I have been sorting through memorabilia.
Five generations worth of photos, newspaper clippings, report cards, dance cards, grade school art, certificates, ticket stubs, merit badge cards . . . you know – memorabilia.
This week I found a large black-and-white photo of my brother, Jay, tall and handsome. He looks to be about 21 or 22, so I would have been 13. He’s wearing a white tuxedo jacket. He is pinning a boutonnière on the lapel of our uncle, a military physician, who is also wearing a formal white jacket. I put the photo in the “keep” pile, mostly because it was a mystery to me. I could not remember, nor even imagine, the circumstances behind this image.
I sorted through many more inches of papers and photos before I quit for the day. Then, later that afternoon, it came to me: that photo must have been taken on the day of my cousin Judy’s wedding. Jay would have been a groomsman. I remembered nothing about the ceremony nor the reception. But I retrieved a fragment of an emotion, and then a flash of memory: we’re on our family’s long drive home from the wedding celebration. I am looking pensively out the back window of the car and crying; I’m stroking Jay’s thick wavy hair as he sleeps with his head on my lap. Then other wispy fragments, hardly big enough to be called memories, squirmed around inside me: Jay drinking too much at the reception; my humiliated parents; us packing up in embarrassment and heading home. Angry parents in the front seat, with our youngest sibling between them. Jay passed out in the back seat. And me, his adoring sister, holding him to protect us both from being pummeled by powerful emotional undercurrents I don’t quite understand.
One week after that photo was taken, Jay would begin medical school. Two weeks later was his own wedding ceremony. And just three weeks after that Jay would die in a private plane crash.
It’s a poignant story. I clearly remember getting word of his death, and much of everything that happened in the following weeks. But I was blind-sided by my brief memory of siding with him and comforting him that one day six weeks before he died. Without the mystery photo that memory might never have surfaced.
As I’ve sorted memorabilia I’ve gleaned a few items to save, culled most into “recycle” or “burn pile” bags; I’ve held and considered each and every piece before deciding which goes where.
But philosophically I am puzzled, wondering what is the purpose of this exercise. What good did it do, that particular memory of Jay? How do these pieces of my history serve me? Why not just dump everything? Or why don’t I leave all the boxes stuffed under my bed and let my progeny worry about the contents?
And here’s another, more perplexing question: of what value are memories in general? Would it be such a tragedy to develop dementia? I expect all my memories to evaporate anyway, when I die; or perhaps I’ll be presented with all my memories at once for me to review in something like a film called “Cynthia’s Life Condensed Into Two Minutes.” So why am I caught up in the sorting of memories now? (Probably Inie, my beloved Jungian therapist from thirty years ago, would have an answer, offered in her gentle Dutch accent. But I think I’d rather figure it out for myself.)
How much of my life’s details have I forgotten? Far more than those I remember.
How many of those forgotten memories are important to me now? Not many, I’ll bet.
Would I want to change any of the details of my life if I could? No, not even the really painful ones. Because I like who I am, and I couldn’t have become who I am without everything that adds up to be me.
Here’s a thought: maybe it’s more important to try to bless each moment as it happens, and then let it go, confident that it has served my life’s inscrutable purpose. Instead of GATHERING memories, maybe I should just BE the sum of them in the moment.
Nevertheless, I suspect I’ll continue doggedly pulling one box after another out from under my bed; I’ll continue sorting through the contents, keeping some, discarding most, and finding an occasional gem that helps me honor and appreciate, even more, all the moments that have contributed to a life that I really like a lot.
I’m glad I have memories — both tangible and intangible — and I think there is a reason for both. I recently came across a picture of myself at age 4 or 5 playing the violin. My memory of that had vanished, along with the fact that I really hated it. It was another example of my well-intentioned mother wanting something for me I had no interest in. The photo made me smile, and I’m glad I tucked it away years ago. My intangible memories are less reliable, but I am having some pleasant ones right now as I prepare to return to New Mexico, a place that holds lots of memories. I look forward to creating some new ones — both tangible and intangible.
For me, it’s the “tucked away” part of the tangible things that is discouraging. I have “tucked away” so many pieces of stuff that they have filled a dozen banker’s boxes that are “tucked away” under my bed. I, too, in finally diligently slogging through this stuff one box at a time, have found some gems – just last week I found a photo of an important person from my teen years, a photo I had thought long lost. But oh, the piles and bags of stuff that have to be culled out in order to find those few gems! Why on earth (besides sheer laziness) did I keep it all, and haul it from place to place to place for decades, only to haul it to the recycle center, finally, now?
