Recently, my husband acquired some property that is in need of repair. The previous owners were an old couple and we don’t really know a lot of details, but it seems that the husband passed away and the wife went to live with one of the children. I assume that the children took whatever mementos, trinkets, and pictures they felt were necessary but I have to say, a great deal was left behind.
The house has been vacant for a number of years and there has been significant water damage to the lower level. We have sorted through rooms upon rooms of mildewy photos, books, papers, sewing materials, and assorted household items. In doing so, we’ve learned quite a bit about the sort of people they were; a well-liked, religious African-American family with several children and a penchant for learning everything about anything they could get their hands on. The man was highly educated, eventually earning his doctorate in education. I have to assume this was a real feat for him because he came up through the south, having been born in the 1920’s with very little, and during a time when higher education for blacks was not exactly possible or encouraged, to say the least. The wife was educated as well, though I did not find as much out about her as I would have liked. She was, I believe, quite a bit younger than him and probably a homemaker for the most part.
They had hundreds of books, some were VERY old, ranging from great works of literature by Shakespeare, to religions of the world, to the history slavery. Even the modern literature they owned were by novelists such as Toni Morrison. There were no fluffy, beach reads to be had in this house. I would dare say there was not one book there that you could NOT learn from on some level.
There were file cabinets solidly filled with newspaper clippings, cards and letters from friends and family, dissertations the man had written about his travels and his history. I’ve never seen anything like it. Collection after collection that, to the untrained eye, would appear to be just a bunch of junk. But as I was picking through some photos and saving out the undamaged ones (in case the family did not get all that they wanted), it occurred to me- they were hoarders of sorts, but not like the hoarders you see on television. They didn’t have literal heaps of garbage laying around. They were hoarding education and their own brand of memories I guess you could say. They obviously thought the things they were saving were important, so why was I- a stranger- throwing away their prized possessions?
I’ll admit, I was angry at the children of these people. Why didn’t they care about the things their parents thought were important? Why hadn’t they taken better care of the place that housed their parent’s memories? I thought about how I hope that when the time comes, my children will be sorting through my stuff and not some stranger. I also thought about how I will not leave so MUCH stuff for them to sort. I wondered what story the things I leave behind would tell my children? If a stranger were to be throwing out of MY memories, what would they piece together about me based on their findings?
I have piles and piles of my children’s school and artwork saved. I do throw
some of it away but a large portion of it I can’t bear to part with, it is far too cute! I have a zillion photographs to organize. I also have some special outfits that my kids wore when they were really little saved so they can share them with their own children. My mother did this for me and when my daughter was born, I was able to bring her home in the very same sleeper I wore home from the hospital! It really created a special memory for me and as she got older, she loved hearing the story of how we wore the same outfit. I still have it tucked away and perhaps she or my son can bring home their child in it, provided they want to and it’s not falling apart! I hope the items I have saved over the years will express to my children, or whoever, how much I loved my family and my life.
But beyond that, I hope it shows them that I valued creating living moments to remember and memories with my loved ones, not piles of papers and books. Although the papers and books were interesting, I have to wonder how much of these people’s time was spent collecting these items? How much of that time could have been spent creating an intangible collection of memories?
We can’t take the things we accumulate with us when we die and I know the last thing I am going to be worried about in my old age is having more “stuff.” I want to create lasting memories with my family. I want them to look back on our life together and smile at the things we did together, whether it’s a craft project, a trip, or just camping in the back yard.
Memories are a funny thing though. I have 35 years worth of memories stored in my head and sometimes I have a hard time recalling one if put on the spot. Quick, what’s your favorite memory from your freshman year of high school? Uh……um……can I get back to you on that? I lived through it but I don’t remember a lot about it, and NO it’s not because it was so long ago! If I sit and consider things, I am able to recall specific scenarios but it’s not something I think about often.
When my father passed away almost a year ago, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the thought that I had to remember every single detail about him; every moment we shared had to be logged daily so I wouldn’t forget him. It tore me up that there were things I could not remember. But as the days have passed, I realize that I don’t have to keep those memories at the forefront of my mind. He enters my mind often, all on his own and there are things everywhere that remind me of him or call to mind a certain memory of him; an opportunity to play a practical joke on one of my kids or husband, a song on the radio, a “Remember the time when Papa” story from one of my kids, or my son’s favorite- the classic “Pull my finger,” trick that Papa showed him.
Scents, sounds, places, objects, and other memories can spark a recollection for me, and not just about my father. I specifically hung metal wind chimes in the tree outside my home when I moved in because it reminded me of summers spent at my grandparent’s house a child. They lived by the salt water and I spent a fair amount of days on their back porch, listening to the wind chimes and the waves lapping the rocky shoreline. Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil, coincidentally, also reminds me of those days. A whiff of Jean Naté body fragrance reminds me of my great-grandmother, who has also passed away.
It’s nice to have objects that you can take out and look at to provide you with
memories; I have the tiny guardian angel coin that I bought for my father years ago and he proudly made sure to carry in his pocket with all his coins every day. He would always take out the handful of change and pick through to find it and show me he had it with him whenever he saw me. I can see and feel where the details of the angels face and wings have been rubbed smooth by his fingers and presumably, all those coins. It means the world to me and I would be heartbroken if I lost it, but it’s not my father. He’s in my heart and soul. He lives there, not in some coin.
So, I will continue to collect my sentimental objects as memory keepers, but I intend to collect far more memories you can’t hold in the palm of your hand. To me, these are the real crown jewels of my family.
How about you? What will your collections tell people after you are gone? What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?