Is Your Trunk Unlocked?

March 15, 2012

I love reading novels.  They introduce me to ways of thinking I hadn’t yet explored or probed deeply enough.  Why characters act the way they do broadens my understanding of human behavior.  They—authors and their characters—help me to be more compassionate.  In certain situations I catch myself being judgmental.  That catch allows me shift my perspective from anger or hurt to appreciation.  I am not always successful in the moment, but I find myself arriving at a place of greater understanding sooner than in the past. 

Thoughts about Strength, Security and Things

Recently I finished reading The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.  Early on in the novel Blake introduces Emma, a newlywed married to an up-and-coming doctor in the small Massachusetts town of Franklin in the early 1940s.  Blake shares Emma’s reflections now that she is married.  One passage caught my attention because my work with ALIGN, A Unique & Integrative Approach to Clutter & Balance, is all about why we keep the stuff we feel we must to feel secure.  Here are Emma’s thoughts about strength, security and things:

She had always thought that having a house would be a source of great strength, like a trunkful of memories one never unlocked.  Her own family’s house had been sold along with all its contents, except for some photographs and the child’s christening set of silver and her mother’s little seed-pearl wedding ring, which hung loosely off the third finger on Emma’s right hand.  She had wondered sometimes where the things had ended up.  She didn’t begrudge her great-aunts’ decision—she had lived off the proceeds, as they reminded her, after all—but sometimes she wondered whether she might feel less lonely, somehow less anonymous, if, when she woke in the morning, she opened her eyes and saw the same bureau her father had, for instance.  Or, even less grand, used the kettle her mother used to boil water for their junket. 

I suspect Emma’s reflections mirror many of our own.  Think back to the house or houses you grew up in.  Did those homes give you a sense of security?  Not all of us can claim they did, especially if family dysfunction overwhelmed us, but many of us can. 

A Trunkful of Memories

Blake’s simile—having a house is “like having a trunkful of memories one never unlocked”—spoke volumes to me.  Emma’s family’s house was inhabited by her and her parents, people (I’ll assume) who loved Emma.  The house was a structure that held the many items they used and perhaps treasured. 

Since her parents were no longer alive, Emma’s memories of what transpired in her family’s home held meaning.  The illusion of having a house and her parents’ possessions inspired feelings of comfort, safety, and a sense of family.  Blake underscores this point by suggesting Emma might not feel so lonely if she could wake up to her father’s bureau or see her mother’s kettle.  She believes those items could comfort her.  They might resurrect a feeling of security within her. 

The Illusion of Security

Those feelings, however, are an illusion.  My own story supports this fact.  When my mother died, I carted a huge truck load of her stuff from Florida to Virginia and put it in storage.  I thought I could keep her alive by holding onto all that stuff.  Like Emma, I thought I wouldn’t be so lonely, now that I had her stuff.  But, my resistance to “unlock the trunk” overshadowed any comfort I could gather from holding onto my mother’s possessions.  I visited the storage unit twice in the nine years I rented the unit. 

For years I didn’t understand why I couldn’t address my mother’s stuff.  My storage unit had become a “trunkload of memories I never unlocked.”  If I unlocked it, I might have to confront my mother’s death and the loneliness it inspired.  No one ever loved me the way my mother did, and no one will ever again.  Her death meant I had to learn how to mother myself.  The grief that her death caused was swimming in and among all of her items I so neatly locked in storage.  Emptying the unit meant rupturing its containment.

Only after nine years—a number that means completion—was I able to unlock the trunk.  Somehow I knew I could face the grief and finally take the necessary action of deciding what to do with all the stuff I had stored. It meant touching each and every item and placing them in the appropriate pile—keep, donate or discard.  Many of those items held a memory I had to say goodbye to.  In some cases, I relived an experience, which I often found exhausting.  Sibling rivalries, adolescent struggles, and childhood achievements became the stew I stirred as I worked my way through her stuff.  This was my way of dealing with my grief—piece by piece.

How Little Are We Without Our Stuff?

Blake’s next paragraph gives us clue as to why we don’t unlock our trunks.  Emma’s husband has gone to volunteer his medical services in London in 1941, the height of the German blitz.  She finds herself alone in her husband’s and now her house.  She had just heard a radio report from London about a boy in the blitz.  Here is what Emma thinks:                   

But here—she sighed—out there and upstairs, there was nothing of hers.  She felt for the first time in her life the danger of other people’s things—how they might erase her if she weren’t careful.  A sob caught at the bottom of her throat.  It was that report on the boy in the blitz; she leaned toward the coffee table to get her cigarette case.  The report had reminded her of being little, that was all.  She lit the cigarette and drew in a deep, long drag. 

The question that comes to my mind is “How little are we without our stuff?”  Do we need to keep it to secure our sense of identity?  It’s easy to say, “Oh, no!” but then take a peek inside your home.  How much stuff do we need to conjure up the past?  Aren’t the memories inside—not outside—us?  A T-shirt, teacup, or textbook won’t bring the past back.  In fact, all that stuff weighs us down and keeps us from opening fully to the present.

Unlocking a trunkful of memories might feel scary and not worth the trouble.  I beg to differ.  All that stuff from the past—physical and mental—keeps us from tapping into our deeper, more creative self.  There’s a goldmine down there inside us, but it’s probably buried under our past.  It’s time we unlocked our trunks.  I’ve opened mine and I don’t regret it!  You won’t either!

2 Responses to “Is Your Trunk Unlocked?”

  1. Mary Jane Says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. I appreciate your insights, which challenge me to review what kinds of “stuff” I’m stuffing away that could be released when I release the illusion of “security.” I applaud your work! Mary Jane

  2. Maria Mercedes Bejarano Says:

    Dearest Bev
    Your timing is perfect ¡, Thanks for sharing the trunk unlocked .. By sending it to me at tis time of grear trial here in Denver , I see more light into my situation ..It is powerful to shed stuff and dead weight . Now , I think of whatI ca carry upon my death , and that is the standar for the trunk…
    Your own story is beautiful and Emma;s story is a great teaching ..
    Bless you and your work .. Thanks for ALIGN ¡¡
    love ,

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