Your post made me remember a passage by John O’Donohue that has stayed with me– here is part of it.
Memoria is always quietly at work, gathering and interweaving experience. Memoria is the place where our vanished lives secretly gather. For nothing that happens to us is ever finally lost or forgotten. In a strange way, everything that happens to us remains somehow still alive within us.
It is crucial to understand that experience itself is not merely an empirical process of appropriating or digesting blocks of life. Experience is rather a journey of transfiguration. Both that which is lived and the one who lives it are transfigured. Experience is not about the consumption of life, rather it is about the interflow of creation into the self and of the self into creation. This brings about subtle and consistently new configurations in both. That is the activity of growth and creativity.
Viewed against this perspective, the concealed nature of memoria is easier to understand. Memoria is the harvester and harvest of transfigured experience. Deep in the silent layers of selfhood, the coagulations of memoria are at work. It is because of this subtle integration of self and life that there is the possibility of any continuity in experience.
In a way memorabilia can be looked at as the artifacts of our transfigured experience, which open the doors to a continuity of experience. That strikes me as a reassuring perspective when at the end of our lives we wrestle with questions of legacy and “leaving our mark”- as you so poignantly put it in one of your poems, right ?
Wow, it will take me a while to understand and digest this quote – but I suspect it’s worth the effort!
Memory is always reconstructive, not reproductive. That accounts for the endless “discussions” about who did what at last year’s Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps we reconstruct memory to give ourselves what we need at any given moment. In that sense, memories may well reflect who we are, not because of what happened but what is important to us to have happened (I’m not going to revise that sentence). When I give characters a memory, it’s usually to provide motivation or justification. In a sense, we’re all writing today’s story and utilizing what we need to make it work (in my Horatio philosophy). This sounds like a longer essay waiting to happen, Cynthia.
I love this perspective.
As for a longer essay – it looks as if, with all these great responses, I’ve got lots of fodder for that!
Sharing is the core. Those pictures are meaningless without the stories that go with them. The photo you sent of me with our dog gave me a chance to regale my grandkids with stories of the birthday party I gave for her and four other neighborhood dogs. I realized Mother was a lot less stuffy than I thought if she allowed that in her house.
I’ve left the box of “misc” for the kids to sort, but I did write down the stories behind the family furniture and decorations. The air b&b guests who now stay in my cottage love being allowed to share it.
Wow, you’re way ahead of the curve for your family. Good job!
Well written, of course; a memory is a wisp whose purpose may or may not ever be clear and yet it is MINE.
I’m told that whenever we notice a memory, we change it by just an iota, so that eventually (and, truth be told, from the very first) it becomes something different from the actual moment. Not sure I believe that; not sure I want to believe that. But I do know that the “wispiness” of memories is an elusive thing.
Your compassionate self was active at age 13 and has deepened since.
Thanks, Prescott. Compassion – feeling with – is a major value in my life.
I have no idea what my Uncle looked like. I don’t know if his hair was blonde or dark, long or short, or if he was tall. I have a single picture of my grandfather, two pictures of my grandmother as a baby, and until last week, only one picture of my mother as a child. I don’t know what my aunt looked like as a child other than a silhouette. But, I have so many pictures of great aunts and great grandparents all the way back to 5 greats that I have to label them to know who they are. They’re all mixed up with pictures of my husband’s greats, hanging on the wall above our dining room table. During every meal, every homework assignment, every deep conversation about futures, my children understand that many, many people worked hard to bring them here… and someday their great grandchildren will look at their picture and be proud that someone wanted them to be here.
Memorabilia is saved for the children of your children. It helps them connect to their history and value why they are here. Memorabilia builds a family legacy so that, a couple generations away from the memories of bad behaviors and mistakes, only the best part of people remain.
That is heaven.
Stop hiding them in a box under your bed.
And one of the things the elder generation loves is to be asked about their stories – their development, their achievements, their concerns. And yes, their images. It is my hope, after I cull out all the pounds of extraneous paper, to create binders, one for each major person that I’ve known on the family tree, so that future generations will have an opportunity to “meet” them. In the meantime, I’ll send you photos to fill in some of the memory gaps. Thanks for letting me know this is important to you!
We live through so many hours and days, yet a relatively few are stored in consciousness as memories. Most of the events of our lives become psychic or emotional nutrition, doing their job to engender growth but ultimately ephemeral. I think the memories we keep are sticky notes for memoirs (written or not) we believe to be the story of our lives.
And isn’t it fascinating, this process of memories that we keep, change, swear are accurate, when it’s been pretty well proven that, as you say, they are “ultimately ephemeral.” And, in the end, do the changes and inaccuracies matter? The answer to that is probably “yes . . . and no.”
