Live Through This

Closet Graveyards

What you save is part of who you are.

Illustration by Emma D.

My best friend is a minimalist. Anything that can be thrown or given away should be, in his opinion. When a commercial for Space Bags comes on the television, he becomes visibly irritated at the sight of the smiling, vacuum-powered space-savers on the screen. “Why don’t people just get rid of shit they don’t need?” he always asks, and I always shrug, acting as if I don’t own at least two Space Bags and three plastic bins filled with old T-shirts and some well-dressed ceramic cows sitting in my closet.

The closet is an intensely personal space. It’s filled with pieces of who you are, who you were, and, as any tags-still-on-dress might suggest, whom you’d like to be. It is the graveyard of former identities, a place that swallows old letters, books with broken spines, and shoes with worn-out heels. The plastic Harry Potter glasses you got at the midnight release of The Half-Blood Prince are crammed in a box with Blink-182 ticket stubs. (Who’s embarrassed? Not me). Half-finished diaries sit in old backpacks, and old backpacks carry messages of their own, covered in graffiti and sew-on patches. A closet is a Museum of You, and in cleaning it, you effectively become its curator.

Some people, like my best friend, are good at keeping their closets current. He barely owns anything that he doesn’t use. He is the type of person who reads and enjoys a birthday card, and then immediately tears it up and throws it away. The other end of the spectrum is hoarding, where the person is lost beneath the things they own. Most people, I imagine, fall somewhere in between, allowing their closets to be both functional and messy. Mine has always leaned more toward the latter, but not to the point where it requires a visit from an organizational guru and an A&E camera crew.

When I sat down to write this essay, the main image in my mind was that of a wig in a white box—my mother’s wig from the ’60s. My sister and I had found it one morning while digging through my parents’ closet. It was long—she had never had long hair, as long as I could remember her—and looked very Penelope Tree, and we immediately made her try it on. “My wig!” she said, when we presented it to her, followed quickly by, “Where did you find this?” and then “What were you doing in my closet?”

I remember being fascinated with my mother’s wig, mostly because it was a relic from her past, and finding it allowed my sister and me to imagine her in our minds, getting ready to go out, pre-us, with her Penelope Tree hair and thick eyeliner. It also struck me that, for whatever reason, she had kept the wig. Did she plan on wearing it again? Doubtful. Did she even remember it was there? She claimed not to. But there it was, anyway, waiting to be found.

By contrast, we only found a few of my father’s old things to wear, and most of them had been donated as soon as they went out of style. My mother, who did most of the donating: “Who knew you’d want your father’s old golf shirts?”

The “who knew?” aspect has always stayed with me—as high school went on, I found things under my bed or in my closet that I hadn’t paid much attention to, only to resurrect them as ironic fashion statements years later, like the plastic heart-shaped bangles that I’d worn in elementary school, an ALF pin, and an ill-fitting Reese’s Pieces baseball hat. You never really know how an object will fit in your life somewhere down the road. My prom dresses, for example, have been sitting in my parents’ storage room for about a decade now, all dressed up with nowhere to go. A few weeks ago, my eight-year-old niece opened the door and took a look. “You can have those someday, if you want,” I told her.

Will she actually take them? Maybe. Will she pull a Molly Ringwald and Pretty in Pink them? A dreadful possibility. Will she end up wearing it ironically to a ’90s Prom Party in seven or eight years? Perhaps. The dresses, which had once seemed so important, had just become silly trinkets. It was her reaction to it that made it special.

Who knew?

I am terrible at getting rid of things. Every six months or so, I try to clean my shelves. I think about the important things, about my best friend’s spare closets, about the organizational gurus on television who say things like “Do you own this thing, or does it own you?” I vacuum the floor and then empty my entire closet out onto it, making one giant mountain that I then attempt to separate into smaller peaks: Mount Give Away, Mount Save, Mount Maybe. Mount Maybe always ends up being the biggest, which I guess is typical if you don’t necessarily want to hang on or let go, but you’re not quite sure how to fill the gap between the two, or what to wear while you’re falling into it.

My first closet was a split—I had to share 50% of it with my sister, and we had a system for filling it up. Her clothes went on the left, mine on the right, just like our beds. The top shelf was devoted to things neither of us used anymore, but wanted to keep anyway, like our American Girl dolls and giant NKOTB buttons. We ignored that top shelf for years—by the time we actually got our own rooms, in high school, there was almost a decade of useless crap up there, covered in cobwebs and filled with corroded batteries.

