Elders and Dog Sharing

Downsizing and Old Love Letters


You might imagine that given my age (76) and with the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, I've been thinking lately about clearing out some of the detritus here in the ol' homestead.

Not that I've done much about it but it has come up in conversation recently with a couple of friends.

One of them, in New York City, tells me he tried arguing logic: “It's not like anyone is going to write my biography,” he said to himself and to me.

Too true, but I've had just that conversation with myself about my old love letters. In one case, a long, long time ago, the man I was dating spent a year in Europe as publicist on a TV miniseries while it was shooting in several countries there.

Back then, 1970s, there was no email, phone calls were problematic and expensive, and snailmail was oh, so slow – weeks even.

But he wrote me a letter every day – every single day - numbered them on the envelopes and saved them up until one of the actors was furloughed back to the U.S. for a few weeks before his or her next scheduled shoot.

Then I'd get a phone call: “Hi Ronni. I'm here in New York. Let's meet for coffee. I've got a batch of letters for you from J.”

Now, honestly, how can anyone expect me to toss 300 or so love letters with a story like that go to with them.

The fact remains, however, that no one cares and it's not like I've read them in the past two or three decades or will do so anytime soon. Why, then, am I keeping them?

Another friend here in Portland, Ken Pyburn, noted that without the fact of the letters themselves, one is free to fictionalize old stories from our pasts. I know what he means. We may change the details over time so that a story not entirely “true” to the details of what actually happened, but it's my experience that the essence remains. And maybe it becomes more true in its own way.

Most of us here are old enough to remember when snail mail was the only written communication we had and I have quite a collection – from lovers, a lot from my father, mother, great Aunt Edith, brother and friends too.

As I've been thinking that it's time to get rid of them I've also thought I should give them all one last read. And yet I have resisted. I don't know why.

It's been a long time now that email has mostly taken the place of hand-written letters and I've kept most of those too, the ones that were more than a quick exchange of information. They don't feel as substantial as words made with ink on paper and I've definitely not given them as much thought as those old ones.

Maybe all this is different if one has children, which I don't.

In the greater scheme of things, letters hardly matter, do they? I should really be getting rid of all the bigger stuff, all the duplicates, the too much kitchen equipment, old electronics and such, but so far have not done.


Well, they will have to pry my husband’s letters to me from Vietnam out of my cold dead hands. Really.

I just completed the monumental task of sorting old photos (the kind actually developed, not printed) and discarding those deemed of no importance. I was left with a small box, one which I can easily take with me if I downsize to a condo or assisted living at some point. It took TWO WEEKS, because I did look at every single one.

I was intent on discarding some of my handwritten/personal journals too, but just couldn't make myself do it. But they are manageable, and someone else will have to do that eventually. I did shred/discard any and all out-of-date financial material, which was also time-consuming. I'll be 66 in a couple weeks, and just wanted to sort this stuff while I had time and energy. Don't have kids, so if I outlive my siblings, this will be easier for an attorney/estate person to deal with.

It was odd though, because when I started to look at the journals/letters, just couldn't destroy. Perhaps the same as it is with your love letters. I do have some personal letters from my late husband too. There is just something intimate and personal about handwritten letters that is unlike emails, even if printed out.

What a treasure 300 love letters from ions ago represent to me. They could be the basis for a novel, fictionalized or not. And not that you'd write it. I bet someone would love the raw material of these letters.

I hope that you will keep them. I am of the belief that we should not toss out personal things things like this that can never be replaced. As far as the comment that "no one's going to be writing a biography"-- who knows? And maybe that biography won't be about the recipient of the letters, but one of the writers. Someone would love to have access to that primary source material, even if just a copy. But that's actually the least of my interests in such things.

