“It is only in the world of objects that we have time and space,” T. S. Eliot
Every object holds a value. Whether the value is monetary or sentimental, a material possession is something we can’t take with us when we die. The rational part of our brain knows this and accepts it. The other part, the side of our brain dictated by emotion, clings to the feeling we step into like a well-worn pair of jeans whenever we hold said object. While the reward is intangible, it is the presence of the object which transports us to a state of vulnerability we are willing to return to time and time again. The most insignificant item at face value may end up having the greatest impact on us.
Think of the marks that things such as the wheel, the crucifix, the credit card or the computer chip have made on civilization. What about history’s important artifacts, such as Anne Frank’s diary, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, or the Wright Brothers’ plane? Each object is a time stamped depository of personal experiences as safely guarded as Anne Frank’s innermost reflections, in a red and white checkered journal, she affectionately called, “Kitty.”
We all have a “Kitty” or two in our lives, an object we hold close to our hearts. My grandmother’s tiny gold cross, my dad’s bongo drum, the first rose my husband ever gave me, all awaken emotions from another time and place. My collection of first edition classics such as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Twain’s Tom Sawyer, or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, makes me dream about the first hands to have ever turned their pages. I’ve also kept many of the bedtime stories I read to my children. Looking at them now, I feel as warm as when I cuddled under the blankets with them as toddlers. My list of mementos is lengthy. Sometimes, I feel a sense of guilt in my need to hold onto such possessions, not to mention a tiny fear I may have a propensity to be a full blown hoarder.
The latest trend in organization has many asking, “does this item bring me joy?” before deciding its fate. The concept is great in theory. I’m not opposed to a good spring cleaning, and have purged with every one of our relocations both prior to loading the moving truck and after its arrival. Clutter gives me anxiety. Therefore, everything has a place in my home whether it is displayed or stored. Not every object brings me joy at any given moment. Truth be told, some objects are overlooked on a daily basis as they collect a bit of dust while we’re busy living our lives. It doesn’t make them any less meaningful.
Even the items which cause sadness are of great value to me. Holding my dad’s watch, with the broken leather band and the hands which quit ticking a few months after he died, makes my heart hurt for him. It also makes me pause and remember him in great detail. I can see it on his wrist as he sat at our kitchen table balancing the checkbook. I see him sitting on our front steps, sunlight flickering on his watch as he lifted a cigarette to his lips. It’s the same feeling our grown children’s baby clothes bring to the surface, a yearning for another time and place but also a sense of gratitude for the life we’ve lived. Experiences are more enduring than objects, but sometimes it takes an object to help us relive that experience.
At this time of year, many of us start to rethink the tradition of surrounding our Christmas tree with numerous gifts. Gifting experiences rather than material things or replacing gift exchange with giving back to our community is on an upward trend. Travel over the holidays instead of summer has become a popular choice as well. After all, family vacations hold great value, and create memories to last a lifetime. We can all recall digging our toes in the sand with a plastic bucket and shovel by our side or and endless road trip crammed between siblings in the backseat of dad’s station wagon. We’ve experienced airport delays turned into moments of family bonding or new friendships forged at Gate 23. Experiences stay with us long after we’ve returned home. And, having a small token of that experience serves as a reminder of time well spent.
Our ancestors have been collecting souvenirs since the first half of the 19th century. Travel was rare and considered a relative luxury. Early tourists collected fractured mementos as proof of their adventures. Whatever the origin, the tradition of bringing back a keepsake lives on. Maybe it’s because when we hold the sea shell which beckoned to us on the white sandy beaches that summer we turned thirteen, we open a tiny door in our hearts inviting us to enter a time when we felt emotions worth feeling once more.