11 Sep The Power of Nostalgia
In October 2018, I flew down to southern California to work with the parents of a client (that I work with regularly in San Francisco). I had met the parents before, and knew they were eager to downsize and have less to clean/find/worry about, giving them more time to enjoy their retirement, their family and their new grand babies.
Our first project was to tackle a large walk-in closet full of various categories, the most of which included a large amount of family memorabilia.
I wasn’t prepared for the memories and intense feelings that would flood back (for me!) as we opened each box.
My client from San Francisco and I are the same age, born the same year merely months apart. I learned that the family had moved into the house 37 years ago, when my SF client was just 11 months old, and they have been there ever since. It boggled my mind. I know this happens more often than not, but I’ve never lived anywhere more than 5 years at a time.
So the thought of coming back to your childhood home, with the same wallpaper on the wall, the same smell of mom’s cooking in the kitchen, and a closet full of childhood memories seemed so foreign to me; foreign, yet incredibly comforting.
As we worked through the closet, we uncovered a bunch of toys that I also had when I was a little girl – mine all long gone to garage sales pre-move, but of course my memory is strong. A feeling of joy and happiness (likely the result of a rush of dopamine), of a simpler time came over me. I hadn’t seen these toys since I was very little but I knew them in an instant. The one that really triggered the nostalgia was the Fisher Price cash register. I smiled…
Trying to remain professional, I didn’t want the client to see me distracted. I even considered taking a photo of the item, but didn’t want to call attention to it. Later, I let all of that go and admitted to the client how wonderful it was to see some of those old toys again, and it made her truly happy.
We categorized the toys into several boxes: ones the young kids could use now, and ones they would grow into. We also categorized several boxes as memorabilia for the grown children.
I loved the idea of the grandchildren playing with their mother’s toys, reading her favorite childhood books, and snuggling her stuffed animals. This warm and loving feeling was contrasted with the more harsh truth that I would never have that with my kids – which is ok; I honestly don’t feel bad about it.
That choice was made for me long ago and I don’t resent my parents for it. It has made me the person/organizer I am today. All this considered we moved a lot – I’ve lived in 9 states (some of them twice) and 2 foreign countries – we couldn’t take all of that with us nor did we have a place we could store it long term. In contrast, this family had been in the same home for 37 years, which allowed for saving and storing those items.
But what seeing those toys did for me was send me back to childhood and triggered memories. Ones I didn’t realize I still had, but there they were, tucked away.
And this is why we keep objects, in some cases long after we should, because they are the trigger for the memory.
Mine were not memories I necessarily needed to remember, but it was a lovely feeling of nostalgia nonetheless. So I truly understand why clients want to hold onto items, even if they don’t need them. This is why I never force or badger my clients into getting rid of objects. The decision must be theirs alone, but I am always happy to offer guidance and my opinion, should it be helpful.
The feeling arose again when we walked into the library/office and I saw several shelves of children’s books. I could tell almost before asking that she had them, but I inquired about the Berenstain Bears series nonetheless. “Oh yes, we have them all right here,” she showed me proudly. She had maybe two to three dozen books, some of which I had never seen. They were beautifully organized in the paperback section, with the Christmas books in a separate place (with other Christmas and holiday books; be still my heart) and the hardback books (the ones I’d never seen before on the Science Fair and Nature Guide; similar in style to the Richard Scarry books) not too far away. “You’re more than welcome to look at them later tonight,” she offered.
Disclaimer: I was staying with these clients, which did allow me some time to read through those books in the evening hours.
The Berenstain Bears books were a very important part of my childhood. I loved those books – how they were broken up into smaller messages, always with a feel good ending. Someone once predicted that I would write a children’s book one day, since I loved writing stories when I was a child (my first book in 4th grade, my second and third not long after; all school projects of course – nothing published). Going to the library and checking out books and reading them at night started my love of storytelling and eventually writing. I love to write: for myself, if no one else.
After becoming a professional organizer, I decided I wanted to write a kid’s book series on organizing that could both inspire children and assist parents in teaching basic organizing and tidying tips. I already did this by word of mouth in my sessions with clients and their kids, why not put it in book form. Many of the stories come from real life, whether they be events that happened with my own niece (the protagonist of my stories) or children of my clients. The beauty of children’s books is that they reach a wider audience – both kids and the parents who read to them. Plus I wanted to make it simple and show that organizing is really not as complicated as it’s often made out to be.
So reading the books in my client’s small library was not only a real treat, but also research. With four manuscripts written and approximately 11 other titles still to outline and write, I sat down to discover that the Berenstain Bears books started out in the 70s with a rhyming scheme and great illustrations, similar to books by Dr. Seuss. I had thought of using rhyming in my own books, but know that’s quite a feat, even though children do respond well to it. One thing I noticed as an adult reading the books, is how Mama Bear quite often gives Papa Bear the “side eye” glance – as if she already knows what’s to come from his silly ideas or remarks to the children. It made me laugh, especially because I see my own “new mom” friends or mom clients doing the same thing.
I only got through about seven or eight of the books but I know I’ll read more when I return.
And as I sit here now and write, I’m still struck by the nostalgia and its power. How items I had forgotten about long, long ago could trigger such feelings of love, connection, and joy. And that’s why we keep them right?
My clients appreciate that I do not force them to get rid of things. On the contrary, if they can prove that they love, use or need the objects in question, I will oblige and try to find a place for them. The downsizing comes into play if they own a rather unusually large amount of a single item or category (nine wine corkscrews come to mind; don’t get me wrong, I have five, but nine might be considered excessive). So my client was touched by how touched I was to see the toys, and read the books. It made her feel good that she had saved the items over the years. And I can only imagine how she must feel when her grandkids play with them. It helped to strengthen her trust in me, that I understood her role as the keeper of the memories, not only for herself and her children, but for the majority of her family. It made her feel safe was we opened each box and made each decision. That isn’t to say the client wasn’t able to downsize; she absolutely was. She got rid of a whole bin full of stuffed animals belonging not only to her children, but to her when she was a little girl. She reserved a handful for her son and daughter, and a few of her own as well. She even remarked how she wanted to take those few of her own childhood toys with her when she next visited her own mother (in her 90s), to show her and spark the nostalgia; to release the dopamine.
And there it is – the reason we hold on to objects: because they bring back a flood of memories, that rush of pleasurable, rewarding and happy feelings; of a simpler time, of a carefree and happy childhood.
I’m sure that’s not the case for everyone, but for many people it is. Just like the smell of freshly sharpened pencils or a box of crayons can bring you back in time. Those objects – those aromas – are the true time machine.
I left with a greater appreciation of the objects my clients hold onto. I’m only human after all.
I don’t think the encounter on this trip will cause me to change my own saving habits, but it certainly helped me to appreciate those that current and future clients may have. It’s absolutely ok to keep items that trigger nostalgia; the key is to not go overboard. Just as we can have decision fatigue or be overwhelmed by the amount of things (email; snail mail; advertising messages; data) thrown our way daily, you can be overwhelmed by the amount of stuff in your space, or stored for you. Save a selection – the best of the best – and donate or offer the rest to a family member. When you save a curated selection, those pieces become even more important, instead of washed out by a mass of items that you have a hard time even finding room to store.
In closing I wanted to ask my readers what their favorite childhood toy or book is/was. Do you still have it? If not, do you wish you did?
Let me know in the comments below or feel free to email me. I’d love to hear from you anytime.