphabetized tabs.

Some pages of the address book held faded Christmas letters I had stapled to the sender’s address page because either: a) I was that organized;  b) I was too lazy to transfer the new address to the entry; or c) I found the narcissism within those Christmas letters wildly entertaining.

(Let’s pause here and compile a brief list of traditions and products we can pretty much conclude technology and social media have destroyed: phone books, class reunions, paper party invitations, dictionaries, paper birth announcements, address books, and Christmas letters. Thanks, technology!)

Within these pages of antiquated record keeping that was once upon a time a fully functioning, useful address book, I found a folded Christmas letter printed on green copy paper. At the bottom was Marty’s home address and phone number. “Hey,” I thought, “I am going to give Marty a call this week.”

So the next morning before church, I Googled him to confirm he was still in the same place because mercy, that man relocates a lot. I clicked “enter” after typing in his name, and the first entry to pop up was his photo, full name, and “OBITUARY.”

And I said pretty much the only thing a person can say at such a time:

Well, damn.

(Sorry–it’s what I said.)

My heart sank a little. Or a lot. I’m not sure. My brain overpowered my heart, yelling strong words, like, “Well, if you had cleaned out that drawer four years ago instead of wondering, ‘Hey, where is my Christmas letter?’ and vowing and blaming, ‘You know, I need to catch up with Marty, who apparently has traded Christmas letters for social media like the rest of the world,’ then none of this would be happening right now.” O, the guilt and regret wrought by procrastination.

After staring at the wall for quite some time, I read on. Because his family is from one of those glorious rural towns in Virginia that still believes in publishing obituaries with lots of personal details, I learned that he had been rehabilitating from a paralyzing neck injury he suffered the previous year. But it was pneumonia that eventually killed him.

Well, damn again.

Marty lived BIG, so that set of circumstances really had to tick him off. I imagine he said, “You know what? This is for the birds. I need to check out. Something needs to happen.” So pneumonia happened. This is the way I came to understand this sad piece of news. I reasoned my way through it. I put Marty in control. Because Marty was always in control.

If Marty wasn’t having a good time at a dinner or a party or even a job, he would dart his eyes around the room, put on his coat, and make a quiet exit. And then he would whistle through his teeth on the way to his car.

Much of Marty was stealth like. He made things just sort of happen–quietly, efficiently, in the shadows. Smart, funny, generous, successful, but oh so sneaky.

When I was pregnant with my first child, he hosted a Super Bowl party that featured the very avant garde “Crock Pot Rotel and Velveeta Cheese Dip with Sausage,” which was all the food rage that year. I. Could. Not. Stop. At nearly nine months pregnant, I sat at the buffet table alone and dipped tortilla chips into that Crock Pot as if it were my last meal. I had never eaten anything better. It was Crock Pot genius. Well into the second quarter, my husband yelled from across the room, “My gosh, STOP. You are a PIT.” Marty, on the other hand, waited until backs were turned, quietly walked over, and handed me a spoon.

Nothing about this old Christmas letter is particularly beautiful or useful. The printer paper is mint–not Christmas–green, the font is so unmercifully small that my old(er) eyes can barely read it without me stomping across the room to put it under a bright light, the phone number and address at the bottom of the page are no longer his, his updates are not updates at all, and the narcissism is negligible. Either its beauty or its usefulness lies in its ability to stir a memory. I’m not sure which. Maybe both.

The letter, absent of the address book that held it, is back in the drawer. It has long outlived its beauty and usefulness, but I am holding onto it anyway.

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