I’ve recently been working on a piece for a themed issue about “keepsakes” for an online publication. (My goal is to be published there someday but it’s a stretch for a writer without an MFA degree or a lot of publishing credits. I keep trying…) Their focus was that because so much of what we do now is digital, we no longer keep things like ticket stubs and newspaper clippings as physical reminders of the events of our lives
I wrote about a beautiful nativity set that my grandmother painted years ago which is one of my most treasured possessions, and it made me think about articles you read now about how the generations coming after us baby-boomers don’t want our stuff. It’s all passé and dated so please schlep it all to the auction house or Goodwill before you pass away, so we don’t have to be bothered with it. Just not cool, mom and dad.
I can remember when my parents cleaned out my grandparents’ home. I was a senior in college, obsessed with an upcoming wedding and a new teaching job and happily removed from the whole process. I was in that “I’m a hip young adult now, buying my own things for my first apartment and who wants all that old crap?” phase. I’m sure this is common to every generation but now we post about it online so it’s an ISSUE.
I’m not talking about the piles of ancient magazines and moth-eaten old clothing. I am all for getting rid of useless debris. (My husband can attest to this.) I’m talking about objects that connect us to those who are no longer with us–whether it’s a beautiful picture or a handmade scarf or even some simple kitchen utensil that we remember using with a parent or grandparent. In those items, we hear our loved one’s voices, we smell pipe smoke on our father’s wool jacket, we remember family members eating and drinking from the plates and glasses that now grace our own holiday tables.
As I age, I experience an increasing need to wrap my arms around the tangible evidence that people I loved once existed, as memories of their physical presence gradually recede. The boxes of family slides buried on a closet shelf. An odd-looking plant from my grandparents’ den that is still alive in our sunroom forty-plus years later. The ceramic pitchers my grandmother painted that hold my kitchen utensils. Two Books of Common Prayer, covered in nubby leather, one inscribed on my dad’s 1937 confirmation day and one carried by mother in her wedding in 1955, resting in my nightstand drawer.
I pull out those slides occasionally when I’m working on a piece of writing to help me illuminate my story, to get the details right about small-town life in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. I use the tools in my grandmother’s ceramic pitchers every day and I think of her in her own kitchen. She was a great talker and often got so busy talking (and sipping her scotch and soda) that she invariably burned something. But no one made better fried tomatoes in a cast-iron skillet or the most decadent almond cake with bitter chocolate drizzle. Those old prayer books with their tissue thin pages embossed in gold, filled with the language of 1928 when they were published, represent my heritage as a dyed-in-the-wool cradle Episcopalian.
I remember my grandmother used to say, “You’re not going to have us forever, you know.” When we’re young, we don’t appreciate the impact of that statement. I know I didn’t. So my message to the next generation or two is this–don’t be in such a hurry to disparage the worldly goods of your parents. Granted, most of the possessions we so fiercely cling to in our lives are just plain stuff, easily replaceable. But choose carefully, when you start the overwhelming job of cleaning out the homes of parents and grandparents. If you come across something in which you hear your mother’s voice or that takes you back to a wonderful time in your childhood, hold it fast, don’t stuff it into that trash bag headed for rummage sale. There will come a time when you will cherish it, perhaps far more than you do right now. If you can taste the almond cake or hear your dad reading those Edward Lear limericks to you as a bedtime story, find a place for that recipe or that worn old book in your life. Those are the sparks which light our memories, tell us where we’ve been and who we are now, and like the people who once owned them, their very presence brings us joy.