I've been going to estate sales recently and my favorites (and they are rare) are the ones that kept the ephemera. The other stuff - furniture, clothing, kitchen ware, etc., is extraneous. I enjoy finding something that tells me about the person who's left this stuff behind. It's a bit like reading a memoir and detective story combined. One of the best I've been to recently was just last week. The 92 year old woman who had lived there had moved to an assisted living facility. She had held on to a lot of paper things for most of her life -- greeting cards, leaflets advertising all sorts of things, inserts that had come with items she had purchased over the years, -- and much more. One of the women who had organized the sale told me this, and also that, unfortunately. most of that had gone into boxes stored in the garage decades ago when she moved into the house now being emptied. Most of those items had been thrown out, due to the effects of mold, mildew and vermin over the years. I picked up some charming booklets put out by the Kellogg company in 1933 and other little leaflets from as far back as 1916, and some lovely greeting cards from that era, as well. Amazingly, everything I picked up was in pristine condition. The greeting cards (Christmas, birthday, get well, Valentines) were all very small, yet had elaborate illustrations. And they all appeared to be signed with fountain pens (those nibs created a distinctive look) mostly on the reverse sides of the cards. I don't know how the things I found had survived, but I'm glad they did. There may be a time and a place for Swedish Death Cleaning, but does it have to apply to everything?

There is something comforting about the personal ephemera in the boxes in the bottom of the closet. Clearing out kitchen stuff, getting rid of old financial papers, clearing out the junk drawer and getting rid of old clothes are just time consuming tasks. But parting with the pieces of your life is much harder, I just keep the pieces organized.

Wonderful post, Ronni!! I’ve got BOXES of this kind of treasure, and wot to do with it?? Do not throw out those numbered letters!! Take em with you when you go?!

That can be a heart tugging piece of work. I've tossed a lot of mine out . One of the things I've kept is a box of valentines that my mother got when she was in grade school. She kept them in a red satin heart shaped candy box that her mother had given her. I have a old wooden wine box full of cards I've kept too. Cleaning out old papers though was work but I'm glad I finally sat down and figured out what needed to be kept.

I am generally a minimalist and not all that sentimental. My ability to chuck "stuff" appalls most of my family and friends. I thought my late husband was even less sentimental than I. However, when my husband was in the hospital had to look in his file cabinet for his living will and advance directive. I found a file marked "O".
It contained every letter, card, and note I had ever written to him. I still have it and it still brings tears to my eyes.

As part of my scanning project involving family photographs, I have also scanned in some old family letters including the one my sister wrote to our grandmother trying to get Gram to come and take me away.

The next generation love these, although sometimes not until they get to a certain age.

I have also found a cousin in the old country and exchanged scanned photographs of the family with her - the ones who left for America and the ones who stayed in the UK.

I will be downsizing soon and have several times tried to sort through old letters. I just can't throw them away, just as I cannot throw away my mother's old suitcase - it feels as if I'd be discarding part of myself. Not logical at all - but then maybe we humans aren't!


just thinking...It seems to me that there may be a book or movie in those letters somewhere

This topic weighs on me, as boxes of letters and photographs and drawings and journals sit in the closet. These letters are not just love letters, but all,of the letters I received from good friends. The letters are so old that they are historic documents. One friend from high school was simplifying her life and I was surprised to receive in the mail a brown envelope containing my letters to her. I am undecided what to do with it all.

The treasures I'll never toss are the ones with handwriting. My grandmother's 100-year-old cookbooks, with her notes in the margins. Inscriptions in books my husband gave me. Dates and places on old photos. Mother's Day cards from my daughter, who each year give me "one that's sappy, and one that's funny." Guess which ones I keep?

Never throw away those letters. They are a treasure beyond words because they ARE words - the handwritten words of someone you cared about, who cared about you.

I am still keeping every letter my late husband wrote me as well as the ones from my son when he was in the Navy during the Korean war. They are stored in a hard shell Samsonite suitcase and the suitcase is on the top shelf in my storage room.

I can no longer reach that shelf so it's quite likely that I will never read them again. Just as most have said, I just cannot get rid of them even though I do need the space they are taking up. It's the only thing left of a long ago love affair. To throw them away is to throw away the last remnant of my youth.

I feel the same way about old birthday and Christmas cards from my children. I no longer save any others.

If you don't need the space the letters are taking up, Ronni, why not save them and read one a day. Maybe you will find you can throw away the less interesting ones and only keep the ones you might like to read again when you are a very old lady like I am.

I have a bunch of old letters and journals tucked away somewhere. The senders and I took the time to write them, filling them with what seemed noteworthy at the time. Some date back to the '60s. I can't imagine throwing them out, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps they will be of interest to my siblings, son, or grandchildren someday ... assuming any of them can still read cursive by then!

Keep the letters! Recently, I have been thinking about handwriting and the lost art of beautiful penmanship. Children are not learning to write cursive, although Illinois just passed a law stating that cursive must be reinstated into the curriculum. Both of my parents had beautiful handwriting, and I treasure their letters and even their old grocery lists.

