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  • Martha Engeman

Keeping and Letting Go

One of my Dad’s best compliments was “you’re a keeper.” When he said this, usually with a smile on his face and a note of pride or delight, we all lit up. It was high praise to be a keeper. And to get a compliment like that from a man who had very high standards, well that was gold.

I have wondered where he got that phrase and wish I I had asked him when he was alive. I imagine it may have been from fishing trips with his Dad—a keeper would have been the fish that was the right size and weight to bring home for dinner. My Dad never really liked the kind of fishing where you sat in a boat and waited. He preferred to fish off the shore of the beach in July when the bluefish were running. It was more of an exhilarating experience to battle the waves knowing that there was a high likelihood of a successful catch.

I find myself thinking about my Dad in the summer, which was one of his favorite seasons. I can still see him standing in the grey metal boat, expertly maneuvering at high speed across the pond to the beach in Rhode Island. I am reminded of the words from the poem Invictus, by William Ernest Henly, “ I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Dad took the art of keeping to the next level. His old weekend outfits were legendary—the older, more worn and comfortable the better. He resisted throwing things out always saying they were “perfectly good.” The first 15 years of his life were marked by the Great Depression and World War Two, so I suppose that he came by that keeping trait honestly.

Dad was also really generous with his stuff. When my son-in-law Cole was in Grad School in Boston, Dad looked at Cole’s North Carolina version of a winter coat and knew that just wouldn’t do, so he gave him an old coat that he had. Between that, and some “perfectly good “ boots that Dad had hanging around, Cole was off to a good start to handle the elements during a cold New England winter.

As I ponder my Dad and spend more time at home during the pandemic, I have been thinking about my own relationship to stuff. I was raised with a deep appreciation of things. When things broke, we tried to fix them before throwing them away. When clothes ripped, my Mom would sew or iron on patches. I am glad that my parents instilled an appreciation for what we had. Over time though, I learned the importance of letting go of what I no longer needed or what no longer “sparked joy” as Marie Kondo says.

When my children were young, we would go through their toys periodically and create a keep and let go pile. We would talk about donating toys that they no longer played with to others. They have internalized this lesson and now encourage me to do more letting go.

Just as my Dad shared his coat with Cole, I have been donating clothing, bedding, decorative items that I no longer use and even my beloved books so others may enjoy them. I read through old journals and let go of words that served their purpose, but are no longer needed. I even sent an old note that I received from a friend in 5th grade back to her.

In the process of sharing and letting go, I open up space in my home and space in my mind. When I enter rooms in my home where I have finished cleaning, I feel uplifted. I am reminded that there is more to go. To usher in the new, there has to be time and space. As I clear out my home, I create a place for what’s next.

Of course I do keep some things, like that picture of my Dad standing in the boat in Rhode Island. Happy Birthday Dad. Today you would have been 90. I miss you and love you.


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