ONE of the best pieces of advice for any homeowner is an uncluttered gem of wisdom that could be cross-stitched, framed, and hung on residential walls all across the country: ``Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.''
Imagine the consequences if everyone with a roof overhead adhered faithfully to that dictum. Rooms, cleared of excess belongings, would suddenly appear larger. Fibber McGee closets would become extinct. Town dumps would fill with useless and unattractive objects. And that favorite American game of musical junk, the yard sale, would gradually lose its charm.
Yet whoever devised this utility-or-beauty test for possessions probably didn't understand the complexities of an attic, where the reasoned efficiency of an organization expert bumps up against the irrational sentimentality of a family. Here, objects that are neither beautiful nor useful remain stuck with a kind of emotional Crazy Glue, defying all attempts to dispatch them to the Goodwill or the local landfill. Give away the old Flexible Flyer sled? Toss out the mantel clock that will run for 30 seconds every time you shake it? Unthinkable!
Still, the day inevitably dawns when even a sentimentalist realizes that Something Must Be Done. For us the moment of truth came one recent weekend after 17 years in a suburban Colonial. Our attic had grown fat on frequent feedings of old clothes, toys, and castoffs from the attics of relatives. It was time to pare down.
As my husband and I bent low under the rafters, hauling out boxes, rearranging unused furniture, and sorting through long-forgotten papers and letters, we felt like archaeologists on a dig - ours. Layers of domestic strata formed a family time line: scrapbooks, yearbooks, and diplomas from the 1950s and '60s; a wedding gown, circa 1965; Army boots from Vietnam, circa 1968; a crib, changing table, and baby clothes, circa 1970; a papier-m^ach'e volcano from a grade-school science project, circa 1980; and dried corsages from high-school proms, circa 1988.
And books. And more books, most of them just waiting for a house with more bookshelves than this one.
What makes it so hard to let go? In some cases a reformed collector's best intentions are sabotaged by a false sense of practicality - the notion that ``somebody'' might be able to use this ``someday.'' Other times the villain is sentimentality, even though the very word ``keepsake'' invites a question: keeping for the sake of what - or whom? And now that almost anything qualifies as a potential ``collectible,'' deciding what is treasure and what is trash becomes even more difficult.
When in doubt, throw out? Maybe. Still, I am willing to take my chances with those who, when in doubt, hang on. After all, had it not been for the attics of my grandparents and parents, I might not have my great-grandmother's wedding band, my great-grandfather's journals spanning 40 years, or the Civil War letters sent to him by a boyhood friend. Nor would I be likely to have the brown spiral notebooks containing my first poems, or the block-printed letters written to my father on business trips. (``Dear Daddy, How are you? I am fine. Today in school we....'')
The attic is the place where the heart with its attachments takes a stand against the throwaway culture with its creed of instant obsolescence. The objects accumulating in our ``Save'' pile may not be useful or beautiful, but neither are they plastic, battery operated, or ``Made in Hong Kong.''
I started out thinking of the attic as the place where every family has its private dump. Now I'm prepared to think of it as the place where every family has its private museum. Of course, from time to time, even the best museum needs a little sorting out.
Museums call the process ``deaccessioning.'' We call it ``dejunking.'' Whatever the term, it's one way of creating space for more acquisitions, which during some future paring-down will have to pass - or fail - all the usual tests of home and heart.