Keep anything written by your parents, friends, and loved ones. Let someone else decide their fate.

A couple of years ago I told a friend I was cleaning out clutter because I didn't want to burden my children with the task. I said, "We don't need all this stuff." She said, "Why don't you just get rid of everything except for one chair?" (She was being facetious.) At that I thought, "She's right. This can be someone else's problem someday."

I am hoping that my past love letters to a certain person are already tossed, burned, or otherwise destroyed--I am embarrassed that I was so out of control with romantic dribble, maybe even a tad desperate at the time and hope that they never see the light of day again. However, they might be important to her, because they included all of the intensities of young out of control! romantic love. I'm afraid to ask if they exist, even if we were still speaking or in contact. Having said that, I currently write my wife "Love Texts" daily, but with the wisdom of a second marriage and "full maturity", they definitely have lasting merit, although they get erased regularly. Ronni, having said this, I'd say keep your letters, because they seem to be very meaningful to you and I bet the gentleman was a really nice guy worth remembering forever.

I recommend following Marie Kondo's by now popular (she's sold five million books) advice, which is to hold something in your hand and feel whether or not it sparks joy in you. If it does, keep it. If it doesn't, bin/recycle it.

I downsized from a 2000 sq ft house to a 500 sq ft apt but took all my photos and letters. I'll digitize a sampling of photos. I intend to look at the letters when I'm working on my book, which is going along slowly. Then I'll toss them. I don't have any kids either so whatever my brain doesn't use or recall has no meaning. I'm getting good at throwing out stuff.

Your post really made me think today about what I've kept and what I've tossed over the years. I agree there is something so much more tangible in a letter, card, or Valentine than an electronic message or card.
Recipes in my mother's & grandmother's handwriting, valentines sent to me by my deceased husband 40 years ago, polaroid pictures....maybe its so difficult because when you discard something that in some way feels as if you are erasing your past and even yourself.
Thanks Roni you made me think today. Tera

Ah, that they are hand written letters of love, there's so much more weight there than in the dashed off e-mails being sent now. Paper, pen, ink , envelope, postage stamp, addressing the envelope were required. That alone is a bit of history. And every day! Not a trivial dalliance for the gentleman, worthy of consideration.
These words from a woman who, over the past five years, has simplified her house to a fare-thee-well. My studio is another matter. I did a very mild re-organization/purge over the last few weeks, and must admit to being a color/shape/image addict. A scrap of colored paper or canvas on the floor must be appraised before it enters the waste basket.

As newly weds my husband and I made a burning ceremony at my parents fireplace of our letters. I've regretted it since.

Barb, don't despair, children are indeed being taught cursive script here in the UK.
Ronni, I inherited my parent's love letters from the 1930s. I'm not sure what to do with them; I think they might be uncomfortable to know I had access to them eighty years on. My head tells me to burn them but my daughters and nieces are fascinated at the idea of these two grandparents having young lives and would love to read them I'm sure!

A friend of mine always said her sister would come when she passed away and would take care of the house and its belongings. Hah. The sister did not come when my friend died. My friend had two friends, me and one other, and we were left with disposing of the house and everything in it.

The doors of the house were thrown open and the neighbors allowed to take anything they wanted. A dumpster was brought in for throwing out much of what no one would take. This job took weeks, and by the time it was done, I was ill. I should have called an estate person, and if this should ever occur again, that's what I'll do. Perhaps you can leave those instructions in your will.

What would Ken Burns have done without miscellaneous letters and photos from the period he's documenting? I wonder, if I decide to get rid of such stuff, couldI leave it anonymously on the steps if some museum? I, too, "treasure" (too strong a word) not only my mother's penmanship but also the content of her bookkeeping journals including the cost of eggs in the 1930s and the odd food rationing coupon. My written records are much more random. And, in any case, my children might just back up the dumpster. But I'll be dead so I won't know.

I don't have children either, but I have enjoyed reading many things I wrote (or read) long ago. In recent weeks, one of my brothers completed the sort/save/shred exercise for the correspondence my mother had saved. She died 30 years ago, and he sold her house 2 years later. The letters, photos, and memorabilia have been aging since in a spare room. Now, he's sent many of them to me.

