A house filled with clutter - and love

She saved all the letters my parents ever wrote to each other, including my father's letters from Japan.

My mother never threw anything away. This is only a slight exaggeration. When my friends were lamenting the loss of their Barbie dolls, baseball cards, and record albums - thrown out by heartless, unsentimental mothers - and were groaning about what those items were worth now, I sat quietly, sure in the knowledge that all of my special things were still in my mother's house, safely tucked away somewhere:

My Nancy Drew books. The first draft of my "first novel," written at the age of 9 and abandoned when I ran out of steam after the first 10 pages. The picture I drew of my family in first grade, my childish handwriting clearly labeling all the figures, as if I knew already that my gift for communication was in writing, not drawing.

I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt all these things, and more, were still at my parents' house.

This was a mixed blessing, of course. On the one hand, I knew nothing precious had been thrown out when I wasn't around. On the other hand, there were stacks of egg cartons piled high in the garage, because my mother just couldn't seem to admit that our childhood was over, and there was no longer any need to stockpile such items for craft activities at school or church.

The truth is, my mother was incapable of "wasting" anything. She had grown up in the Depression and come of age during World War II. The thriftiness formed in those years became a deeply ingrained instinct that was apparently impossible for her to be free of, no matter how irrational some of its manifestations were.

She was also busy, insatiably curious, and intellectually alive. When she died, she left behind - in addition to a house full of toys and clothing from our childhood years and egg cartons in the garage - shelves upon shelves of books (at least three copies of "Giants in the Earth," the extra copies bought for a nickel or a dime at yard sales, because she just couldn't pass up bargains like that).

There were also stacks of magazines and newspapers that she had been "meaning to get to."

We knew it would take years to empty out that house, and it did. And there were times during those years when the sheer volume and ridiculousness of some of the things she had saved were annoying, especially for my sister, who was stuck with the lion's share of dealing with it all.

But many of the things she kept were special: A few pages from her mother's journal included poignant details about the poverty her family had suffered in the Depression years - and revealed how little it had compromised their joy in living. An apron she had made for the county fair as a 4-H project is now in a local historical society in Minnesota, and I have a letter of thanks for it, calling it "an important addition to our collection."

All the letters my parents ever wrote to each other including my father's letters from postwar Japan, she saved, and so have I.

We kept only a few of the toys she had been unable to part with. But as we handled them one by one - making the decisions we needed to make, reliving old memories, feeling close to the past - we were able to come to terms with the bittersweet truth that one era was over, and a new one had begun.

Once, when I was in my 20s and home for a visit, I was trying to find an iron and ironing board in the maddening clutter of the place. I'm now sorry to say that I spoke harsh words to my mother about how hard it was to complete the simplest action in that house. What I said was true, but it was not kind, and it was not the most important thing that could be said about my parents' home.

I had a chance to say the most important thing in the book I ended up writing after the experience of getting rid of all that accumulated stuff. I dedicated the book to my mother, "who filled our home with many, many things - but most of all, with love."

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