When we cleaned the shelf off, I recognized that most of the crap was mine: souvenirs from school field trips, a jewelry box filled with forgotten trinkets, and old storybook tapes, including a recording of Best Friends for Frances, that we used to listen to obsessively. “Look at this,” I remember saying about mostly everything. “Remember this?”

The closet I took over remains as it was at my parents’ house, holding the remnants of my former life. There are dried flower petals, letters from a handful of people, and notebooks filled with absolutely dreadful poetry. When I was younger, I came close to destroying all of it several times, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. At the time, it was probably because I was overly sentimental about the people who had written the letters and the events that had inspired the poems.

Now, I realize that I am actually just sentimental for the version of myself that had received the letters, for the bad poet who used to glower in the hallways and draw stars on her locker door in permanent marker. I felt bad for her, but I also laughed at her—hard, in the way that only time allows you to do. Over the years, things that were catalogued as proof of heartbreak—like a Dorothy Parker collection with “ugh, yes!” and “TOTALLY” scrawled in the margins—had, over the years, become extremely funny artifacts, a wing of the Museum that will sit at my parents’ house and collect dust until they order me to remove it and I’m forced, once again, to decide whether or not it’s all worth shelving somewhere.

If your room were somehow frozen in time and an anthropologist from the future took a tour of your closet, what would they make of you? My imaginary report would probably read something like this: Female, early 30s, shows an affinity for bold patterns, cardigans. Wears her sneakers for approximately six months longer than she should. Evidence of a primitive storage unit known as a “Space Bag.” Buttons everywhere, wrapped in plastic. My best friend’s question would echo in the subtext: “Why did she keep all this shit that she didn’t need?” And I’m sure most future researchers would give the obvious answer: “Because she could.”

I’d hope at least one of them would wonder where the worn shoes had traveled or which outfits the extra buttons belonged to. Like the images I have of my mother spinning around in her Penelope Tree wig, sometimes the story we create is bigger than the stuff itself, and as soon as you can separate the story from the stuff, you find that there’s a lot you can let go of without losing it. ♦

36 Comments

  • queserasera February 21st, 2012 11:08 PM

    totally true! closets are like graveyards of nostalgia. I should know, I’m such a pack rat. Once I found my dad’s old briefcase (when he was about to throw it away I took it in) that I had since six and I wanted to weeeeep for my lost childhood. Also, lots of cheesy cartoon shirts I used to wear in elementary are collecting dust in the back of my closet.

    http://mercurialmanic.blogspot.com/

  • oogeyboogy15 February 21st, 2012 11:11 PM

    This article sums up the hardest part of cleaning quite well–you may be getting rid of stuff, but it feels like you are getting rid of the memories.

  • Adrienne February 21st, 2012 11:38 PM

    Well written! I share a closet with my twin sister right now, and it’s not the biggest thing in the world so we’re all crammed up! Still, that’s not an excuse for all the shizz going down in there. Old Halloween costumes (fairy wings…), old dresses from our childhood. But most of my oddities are found on top of my bookcase. Which I do not need to get into.

    I think the hardest part of cleaning for me is actually getting off of my ass and doing it. I’m either too tired/lazy/busy to do such a simple task. Shame. I’m also weirdly scared of dust and spiders, so then I don’t want to get into the depths of my closet.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • queridahijalove98 February 21st, 2012 11:53 PM

    closet=shrine to yourself.
    what you keep, a part of you needs! :)
    keep your shrine healthy and pretty, but keep it full!!!
    just make sure there is no food in there, lawlz

  • Branchesofthought February 22nd, 2012 12:03 AM

    I just cleaned out my wardrobe a few days ago actually! I use two, one for dresses/coats/long things, another for the rest. The other one has drawers and a hanging area above it, with a shelf up the top.

    As the seasons change and my fashion taste changes, I just shove the unwanted clothes to the top shelf to make room for my current favourites. After several years of doing so the time came to clear it out, I should have taken some photos!

    It’s summer in Australia, so I now have my summer clothes organised, and my winter clothes on the top shelf.

    I have a pile almost as tall as me to go for charity of clothes I don’t like/don’t wear anymore!

    I basically took everything out piece by piece, folded it and categorised it on my bed..that way it was easy to put back in the wardrobe. I think making a big pile would leave me very confused, and being the slow poke that I am it would take me forever…but I guess you can mix and match a lot easier!

    Sara

    branchesofthought.blogspot.com

  • bestie February 22nd, 2012 12:10 AM

    i feel as though i had written this myself.

    it’s just too hard to let go, sometimes.