Last week, I spent many hours reading the letters my dad sent her from the Pacific during the waning years of WWII. I learned not only what was going on in their newlywed lives but what happened to him when he was in the Army. My brother also sent a letter written by my grandfather to his wife in 1920. It accompanies a copy of his will and discusses his wishes for his children, his business, and his dear wife. He was about 32 at the time. As it happens, more than half his life had passed. I never met him or my grandmother, yet this letter told me volumes about their relationship.

But on to your thoughts, since my life situation resembles yours more than my mom's. I tear through some of these things about every two years in a mad dash to find an unrelated something in my files. As the coming years go by, I'll try to reduce the volume of those files by 25% every time I touch them. If that schedule meets my end of life timeline, I'll have saves someone some aggravation. If not, the shred-truck is always available to handle the rest.

Our stack of photo albums is staying right here.

Every trip from the first year we met are in those pages.

I will keep letters from my husband and family sent to me in Thailand.

Sometimes I read those letters and imagine I am back there. I remember how lonely it was to be teaching so far from home, but then I recall the lessons I learned, like how to survive as an expat in Bangkok instead of flying home at the first roadblock.

Letters took twenty days to reach me.

No laptop back then.


The two boys across the street like to give us Halloween cards.
It's a ritual.

I have been keeping those cards from day one, and will give them back to the boys when they turn eighteen.

They might want to see how their artwork and writing progressed.

A time capsule.

On the other hand..

I'm Darth Thrower. Anything we don't use or need is donated before it has a chance to defend itself.

No useless item is safe in this house.

My mom finds this funny. Well, nobody will ever have to shovel our house out if we croak.

One neighbour downsized. Two "Got Junk" trucks, one garage sale and two moving trucks emptied their home.


Last thing I donated was a pair of garden shears.

Bye bye mon cowboy.

When my mother died (1994), I was left with the stuff that she had saved over the years - including letters that my father had written his mother when he was in his early 20s. Since my retirement (2004), I've been making a half-hearted attempt at ridding the clutter. I had never thrown away a personal letter or card from 1950 onward. My problem is my short attention span. I read each letter/card and data-mine it, saving the data in a spreadsheet (now running about 2000 rows for family and 200 rows for friends), and recycle the paper.

Letters from boyfriends, other than my husband, were destroyed years ago. His letters to me will be left for my progeny to destroy. In addition, I gathered up the photos of me and boyfriends from the 11 years during which my husband and I were divorced, placed them into a manila envelope, and gave them to elder daughter for safe keeping. Even should I outlive my husband (highly unlikely, by our genes) I may never see those photos again; but, they are there.

Good luck, Ronni, in figuring out what you wish to do with your letters.

I've kept my mother's letters and those of my first mother-in-law. Had no love letters to keep. One thing I learned is to get rid of letters from the first husband before you marry the next husband!

I don't know what to do with my mother's letters -- she was always so critical of me that I don't really want to re-read any of them, but perhaps my children would like them. My MIL was very fond of me (even long after I divorced her good-for-nothing son) and I might like to re-read those letters; she wrote just as she talked and it might bring her voice back to me from many years ago. She was a good friend to me and I tried to be a good one to her as well.

No one writes letters any more. I used to look forward to the mailman coming every day, hoping to get a letter. Nowadays all they bring is bills or junk mail, nothing to look forward to...

P.S. My mother had a manila envelope of photos of her sister and her sister's first husband - which landed in my hands. A year or so after my aunt's 2nd husband died, I offered the unopened envelope to her. She had no interest - told me to burn without opening.

I agree with Marie Kondo in principle (although not totally in action unfortunately). We did some serious de-junking 4 years ago when we moved to our current place, but stuff can re-accumulate despite the best of intentions. I'm contemplating what to do with several large boxes of old photos, yearbooks and LOTS of cards that should have been tossed when we moved but weren't. Our adult kids don't have the time or desire to deal with our collection, and I don't want to burden them with that task. I'd probably NEVER get rid of it (the cards especially) if I started looking through it. So, I need to "just do it"--call the recycler and/or folks at Got Junk.

Unlike Ronni and probably some TGB readers, there's nothing whatsoever in my quite ordinary life that would merit a book or movie--a short story would be a reach. Heck, I can't even put together an interesting obituary so probably won't have one!

Have no recommendations re your love letters — disposition depends on how you feel and how you think the writer might feel, or would have if not living.

