The Atlantic|July - August 2020
When I go home to visit my parents a few times a year, my mom and I have a little dance we do. She asks me to go through some of the stuff in my childhood bedroom and decide what I want to get rid of. I tell her I will, and then I do not. I wouldn’t know how to begin sifting through the drawers and storage containers brimming with high-school notebooks and old sweatpants, and my mom offers no guidance. Instead, we both gesture at a mutual effort to declutter, and that’s enough to tide us over until the next time I return to Atlanta.
My mom and I did a version of this dance even before I left home for college, 16 years ago. I’d tease her about how many cans of on-sale soup were in the pantry; she’d banter back about the CDs I kept trying to sneak into the house. My dad contributes to the family’s choreography of clutter too, usually with necessities for his favorite hobbies: books and running shoes. Now, separated by 750 miles, Mom and I keep limber for our occasional performances over the phone, vowing to each other that we’re going to clean out our closets or organize our freezer, finally. Those promises are generally hollow, but it’s nice to think about fulfilling them.
My grandparents were teenagers during the Great Depression, and my maternal grandmother raised my mother alone after her husband died suddenly when my mom was in the third grade. It does not take too many leaps of armchair psychology to understand why we’re a family that prefers to hang on to what we have, just in case. We are a tribe of what my grandmother called “slopdinis.” The original Houdini was a legendary escape artist, but our specialty was letting few things leave. Our house was never dirty, but it was never neat, either. We kept old magazines— Sports Illustrated, Southern Living—for a little too long, and our closets heaved with clothing that might, eventually, if someone lost weight or had a job interview, come in handy.
In adulthood, I’ve moved into apartment after apartment determined to find the domestic success that eluded my mother. I resolved to buy fewer, higher-quality things, and only when I could afford them. And I would conquer the shameful habit of refusing to let go. A decade and a half into my quest, my record has been middling. My own stack of old magazines is mostly n+1s and Bon Appetits, suggesting that although I have grown a bit tidier than my forebears in certain ways, I’ve mostly just become more pretentious.
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July - August 2020