  • Susann February 22nd, 2012 2:06 AM

    This reminds me of the shoebox that contains anything from my ex-boyfriend that I keep hidden in my closet.. from my own bad poetry to the rose he gave me for my birthday, just pure nostalgia.

    http://fashioninpepperland.blogspot.com

  • benji February 22nd, 2012 2:08 AM

    I currently have a giant tupperware container of Spice Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer memorabilia sitting in my old bedroom at my parents’ house. It might be unnecessary but it is completely a part of who I was. I also keep a few special clothing items that I know I will never wear again because they meant a lot to me and I want my future children to have the option of enjoying them. I’m so happy my mom kept the things she did but I wish she’d kept a few more!

  • insteadofanelephant February 22nd, 2012 2:24 AM

    i am terrible at parting with my things. as soon as i realized how much i wear the clothing my grandma did keep from my mom and aunts golden days, i knew i was going to keep pretty much everything i own. i’m going to have the best vintage-clad daughter EVER. hopefully. if not, it was all for nothing and i’m just a hoarder without being able to say “i told you so”

    XX
    instead of an elephant

  • Kay February 22nd, 2012 4:47 AM

    So true this article! Although I actually like to clean (yes the weirdness!) it’s so hard to say goodbye to some nostalgic things, parts, unicorn sweaters what have you. One of the best and most fun things to do when you’ve tackled that mountain of unwanted stuff, is to trow a clothes swap with your friends. Let everyone bring some old/unwanted/’why did I buy this?’ clothes and swap them for something new! The clothes that remain can be donated to a charity. And you’ll get a really fun night out of it swapping with friends!

  • mirandaelizabeth February 22nd, 2012 4:53 AM

    i had a box in my closet that was a shrine to myself, full of old trinkets and diaries. last night i noticed that my mother had chucked it all out, and cried for three hours. i was literally overwhelmed by grief, over a box full of junk

    i kinda feel like i was overreacting now, but like, the stuff was all rubbish but it was important rubbish… i miss my box <3

    • pobody February 22nd, 2012 11:25 AM

      oh my god, believe me, you’re not overreacting! that would wreck me for like three and a half weeks. It can feel good to get rid of old junk, but that should be your move. I’m so sorry!

  • timelady February 22nd, 2012 4:55 AM

    So true. I can’t bear to part with anything, especially old books that are falling apart or trinkets from grade school. I only toss clothes when they don’t fit or are so worn there’s no way to fix them (a lot of my jeans are from middle school). My mom always says how she wishes she kept most of her clothes from the mid 80s – early 90s when she was a teen/young adult. I’m the same age she was in 1989.

    Moving to Europe made me actually get rid of the junk I don’t need, but a lot of stuff is still at my mom’s place.

  • I.ila February 22nd, 2012 7:03 AM

    Best Friends for Frances?!!! And A Bargain For Frances!! And Bread and Jam for Frances! And A Birthday for Frances!!! Hehehee *laughs nervously in a corner*

  • I.ila February 22nd, 2012 7:06 AM

    http://wordsmith.org/anagram/anagram.cgi?anagram=rookie+mag&t=1000&a=n

    • I.ila February 22nd, 2012 7:07 AM

      Rookie’s new name should be Amuck Ire Go

  • MissKnowItAll February 22nd, 2012 8:01 AM

    Very true! For the past 5 years I have been saving things like, sketches, old stories written on notebook paper, sparkly wrapping paper and the tag from a pair of Top Shop leggings.

  • puffytoad February 22nd, 2012 10:58 AM

    I have all of my papers from 8th grade through college in my closet. It takes up a lot of space.

  • boringbrick February 22nd, 2012 11:21 AM

    I think that you can’t save stuff thinking about if your niece, 20 years later is going to use that dress that you wore when you were a teen.
    You have to save stuff because that really mean(t) something to you, that really remarked a time of your life. And it can be a year or only one night. I think people should donate their stuff (the ones that doens’t mean that much) because there are still people that need/ doesn’t have money to buy it. And personally, I don’t want to become a hoarder.

  • pobody February 22nd, 2012 11:22 AM

    THANK you for articulating this. I always knew it but couldn’t explain it. My sister calls me a hoarder for keeping things like the one letter she wrote me in my entire life. She’s the kind of person who can dump her whole wardrobe to justify buying a new one (I just do the buying part). If I tell her my closet is a shrine to my past she’ll laugh at me, but at least now I can think it smugly while she titters on about calling A&E to come see my box of old cards.

  • 3LL3NH February 22nd, 2012 1:17 PM

    I HAVE MY 3D HARRY POTTER GLASSES from the midnight showing of #7 Part 2, and I love that you mentioned your HP glasses, because they are one thing that is never being thrown out if I have anything to say about it

    • oriana February 22nd, 2012 1:42 PM

      I still have my fake harry potter glasses from the midnight release of the Deathly Hallows book! hahahah

    • Abby February 22nd, 2012 3:56 PM

      I HAVE MINE TOO. They’re on the wall in my room :). And they’re never going away. Ever. EVER.