I saved letters my SIL wrote me when she was living in Hawaii after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. A few years ago I gave them to my niece as thought she might appreciate as an adult.

Some years ago a friend sent me letters I had written when I asked, but haven’t read them yet and not sure if I will. I have too much “stuff” I’m long overdue to sort and dispose of, it feels like I’m getting rid of me.

Hope none of virtual stream-of-consciousness-like emails I wrote after my husband’s death when I was obsessed with computer and wasn’t as rational as I thought I was haven’t survived in anyone’s files.

In rare cases, I have returned letters to the decendents of the writers, but mostly I have burned all my correspondence. It's just easier that way. I have closed several households, and know from experience that it is not easy to read someone else's mail.
But everyone has a choice in this, and it is a very personal decision.

One of the things I’m most sorry about is throwing out love letters from a man I was with when I was in my 20s. He not only wrote beautiful letters, but inserted drawings, and he had gorgeous handwriting.

Boxes of journals and letters. Do not want to remember that past or want my children or grandchildren to read - burned several years ago.
Now pictures that is different
and going through them
Some make me smile, some sad as divorced 40 years ago with a much different upscale
so 82 and getting rid of some of those now....

I really want to donate my endless boxes of journals. But I haven't. The photos are scanned. The genealogical stuff is not scanned. I'm busy making more stuff by quilting. :) Keep the letters.

I wonder if a large part of people's problem with pitching old letters and photos is the vision in the mind's eye of them mingled with other's trash. Not everyone has a place available for incineration, the proper way to dispose of burnable treasures. Perhaps a National Day of Cremation of Letters and Photos where charitable groups provide a suitably ceremonial atmosphere in which to incinerate paper treasures with honor and respect is in order?

My mother left very little stuff behind, but there was a good sized suitcase filled with photos that were sorted into envelopes by subject. Among these, I found a set of five letters from my father to Mom sent when I was born. She and I were detained at the tiny North woods hospital while the CCC camp where they lived waited out a scarlet fever quarantine. The letters are priceless to me. I scanned them and posted them to my Ancestry.com site with my parent's information so, hopefully, any interested descendant will find delight in reading them.

I like the "does this give you joy?'' test. It's never been hard for me to pitch or otherwise get rid of household stuff and most burnables. I have several friends who are borderline hoarders whose homes are super cluttered with furniture and stuff in piles and boxes. I cannot understand this way of living.

As shared by Sflichen, I gave letters from my aunt to her eldest daughter - after weeding out any that were not suitably complimentary of that daughter. Before my cousin died, she told me how much she enjoyed having her mother's letters, that she had no idea that her mother had felt so thankful to her for the work my cousin had done for the family while she was growing up. With five children in the family, much fell to my cousins' hands to do.

It does give me joy saving my daily journaling. For whatever reason I have no idea and no book or movie will be written.

My mom left us with lots of memorabilia, letters and cards. Since I love family history this was a plus for me. I had Hobby Lobby frame my moms baptism dress and bonnet. She wanted to burn daddy's love letters before she died, too personal she told us sisters.

I love Christmas decorating and gave my two girls many pieces.

Please keep those letters! The duplicates of your kitchen ware and electronics are the things to purge--not those letters!

Hi. In looking up some suggestions about saving or discarding old letters and cards, I found this article and wonderful comments.
For me, and my momentos from my husband and years gone by, I don't want to handle this treasure in a wrong way, leaving any regrets on my heart.

With no children to pass these letters along to and perhaps with some being of a sensitive nature (young love), would my husband or I mind another reading them? Me, I'm not sure. My husband, no.
Because these are memories of a time gone by. Because the last 10 years I have been sole caregiver to my husband who had a brain injury and was left no memory and several deficits, to keep and read these letters and cards bring up grieving emotions for the man I married and in so many ways miss, that I'm not sure how long to hold onto that part of our lives.
For me, I will go through them all once again and prayerfully consider my purpose for keeping them or celebrating them with a burning.
For each of us hanging onto momentos from our past, we become reminded again of our youth, the person's we use to be, are blessed with a smile, or perhaps a tear and see the person we are today. We can't relive the past but we can be reminded of that time and hopefully with joy rather than sorrows.
For those who found this blog too, may God bless you and give you a peace about what you end up doing with your old letters, card, and other memories from long ago.

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