Insert memory here

We’re celebrating contemplation and gratitude all week long. Read more Thanksgiving reflections, by students, faculty and alumni, at The Gero-Punk Project.

by Erica Wells

Have you ever sat down with a box of photos, old letters or childhood possessions? Most of us come across these time capsules every so often, either during an intentional exercise to clean out storage space, or accidentally, such as that time you were trying to find your very important documents that were kept in a very safe place, which happened to be right next to some high school yearbooks…at least that what happens to me.

I have a normal-size house, and four people live here, two of us with rather long histories, the other two of us, well, they’re still largely unaware that they have a story. Our storage space is limited, and it requires a regular regimen of upkeep, which means I am frequently confronted with my past, and my husband’s past, and usually, my children’s past. For example, my husband once opened a small jewelry box to find the remains of my daughter’s umbilical cord inside. How can I explain, other than at the time, it seemed wrong to throw it away?

So it is around here that we regularly navigate our present (doing the laundry, finding spare lightbulbs) with the sometimes gentle, sometimes absurd, reminders of our past (the bin of baby clothes, a wedding dress, old golf trophies).

Before Thanksgiving, I try to bring our family together. Not to give thanks, not yet, but to clean out. The kids receive stern orders to sort through clothes, toys, books and games and to keep only those items which they use and love. With assistance from their Dad and me, we make a dent in the piles of possessions clogging up their shelves and closet space. What takes them a few hours to start takes me a week to finish. Today I loaded the car with our donations and my daughter noticed the stuffed animals in the bag next to her, “Is this for Goodwill?” she asked. I said yes. “I hope my bunny makes another little kid happy.” she said. My mind reeled as I thought about her comment. “I hope so too,” was all I could manage to reply.

As much as I am most definitely okay with letting that bunny go on to its next home, I am less okay with the burden I’ve accepted of creating my children’s history. As I sifted through boxes and bins during our clean up, I came across toys and puzzles I played with as child. I carefully examined these items, hoping that by holding them in my hands, an image would spark, reminding me of a birthday or a fun time I had with a friend. When nothing came to me, I wondered, was this saved for a reason, or was it just put in one box after another, until one day it happened to be in my daughter’s desk drawer or on my son’s bookshelf, this little item that has managed to keep pace with me for over 30 (or even 40!) years? Which led me to think: does this puzzle, in its original, colorful box, still with all of its pieces, have value because I loved it as a child? Or does it appear to have value because, for crying out loud, I still have it? And if I can’t remember much about it, or attach any meaning to it besides its longevity in my possession, why can’t I just drop it into the giveaway box, now?

So I sat there at the bottom of the stairway, surrounded by piles of trash, recycling, donations and a few small stacks of things I wanted to keep, and I realized that what I saved for my kids was going to become part of their history. Much like the photos we take become the parts of our lives we remember the easiest, so will these objects earn meaning, just by virtue of having been set aside when others were let go. The photos or the objects serve as reinforcements for our memory, little hints that help us to keep certain stories intact while others fade away.

If I keep looking at the picture on my desk of my children taken one summer on Sauvie’s Island, on the last day of August during a beautiful, golden sunset, I am going to also keep remembering the details that aren’t in the picture. The long dusty road we took to the swampy area that turned out to be a lovely setting for a photo. The elderly mother and her adult son who showed up with nets and buckets when we were almost done shooting to wade into the swamp to try their luck with the fish swimming about, (were they hoping to catch something to eat, or just having fun?). The little frogs the kids found and tried to grasp in their hands. Had we not taken those photos, I would not recall that day and those moments in such vivid detail.

Now that the clean up is over (for the moment), I know better. I have not been responsible enough with our stories because I haven’t considered all of the ways our possessions can tell our stories, especially when we are not the ones deciding what to save and what to give away.

I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking with students about identity: the great struggle we engage in to define who we are, or to be true to the idea of who we want to be. When I survey my past through the boxes I’ve saved, images float out, memories are captured and a story emerges. Does it fit with the story I tell? How do I not let the objects become more than mere metal and glass, plastic and wood, while still allowing them their rightful place in the narrative of my life?

Why do we give meaning to our possessions, and create what we call “evocative objects,” those special items that hold primary importance in our lives? What is it about our modern lives that makes this type of memory so treasured? I hope the next time you come across a dusty box containing pieces of your past, you have time to think about the person who saved them, and if that person (your younger self) would want you to keep the box, or if they’d rather you let it go (and carry on with your present and soon-to-be future self’s story).

Erica Wells is a 2003 graduate of the MAIS program and member of the adjunct faculty at Marylhurst University. Since 2005, she has taught courses in human science inquiry and gerontology. Her day-to-day life revolves around orchestrating and facilitating the schedules of two curious and confident grade-schoolers, all while vainly attempting to establish a semblance of order to her surroundings. When the whirlwind of the school-week subsides, you can find her in the kitchen, experimenting with a cocktail shaker and savoring the company of friends and family as everyone toasts to togetherness and the simple pleasure of a good meal.

Photo credit: Asbestos Bill via Flickr, Creative Commons license