Your musing is spot on with my current state of quiet activity. Moments, messages, memories all time honored ingredients in the composition of my life. I have resisted the sorting and sifting long enough. I entertained letting the younger generation dispose of my “stuff” when the time comes for me to exit. My second thought was of the love I hold for them and the lack within myself if I chose to dump this on them. The sum total of memories that will remain once I’ve completed this overwhelming task strikes me as less important than the role they’ve played in helping me develop into the woman I am today. I am grateful for “the village” that has helped me grow. Thank you Cynthia for being one of the villagers.
One of the joys of “the village” is that these are the folks we get to share the stories with. Then the tales belong to – and sometimes add to the growth of – everyone in the circle that surrounds us. I’m delighted to be in that circle of villagers for you!
Blessing each moment as it happens is a wonderful challenge. In addition, I find that looking back at those incidents and feelings I am able to recall, generally reinforces my belief that I am able to survive and even prosper in whatever circumstances I find myself. That has been a comforting experience for me and one I try to pass along to my son and grandchildren.
Yes, those stories of surviving the hard stuff – and delighting in the great stuff – are the ones we hold onto, and hope to be asked about while we can still tell the tales.
How poignant these memories are. Perhaps memories are what make us unique. They might be essential to feeling who we are- and they might not. But it seems so important to share them.
Ah, yes – the stories that we share. THAT’S a very important reason for memories. Our stories are what bond us, I think. Thanks for this insight, Sandra.
I’ve done my share of sorting memorabilia and dealing with memories, and I don’t go along with what seems to be a trend – get rid of what you don’t absolutely need. I remain convinced that our personal stories (which includes our family stories) are important, both to our own identity and to the inner growth of the next generations. For example, it was no trivial matter to me to discover that my father had been active in the anti-Nazi resistance, something he never told me about and I discovered primarily because my mother kept a letter that he had once written to a friend. This single piece of information changed both my understanding of my father as a person and my grasp of the situation we found ourselves in as refugees from Hitler. Had my mother been too zealous in her clearing out of “memorabilia,” I would never have had this experience or achieved these understandings that have only grown in importance to me as time has passed. So personally, I adopt the precautionary principle: keep unless you are really confident of throwing away!
Thanks, Johnny for a different perspective. I agree that photos and letters and documents that tell the family story should be kept, organized, and passed on.
And you’ve done a masterful job of that, especially with your book!
The task, for me, is sorting – through Christmas cards and birthday cards, out-of-focus photos, hundreds of photos of no-longer-identifiable vacation places, copies of magazine articles and newspaper op-eds that are no longer relevant, notes from trainings and workshops that I once led but will not do so again – literally pounds of stuff that must be looked at once more to determine whether there is any value left in them. After that culling will come the task of sorting through the saved stuff to create order and story from it – as you so well know!
I think a large part of it is honoring those who are gone. “Oh yes, I see you, I remember you.” I think it’s why I write. I look at my own books and think, These are me. I was here. To leave something behind of what I know, hoping it might be useful. If being remembered has any value, it would be in that.
I confess that is one of the joys of having had a book published, and of having my poetry published in various literary journals – the sense of “I did this, and somebody thought it was good enough to print.” We are strange creatures, are we not?
In my Bible I have a label that says ” life is too short to drink bad wine” in memory of Joseph M. Trenshaw. I’m sure you probably remember it. When I see it I think of both of you and the times spent at your home in Grand Rapids. Seems a lifetime ago, but it brings a smile to my face. Wonderful memories.
Love to you my friend.
Memories that bring smiles – a good reason for having them! FYI, I had “Life is too short to drink bad wine” engraved on the foot-stone of Joe’s burial plot. Hope that brings a smile to passersby in the cemetery!
I love this post, Cynthia! Thanks for sending it out.
You’re welcome. Love backatcha!
Every once in a while I love to grovel in memories… such as those you shared with me of the woods. Or when I see Cathy and can go together in memory to Grandmother’s kitchen on a holiday and smell the oyster dressing and watch Grandfather peel apples for her sublime baked! I have nearly no photos as the olders must – so rely on imperfect recollections. Like you I have memories best left in the way back – although like you I know they have become some of what I am today. Thank you for sharing.
Yes, memories of our grandparents’ “Camp Rest-A-While,” and The Cabin, dank and full of mysteries and wonders, the creek and the spring water and the acres of woods . . . all are a big part of what we, as cousins, share, and a big part of who I am.