Bryher Scudamore from Autodotbiography.com blogs for us this weeks with a top tip on decluttering your life… don’t!
The worst thing I ever did was destroy my love letters. It was years ago and I had been happily married for about 15 years. We moved and I was busy de-cluttering my life and so I burned the love letters I’d had from my teenage boyfriends. Before I destroyed them I read them one last time and they brought back so many memories and powerful emotions. The joys of juvenile love and the agony of having been dumped, it all came flooding back.
Now I have been happily married – to the same husband – for 39 years and how I wish I hadn’t destroyed those letters in the spirit of decluttering my life. Why? Because I am writing my life story and now there are so many gaps in my youth. My memory has never been brilliant and without the evidence I can hardly remember anything about those times. And it set me to thinking about how dangerous de-cluttering is.
The series about hoarding and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) on Channel 4 is big on getting decluttering life, like a similar series years ago called “Life Laundry”. I remember one of the things the hoarder was told to throw out was a delightful sketch made by her father of her 21st birthday party seating plan. I remember shouting at the TV ‘don’t throw that out, it is a precious part of your life story.’ But it went into the bin. Decluttering won over legacy.
I am particularly grateful to my grandfather and father because neither of them decluttered some precious letters (at least they are precious to me), written by my great grandfather, Walter Mitchell. As a young man of 23 he went to America to seek his fortune. His letters to his sweetheart Emillie Read (who he later married) and his mother and brother are full of stories of his adventures.
I read the fourteen letters great grandfather sent home with fascination. Walter had sailed in June 1867 from London on a ship called the Hudson and arrived in New York and then travelled by train from New York to Indiana and then on to Missouri, working as a carpenter, and then spending three months hunting on the prairies. He writes about “a monstrous snow storm”, he describes how they reached St Joseph, Missouri, at the very end of the railway, Saint Joseph was where twenty years later the notorious outlaw Jesse James was killed. “Some days after our arrival,” he writes still in that elegant handwriting, “A quantity of red Indians (peaceable tribe) the Mowhawk we were informed had pitched their wigwams on the shores of Kansas territory, and being very anxious to see (them) we paddled our own canoe to the shore of Kansas across the Missouri river with much bother and sundry little mishaps made our canoe fast to a tree and introduced ourselves to the real live injun, being surrounded by a heap of warriors, squaws and their papousees, (children).” Walter even smoked a pipe of peace with the “Mowhawk” chief, as he said “a friendly pipe upon the pristine prairie”.
Did Walter make his fortune in America, become a Carnegie or a Rockefeller ? Sadly, no. After three years of hard work and sacrifice he came back without even a plot of land or a log cabin to his name.
How I wished I had met this brave, loyal, hard-working young man, only 23 years old when he took this extraordinary leap in the dark, across the Atlantic. Then, another glorious moment, among a huge pile of other photographs I found his picture, uncaptioned, unidentified, apart from the name of the photographer, George Adams, in Worcester Massachusetts. So I knew this young man with a sweet face and an elegant cravat was the great grandfather I never knew I had.
But what if someone had de-cluttered him? I would never have known of his adventures and I would have been the poorer for not knowing about my ancestor. Thank goodness my grandfather and then my father, who had the letters and family photographs handed down to them didn’t declutter them.
And it maybe that I have a little of his character running through my genes because I too have risked everything on my own adventure. At the age of 61 I started a business called autodotbiography.com in the hope that life stories and precious family photographs can be saved for posterity and provide their families with an heirloom and stop people from throwing their family histories away when they de-clutter.