Old papers sum up more than a shred of a family's history

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My dog Flynn and I are destroying evidence of my checkered past. Well, Flynn is just along for the ride. He only destroys mail that drops through the mail slot.

And I'm destroying old mail by feeding it into a shredder. Box after box of paper from envelopes labeled "Old Tax Returns," "Bill Receipts" and "Bank Statements."

Every 15 minutes, I am three to five envelopes closer to completion, depending on the quantity of canceled checks therein. My ears are buzzing. My eyes and nose (and lungs, probably) are powdered with paper dust.

And, telltale, where I'm not by nature a particularly sentimental person, the eyelid of my left eye began twitching an hour ago, concurrent to shredding a canceled check I wrote to my obstetrician a month before our youngest daughter's birth 26 years ago.

"Looking at them before you shred them," my husband says, "just slows down the process."

That and how "Shredder" flashes a red light -- enough already, OK?

Impatient, I'm multi-tasking. Shred; clean the bathroom. Shred; wax my upper lip. Shred; let Flynn out. Shred; let Flynn in. Shred; knock out an essay justifying the preponderance of trash bags I've tossed curbside every week for the past month in my attempt to rid my life of excess.

Three hard-core facts:

1. "Empty nester" and "empty nest" are not synonymous.

2. Similar to the cardinal chicks whose parents took up residence in a potted tree on our patio over the summer, when our three kids flew the coop they left behind the usual bits of fluff and feathers and smattering of, well, stuff.

3. Our house does not have a basement.

My plan is to reclaim as much living and storage space as possible -- to sell, donate and discard a boatload of stuff we neither want, use or need.

A roadblock in my plan: My otherwise perfect husband stockpiles bent, rusty nails and saves every scrap of paper "just in case."

"In case of what?"

"For tax purposes," he says, sternly, as if I'm 4 years old.

"Why can't we just show them our bank statements?"

"You have to be able to produce the actual check." (Up to 10 years post-date, he insists.)

OK, but the current year is 2013. And nothing in the world can convince me the IRS is going to knock on our door, demanding, "Cough up the check you wrote to Icky, Sticky & Goo in 1992, m'am, or you're in deep doo-doo."

I could, but won't, wax poetic about how I can track our girls' development by virtue of monitoring store receipts. In 1992, for example, due to a seven-year age gap between our oldest and youngest daughters, both the orthodontist and the Disney Store gave Giant Eagle a run for our money.

The musty-smelling paper trail leading me down memory lane also documents how, while I've remained faithful for the entirety of my 39-year marriage, I've been incapable of maintaining a relationship with a hair stylist -- male or female -- for more than five years. As fussy as Goldilocks -- complaining too dark, too brassy, too short, too long, too country western, too matronly -- I've trolled the South Hills dumping stylists like a barfly searching for Mr. Goodbar.

And what on God's green earth did I buy at G.C. Murphy for $87.52?

"A whole bunch of stuff, probably," my husband says, gently, as if my "crafting" were an addiction. Which really, it is, as is verified by copious checks I've written to suppliers all over town.

His spending problem, as documented, lies with hardware and home improvement stores. But he'd argue it's intrinsic male behavior to impulse buy whatever electrical tool Home Depot has on sale and displayed on the end of the aisle leading to the cash register. Ka-ching!

We all have our weaknesses.

Happiness, I've learned, comes with learning from the past and living in the present. The future, who knows? But, this for sure, debit cards will eradicate check writing and canceled checks will eventually go the way of the dinosaur.

On that note, threatened possibly with extinction, "Shredder" is back to flashing blue.

But before returning to the task at hand, a final confession: Wintering in our utility room is a 33-year-old potted ficus tree my husband presented in celebration of our first daughter's birth. And, nestled high in its branches is a dirty little cardinals' nest I just don't have the heart to throw away.

Lell Wood lives in Mt. Lebanon.

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