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Living

Following the Paperwork Trail of a Lifetime

Life's details can be hard to sort through and trim away


There is an enormous stack of paperwork that follows me wherever I go. Even now as I’m settling into a new apartment, I’m staring at the remaining dregs of paperwork I cannot get rid of. For years I have edited down these piles, thrown them out, ripped, shredded, cursed them, and still, the paperwork remains. Filling up boxes and boxes with papers that I do not know what to do with, do not have room for and apparently am too worried about what would happen if I threw them away.

This has been going on for decades, and I fear I’ve taken after my mom in this regard; she was a borderline hoarder. In fact, I’m pretty sure she was an actual hoarder, but in my birth family, calling it like you see it never ends well for me. I could say the moon comes out at night, and my two older sisters would look at me with a mix of pity and fear — kind of like that look I give my boxes of paperwork — such that after some time, my only recourse is to become angry…with the moon, for being on schedule!

People have advised me, “Why don’t you just scan everything?” As if crowding up my computer with unwieldy scans is going to improve my life. I have thousands of digital photos, and though I browse through them occasionally, I can’t remember them all. And I don’t sit down to my computer to wax nostalgic.

Also, if I was going to scan each photo or piece of paper, I’d have to have reviewed the items one by one anyway, and then spent more time deciding yes or no. To keep or not to keep. Double the work, for the same end result: being riddled with paperwork. Just because paperwork is on a computer doesn’t mean you’re not carrying it around.

Paperwork in Many Places

Hard copies of paperwork and photos show my age, generational context and mindset. I have so many tangible photos that I’ve edited down as much as I can into a large box marked “very heavy” and placed that against one wall of my new pad, alongside a bunch of photo albums stuffed into a thick cotton tote bag, courtesy of my mom’s tote bag collection. Those bags used to bug me, but I now see the beauty of a tote, particularly for storing stuff that should be thrown away.

Beyond the photos, my paperwork consists of tax returns, college stuff, my daughter’s old school and performance stuff (though that’s in another box), my old performance stuff from back when that was my gig (like programs and rehearsal schedules, sheet music, special notes, pressed flowers, what-was-I-thinking resumé shots), along with more photo shoots, plus costumes and a stage-sized hand-painted, faux circus backdrop.

Also, my daughter’s doctor charts, growth reports, my old dental bills, insurance claims, school memos, memorandums, love letters, journals and overall life memorabilia.

Further paper trails in the depths of my collection include my will and my mom’s will, collated together into one big ego-driven mélange, sealed in a sleek tan leather briefcase that used to be my dad’s. And leaning against that is a different folder, filled with court papers that don’t fit in that briefcase, such as separation and divorce papers from my marriage and dozens of amended child support stipulations.

After that, there were other child support issues, when my ex became an addict and fell off the side of the earth. So there are years of contests there, and if you look closely you can see that I won every time, but it was for naught, because he never paid anyway. And I have the paperwork to prove it.

I’ve really tried to throw away that past. Most of it I’ve discarded, but still, I’m like Pigpen from Peanuts, creating an aura of dust and paperwork that no matter where I go or what I do, I cannot fully dispose of.

The specific content of my paperwork rotates over time, moving from one box to the next, more flowing in as I keep dumping out. And as much as I don’t want to acknowledge it, I’m coming to terms with the notion that this paperwork is just a hard-copy reflection of me, and my life.

My Mom’s Fears

When my mom, the hoarder — okay, I finally said it — was fading away, I would surreptitiously throw away items I thought she wouldn’t miss. Like a kitchen drawer’s worth of rubber bands, old sponges she’d cut in half, empty bottles that were growing mold, and containers of take-out soy sauce packets. Plus the piles and piles of mail, catalogs, newspapers and magazines spreading all over her house.

Once I started to trim away at the fat, though, I saw what maybe my mom was afraid of: that there was not much left underneath.

“I dreamt you threw away my coffeemaker!” she cried out one morning, leaning on her cane, looking stoic yet frail. We were standing in her kitchen, and she was seriously upset.

“I didn’t! I swear! I would never.”

“I couldn’t find my coffeemaker!”

“It’s right there,” I pointed out. I didn’t mention that it was sitting atop a rust-stained broken folding table, which had no business being in her once-bright environs, but was now overloaded with paperwork. There was barely anywhere left to sit.

I tried to console her, but the best I could do was to promise I wouldn’t touch another thing. And I didn’t. Not then, and not again after she died. I left her house, the one she moved into with my dad after I graduated high school, almost exactly as I’d found it: carrying in boxes of paperwork, and then hauling them out again.

The Details of My Life

If I threw away everything, what would be left? If I hadn’t seen my figure-drawing sketches from high school, I might not remember that I was a pretty good artist. If I hadn’t read the old love letters, what might have become of that guy Clifford, who seemed surprisingly infatuated with me? Were those things important if I needed a memory nudge? Maybe. Kind of. Or not. This back-and-forth overthinking illustrates perfectly my inability to ultimately throw away the details of my life.

In my new apartment, staring at the paperwork I’ve whittled down over the years, I’m coming to grips with the notion that it’s not so bad. Maybe it’s not very pretty to look at, but that’s me, too, and my life. With my boxes in tow, I can revisit a recorded version of my past whenever I want, learn new stuff about myself and apply that toward my future. That kind of memorabilia is good to have around.

By Jenny Klion
Jenny Klion’s writing has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, Food52, Prevention, Tonic, Purple Clover, The Hairpin, and more.

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