The Purge
May 3rd, 2010

We carry our childhoods with us throughout our adult lives.  For some of us this is only metaphorical in that we are forever influenced by the experiences we had as younger people.  For others of us there is a more literal component to it.  I am someone for whom both interpretations are true.

Over the past several years my mother has been wielding empty threats at my sister and me about culling through the artifacts of our childhood that have been sitting in my parents’ attic for more than ten years.  We made halfhearted attempts during various visits home, but never really made much progress.  Then, last fall, my entire family converged on my home for a Labor Day get-together and my parents arrived with a trunk full of boxes.

Starting that weekend and over the course of two additional weekend visits home I finally completed the process I’d been not-so-gently reminded of for several years.  Many things were thrown out and donated:  Old prom dresses and ballet costumes.  Helmets from my days of competitive horseback riding that no longer fit.  Silly serial books I read in junior high.  Board games missing cards and pieces.

But there were other things that I couldn’t, even today, bring myself to discard:  My full boxed sets of Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Avonlea books.  Leftover wedding invitations.  Berenstain Bear books.  The spiral notebooks from my my semester abroad courses, full of notes taken entirely in Spanish.  A stack of journals with every line filled.  And three shoeboxes’ worth of letters, notes, and printed e-mails from a roughly eight-year span of my life.

The books have been stored.  So have the wedding invitations.  But the journals and the letters required a more thoughtful dispensation.  After skimming the journals I am decidedly embarrassed.  They contain the self-absorbed ramblings of a teenaged girl.  Melodrama of all stripes: friends, boys, clothes, parents, siblings, and the like.  They seem like they were written by another person.  They are fickle, insecure, predictable, and a tad shallow.  I can hardly deny that I was that girl back then – the evidence is there in my back-slanted lefty script.  But I am not that girl today.  And she’s not a girl I’m inclined to keep in storage.  The letters are less embarrassing, but only because fewer of them were written by me.  Within them also resides a portrait of a lesser Gale.

Thus, the purge.

One by one I’m reading sections of each journal; taking one last glimpse at a person I left behind.  And one by one, I’m tearing the pages from their spiral bindings and shredding them.  The letters were subjected to a similar culling.  Summer camp letters from old boyfriends have been tossed.  The letter my mother wrote to my Aunt B the day before I was born was not.  Long-winded e-mails from girlfriends whose bond didn’t stand the test of time are now in the trash.  My sixteenth birthday card from my first love is safely tucked away.  And each letter that GAP and I wrote to each other during the summer before we started dating – ours was an old-fashioned and long-distance courtship - is also in the keeper pile.  Many others are not.

Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not all that nostalgic about letting these things go.  It’s freeing in a way to know that this hard evidence can be destroyed and that I am not tethered to a version of myself I’d rather leave in the past.  It makes me wonder how I would feel about my adolescent self without so much documentation.  Would I remember myself accurately?  Or would I just think back on a hazier version of the same clichéd memories of junior high and high school without being bothered by the granularity of my actual thoughts?

While this process of reliving a few moderately miserable years (no more miserable than anyone else’s teen years) has been humbling, it has also been a bit redeeming.  In addition to some awkward moments with myself, I’ve been proud as well.  I am not that girl anymore.  And it was a long and sometimes arduous journey that brought me to today.  I spared myself no challenge, no pain, no character-building experience.  And I’m happy to report that it was well worth it.  Having such a crystalline view of what I left behind makes me realize exactly what changes I’ve made.

As I think about it now, I deserve the purge.  I’ve earned it.  Adolescence is an unfriendly time of life.  And those of us who’ve found ourselves bettered on the other side are entitled to cut that proverbial cord.  I expected to be misty-eyed and reluctant over this process.  But quite the contrary, I think it’s been a catharsis I didn’t know I needed.

8 Responses to “The Purge”

  1. Anne Says:

    I never really kept a journal as an adolescent, and now I’m sort of glad…because I SHUDDER to think what it would have said. A lot of drama, I’m sure. But I do love the fact that we change–become more reasonable versions of ourselves. And in a way, those teen angst years are necessary…part of our development and our spastic way of becoming who we need to become.

  2. JBS Says:

    Gale, watching you “spare yourself no pain, no challenge, no character-building experience” was incredibly painful for me–your mother. But I am impressed, daily, by the woman you have become. I have no doubt that you could manage about any situation, and that is very, very gratifying. I’m also betting that the young women who read this blog and comment on it are similar.

  3. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Except for a few awkward photos, I think I’ve purged all evidence of my teenage years. Torturous time!

    So if you’re in purge mode, would you come and tackle my closet? Please?

  4. Jack Says:

    My blog features a few of those things. But on the whole there are very few letters that provide written proof of who I used to be.

  5. Jeanna Says:

    I wish I knew how to purge some of the feelings that I carry from my childhood. The lack of self-confidence, the embarrassing memories, and the desire to be one of the “cool” kids. The anxiety returns every time I touch base with an old classmate on Facebook or go out in my hometown. I am no longer that insecure girl, but she returns to visit on occassion.

  6. Eva Says:

    Ugh, I need to do this. I’m surprised my mom isn’t pushing more to get it done. I had a painful, awkward, moody adolescence – and I’m not looking forward to sorting through the evidence of that.

    Here a related tidbit. I always waver on keeping the Christmas and birthday cards we receive each year. Such a big stack of cards, and only a few of them have a personal message or something special that make them worth saving. But I feel so bad throwing them away! So now I keep them for a year – and I’m so glad that I do. After husband’s mom passed away, I found the last birthday card she sent with a handwritten message. And now we treasure that little card.

  7. Gale Says:

    Eva – I too struggle with the stacks of holiday and birthday cards. If it seems special in some way – a personal note, etc – I keep it. If it just reads, “Happy Birthday! Love, X” then it doesn’t get saved forever. Otherwise I’d have to take out a storage unit… You’re right, though. It’s hard to know in one moment what might become treasured down the line.

  8. Ten Dollar Thoughts » Blog Archive » Mass Mailing Says:

    [...] finally went through the stacks of journals and letters that my mom brought up last month.  It was pretty embarrassing to read so many of my [...]