It all started with a seemingly innocuous idea.
Tired of the lack of closet space in my small home, I asked a friend if I could borrow his paper shredder. I had known for a while that I wanted to dispose of some old employment papers associated with my long and varied career. I mean, why would I need to keep the performance review that was done just before I left for maternity leave — the one where my boss recorded that I went to the doctor too much? Twenty-five years ago, even I knew that comment didn’t belong there. So why had I been holding onto it for so long?
The shredder was bigger than I had anticipated (not to mention much louder), and shredding at first was a task I couldn’t wait to finish just so I could get the electric behemoth out of my house as quickly as possible. But after shredding the trail of papers that represented my stop-and-start career, I found myself taking a gimlet eye to something else — my files of divorce papers.
I knew that the evidence of my long-ago marriage, which ended abruptly and with deep pain, had been serving as a silent monument of look-what-he-did-to-me. Somehow, I had always thought that my daughter would surely want to read these papers. Of course this was based on the cherished fantasy that she would understand what I had been through for her. But after lugging around the files from move to move, I slowly came to the realization that the documents didn’t really represent the best of my life, and I wondered if, in the end, if I really wanted to leave a mass of harshly-worded paperwork behind.
Opening the massive divorce file gingerly, I began at the beginning: The Separation Agreement. Here is where every detail of single parenting is laid out. Who would take our daughter on holidays, who would pay for her braces and college, who would drive her to school. I held it over the shredder for a few seconds. Then, it was gone.
Shredding the agreement gave me a sudden surge of confidence, and I found that the more I shredded, the lighter I felt inside. It was as though I was at last unhooking the past and letting it trail off behind me. Out went my budget book from the early divorce years that outlined what I spent on diapers and daycare. Out went the letters from HIS attorney fighting to pay less child support than his salary dictated. Out went my attorney’s final bill. Before long, I was shredding the marital household bills and tax returns. Even the receipt for our bed — the last document with both our names written together.
It was almost as though I were obliterating an entire decade of my life. But instead of feeling sad, I felt liberated from the past and hopeful for the future. And I realized something else, too — that a silly form of magical thinking had been engulfing me all these years and forcing me to keep all these old documents. I had been wondering if something happened in the past and there were no papers to document it, then did it really happen?
The shredder answered that question with its constant whirring. Yes, the events occurred — even the dotty boss I worked for all those years ago existed (although he's long gone now). But I also realized that one does not always need to have tangible evidence to prove a life existed. I also just couldn’t imagine my daughter sitting on the floor outside my closet going through each file, page by page. And is that really how I want her to remember me — through a collection of cold, legal documents? Certainly, my life has been more multi-dimensional than a mass of paper, no matter how painstakingly chronological they are.
The entire shredding process took no more than three days, and getting rid of my old papers left a wonderful space in my closet which I have already filled with a small trunk. But new papers and documents won’t be going into that trunk. Instead, I will be filling it with a soft baby blanket of my daughter’s that is now freshly laundered and folded. Also, a stash of favorite books left behind from what turned out to be a very happy childhood.
I’m sure I’ll be picking up a few other newer baby trinkets along the way, as well. I’m going to be a grandmother, and that’s a role I won’t need any papers for.
Donna is a freelance writer with a particular interest in the issues, struggles, loves, and dreams of women. She writes all about it on her blog, alovelyinconsequence.blogspot.com.