Let’s Get Sentimental

kids' painted welcome sign

We may not yet have paperless offices, but times have definitely changed when it comes to keeping mementoes. Most of my kids’ schoolwork is done through google classroom, my ticket stubs and boarding passes are QR codes on my phone, and I don’t get many airmail letters with exotic stamps from pen pals anymore.

small mementoes
Duckie and Gumby 4ever ❤️

Cleaning Out Mementoes

So why were my attic, drawers, and cupboards full of sentimental items? I dove in to find out what was there, and what I wanted to keep to treasure. This is what I learned – I’m not suggesting anyone copy what I do, just sharing my experience for you to reflect on and make your own decisions. Keep boatloads of stuff, or nothing at all, no judgment.

Side note: I met a minimalist who kept nothing from the past because he lived fully in the present. I can’t say I could make that work, but I do know that letting go of many (many) things from my past was helpful in processing and letting go of emotions from the past as well.  I also know someone who keeps what I call her “wall of grudges”, full of reminders of times she was wronged. It works for her, giving her a chance to tell her story of woes to anyone who asks. It’s all good.

Name the emotion

As I went through each photo album and box of mementoes, I noticed what I was actually feeling for each one. Not what I thought I should be feeling, but was feeling. The things that filled me with smiles and warmth were easy – my treasures. Other items brought me a sense of pride in myself or someone close to me, also treasured.

medals from my first marathon and my (hopefully) last long race

Many brought me not-great feelings. That didn’t mean I automatically got rid of them, but I had to have a good reason to keep any of them. One good reason was they’re part of our family story, so they’re not mine to keep or not, they go in the “family story” box in the attic for my kids. (See below.)

Other ones that brought up bad feelings were thrilling to toss out – why didn’t I do this sooner?! Photos of people I don’t actually like, even if I’m supposed to, and items filled with icky memories. I wouldn’t re-watch a movie I didn’t enjoy (hell, I often can’t even make it all the way through movies I do enjoy without taking a break), why on earth would I replay scenes in my head of my own bad memories?

I mean, there’s trauma and deep feelings that can’t be tossed out like an old wineskin. I would be the last person to tell you to avoid feeling your feelings. I’m talking about the level of icky I got from picking up that wineskin and remembering the football game I went to with a guy I was dating in my teens. We bumped into another guy I had a crush on … who didn’t know I was with the first guy. Reader, I stood in the bleachers, between the two of them, holding hands with both of them at the same time. I do not need to keep a reminder that I was a shitty person. I made amends where I could and came to terms with my shittiness about that incident decades ago, no need to prolong the cringe.

I also kept things – it seems absurd now that I’m writing it down – that hurt me. An angry note from an ex-boyfriend (not football game related), a weird rant from a family member, and a cruel birthday card were just some of the gems I’d carefully stored. I don’t know if I kept them like my friend’s wall of grudges, to remind myself of how wronged I’d been or what, but ew! I couldn’t get rid of them fast enough.

Backwards aspirations

In her book, the life-changing magic of tidying up, Marie Kondo uses the term “aspirational clutter” to describe items we keep in hopes we’ll be the kind of person who uses them someday. They might be craft supplies or kitchen gadgets, and often they’re whole rooms full of exercise equipment. She advises passing them on to someone who will use them.

When I went through my boxes of mementoes and photo albums, I found many that I realized were aspirations about my past, so I called them “backwards aspirational”. These were pictures and items I kept, trying to prove to myself I’d been the kind of person who lived that way. I had a matchbook from a trendy bar – I don’t smoke, have no memories of my evening there other than a vague recollection of crowds. But was there.

I had a whole book of photos from a teenage party weekend – oh the crazy things we got up to! Except, I was invited to tag along with a friend so her parents would let her go. She spent the weekend with a guy, I didn’t really know the others, and they all paired off anyway. Except for one guy, that I did not pair up with. Awkward. I wanted to have the life those pictures showed, so I kept them as if that would make the fairy tale come true.

Oh the freedom that came with discarding my backwards aspirations! I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, especially myself. Many great weekends with friends did happen, even when there weren’t pictures (thank god) to prove it, and when there were, they’re reminders of true fun and misadventures.


Family stories

I mentioned this above – I want my kids to have some information about their family history but I don’t want to burden them with tons of crap they don’t want but feel obligated to keep. I found balance by settling on one nice wooden box, not too big, that holds our family stuff. The pieces and pictures I enjoy are displayed around our home, and the rest is waiting for a day when the kids have an interest in it.


Maybe this fits with the aspirational items section, but it was striking enough to me that it gets its own. I hope I am not the only one who kept photos for many years for no reason other than, wow, do I ever look good in this shot. I appreciate a good hair day or sunset lighting as much as the next person, but overall, keeping these pictures made me feel bad. I saw this skewed gallery of how I used to look and wondered when did I “lose my looks” as if that’s a real thing. I found pictures where I looked so good, I barely recognized myself. Basically I was keeping pictures of when I looked like a stranger. The things I love about myself have very little to do with my looks (other than my eyes, man I love my blue eyes) so over-valuing my photogenic moments left me unsatisfied. I kept a couple that had happy memories associated with them, and waved bye to unrealistically good-looking Karen.

a zine made as thanks for help with an art project that left me feeling ultra strong and ultra feminine

Once they’re gone, they’re gone

I used to keep things out of fear. Fear that if I got rid of something and then regretted it, there was no way to ever get it back. I then had the tragedy of important things stolen from me, and while it sucked, it also taught me life goes on in all its messiness without those things. I feel waves of sadness from time to time, and they pass. They’re just things. The joy and memories they represented don’t stop existing, in fact, I keep those memories closer because their physical reminder is gone.


I have a digital treasure box too (that’s what the folder’s called 😊), with scans and photos, not too many. I cull through my photos online all the time, only keeping the truly joyful. It’s fun to take millions of pictures and keep them for awhile, then as I remember the event, I like sorting through and picking one or two that really capture the moment. Through the school year I scan or save copies of work the kids do, and at the end of the year I pick just one each, one special reminder of that year. I like having fewer things, it makes each one feel more important.

greeting cards
special cards from special people

At the end of all this, what was I left with? Tidied up emotions from the past, a lightness in my soul, and a small collection of pictures, cards, files, and items with deep personal meaning – reminders of adventures, people (and pets) that enriched my life and reflect what I treasure.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Get Sentimental

  1. I got so much from reading this post, Karen, I absolutely loved it. Like most people, I imagine, I’m OK at getting rid of stuff like clothes, shoes, kitchen utensils etc. but the sentimental stuff is so hard. As you describe, so much comes up when I go through it that I avoid it at all costs. I’m trying to be braver, though, having just read “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” – I don’t want my family to have to deal with my crap once I’ve gone (not that I’m planning to go anywhere). I really relate to the “once they’re gone, they’re gone” mentality and, like you, have kept things out of fear, but your description of “tidied up emotions from the past, a ightness in my soul” makes me think “I want that!”, it sounds so wonderful. Thanks for inspiring me (I can’t promise I’ll start straight away, though…).

    1. I’m glad you found inspiration in the post Julie! I’m sure there will be a day when you’ve worked through those items and feel that same lightness – there’s no rush, you’ll know when the time is right to take on the task 🙂

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