I am not a sentimental person. I’ve never watched my wedding video, I don’t have any family heirlooms from my long-dead grandparents, and it would take decades before I missed my one box of childhood stuff.
Perhaps this is wrong, shortsighted, or hard-hearted. Maybe this tendency is common; maybe it’s unusual. Perhaps there’s something to shelves full of boxes, and boxes full of stuff. But the past has never been much of my present. The present is my present, and it’s pretty darn full. So good or bad, right or wrong, and whatever the underlying psychology, I will admit to eschewing sentimental doodads in favor of a clutter-free life. And I will also admit to not enjoying reminiscing in favor of exploring the now. Emerson, I tend to think, had it right: “With the past, I have nothing to do, nor with the future. I live now.”
That changed as this holiday season approached. In a fit of further simplifying the clutter in my house, I came across old videotapes from a time when my children were toddling around in diapers and singing their ABCs in random and incomplete order. Out of a sense of duty, I dropped the tapes off at a shop to see if they could be salvaged, and, if so, if they could be transferred to a DVD.
The VHS tapes were successfully converted to pixels, and I brought them home, and then they sat around, unwatched, for a long time—until one recent night when the homework was done, the chickens were put in, the laundry was folded, the papers were graded, the novels had been read, the day’s tales had been told, and the dishwasher was running peacefully. On top of this serendipitous timing, something else was floating in the air, something about the holidays and nostalgia and sentimental sweetness. And I thought, Oh, what the hell. Let’s watch these babies.
My two kids and husband (who, if it is possible, is even more unsentimental than I) and golden retriever and cockatiel gathered around the TV in the back room of the house, where we keep our television. There was a lot of squirming, because the couch is uncomfortable and doesn’t fit us all. Someone had to get a snack, and someone else had to go to the bathroom. Finally, though, we hit play.
What was this, all of a sudden, on the small screen? My daughter twirling around in some ridiculous self-created outfit involving cowboy boots and a tiara, dancing and then stabbing her brother with a plastic sword. And my son, age four, looking into the camera with calm eyes and stating, “I will always help animals. And people. OK?” And our old dog, now dead, trotting about. And my husband, fixing the tire swing, and then fixing it again. And the younger versions of my siblings and parents at various holidays, arguing about the same things they still argue about, but with less gray hair. And me, putting ornaments on the Christmas tree, very much in the present of that particular moment, unaware that I was being videoed, and unaware that a future me in her own present moment would be watching.
In short, there was all the emotionally laden stuff that’s difficult to recount to others but which is very much a part of one’s cellular memory: the particular giggles and swaggers and winks of an eye that are unique to you and your family and your time on this planet thus far. The particulars of the past, jammed into your present.
I didn’t record much. One hour of DVD watching covered two years of life, from a Christmas to a Christmas to yet another Christmas. Kids moved from toddlerdom to kiddom. Sweet awkwardness was replaced by sure-footedness. Singsongy jibber-jabber was replaced by articulate sentences, although the content stayed kidlike and goofy. Christmas presents morphed from stuffed animals into real animals.
I have not laughed or cried or oohed and ahhed so much in my life. Ever. And it was in that meaningful present moment that I re-evaluated, ever so slightly, my desire to embrace the little mementos of the past.
You know when you’re getting old when you spend more time in the past than in the present, or so I’ve heard it said. Perhaps this is true, and perhaps it is in the natural course of events that we live, at different eras of our life, in different vectors on the line graph of time. I suppose there’s value in all directions, and it’s our nature to embrace whatever direction—past, present, future—serves us best.
But when we visit the past too often, we find that the future dissipates, that the videotape runs out on us even as it is happening. And although memories are fundamental and non-negotiable, I still believe there’s a real danger in forgoing the present by sentimentalizing the past. And I also believe that, for me at least, less clutter means more clarity.
So I still like to keep it simple. I recycle most of the kids’ homework and toss my own stuff too. I don’t place much emotional value in ticket stubs, gifts, cards, or other mementos. I collect rocks and books, and that’s pretty much it, and that’s pretty much the way I like it. I still get irritated with people snapping photos or videoing instead of just being. I still don’t know how to transfer photos from my camera to my computer, and I sort of don’t care. I still believe that stuff—and that includes sentimental, emotional stuff—weighs us down more than it helps us.
But those videos created a small, nearly imperceptible shift in my mind. Once in a while, I find myself filing away one of the kids’ special projects, or tucking away a favorite toy, or filling a small shoebox with the year’s tidbits. What the hell, I think, you never know. There will be nights in the future, I hope, when I’ll want to curl up and reminisce, to settle into the past and embrace it and remember. Which is why I’ve dug out the video camera a time or two recently, pointed it at my present, and pressed the red button that previously was anathema to me: record.
Laura Pritchett is a 5280 contributing editor and writes the My Colorado column for the magazine. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.