  • oriana February 22nd, 2012 1:41 PM

    Aaaaaaah man this is such a fantastic post. I relate to it so much.

    I am the complete opposite of a hoarder, but at the same time I do like to keep a bunch of little trinkets for no reason. I think it’s because of the same reasons you’ve so eloquently described. I like to keep a part of those past versions of myself, and the associations I have with those objects conjure up tiny memories and feelings from years past.

    Unfortunately I’ve had to throw away a bunch of my things over the years because I’ve had to move a lot, but in a storage bin near my mom’s house is my closet graveyard. It’s packed away in boxes, probably to be explored someday when I’m in my 20′s :p

  • Hedwig February 22nd, 2012 2:23 PM

    This was pretty kickass

  • Abby February 22nd, 2012 4:02 PM

    So… Contents of my closet minus the actual clothes that I actually wear…
    -old Tae Kwon Do uniform and belts
    -a few old dresses from dances
    -girl scouts vests
    -various journals with a mean of 3 entries each
    -baby book(s)
    -baby bible
    -other bibles (I’m bad… ha)
    -an ugly as heck poncho that was cool in seventh grade that I can’t bring myself to throw away…
    -various sweatshirts that my grandpa gives me that I don’t want
    -a whole crapload of ugly sweaters from elementary/middle school
    -various unopened art kits
    -a locker shelf set (never used it)
    -a whole lot of stolen chamois button downs from my dad’s closet (well… I actually do wear those ha.
    -and a bunch of other stuff. A LOT.

  • Claudia February 22nd, 2012 5:52 PM

    This is how I am. I seriously try to keep EVERYTHING. I’m just sentimental, I guess. I like holding onto memories. I like having something from the actual event that happened, not just a picture in my brain. Well written! :)

  • Chloe Elizabeth February 22nd, 2012 7:36 PM

    My boyfriend is super minimalist, and I don’t get it sometimes. I like to keep stuff. I like filling my life with pretty things, even if they’re useless. It makes me happy.

    http://www.othersuchshenanigans.blogspot.com/

  • Marla February 23rd, 2012 4:49 AM

    What a wonderful story! Possibly my favorite Rookie piece ever.

  • Besu February 23rd, 2012 12:23 PM

    I really love this post! I keep stuff I can’t throw out in old doc marten shoe boxes I even have broken sunglasses and pages on how to find a vampire haha!

    bethandbesu.wordpress.com/

  • isabellehungryghost February 23rd, 2012 1:16 PM

    i really wish i would own a gigantic closet. or even a big one. but mine is small. tiny! so i have to put all my memories in my room. i think this is the reason for how messy it looks.

    http://blogbyisabelle.blogspot.com/

  • Ayla February 23rd, 2012 1:55 PM

    sounds like i need to come by and give all of you gals a good old fashioned beating!
    I used to have a gigantic maybe pile in my life until I moved to Europe, tossed everything out, piled all my belongings in my suitcase and started over.
    It’s so liberating, guys.

  • harlequingold February 26th, 2012 7:02 AM

    I’d actually be really interested in seeing some pictures of those ceramic cows :)

  • Nikilodeon February 26th, 2012 7:38 AM

    I totally know what you mean, because I feel the same way about all my old things. I have BATTERIES from, like, 2002 that I have a hard time getting rid of simply because they were there while I had a crush on Aaron Carter and lurked in my closet as I grew up. Reading this really got to me, for some reason, and I think it’s because this article of yours really reminds me of, well, me. And it’s funny because my prom’s coming up and reading that whole thing about the prom dress was just so relevant to my life right now. At the moment, all of this seems like such a big deal but maybe when I’m 30, I’ll think of my prom dresses as trinkets and hand them down to my niece,too. :P Really interesting article!

  • OldBaggery March 1st, 2012 7:25 PM

    I love that collage by Emma D. Outstanding work!

    Signed,

    Old Person, RISD grad.

  • celerysundae June 10th, 2012 7:28 PM

    omg, i had/HAVE all those frances books too!

    i have SUCH a problem throwing away old stuff too. i still think about a box of clothes that had a cardigan that was my grandma’s in the 40′s and a vintage shirt that had a 3-d daffodil sewn on the front that got thrown away by accident in a move 7 years ago and get angry!

    thank you for absolving me of my fear that i am a loser for keeping the corsage i wore to my freshman prom and the socks i wore to a NKOTB concert in 1990.