Friday, 18 November 2011

Memory Boxes

Do you do what I do, namely, collect things?
Souvenirs, programmes, ticket stubs, magazines, ancient photographs, postcards, thank you notes, wish-you-were-here cards?

If you do, how often do you look at any of these?  Take them out of their boxes? Even just dust them or sort them? My enthusiasm for buying a programme at every event we attend, whether concert, play, opera, or anything else, is certainly not matched by any enthusiasm to revisit them. There they sit, in their boxes, on shelves, in closets, in trunks under the eaves, unregarded and unloved. Unwanted? But stored for all eternity, the piles growing in size, fading, collecting dust, yet dragged from one house to another. How could I possibly throw away ten year old gardening magazines? I have old supermarket and vineyard receipts from trips to the continent. We used to fill the backseat and boot of a large estate car with wine from France and Germany,  as well as boxes full of tinned and bottled food, which was then not obtainable in the UK. It made me feel efficient to keep a record of time and place of the purchases, no doubt another sign of mental impairment. I looked at an envelope of receipts the other day, the ink on them had long faded beyond legibility. It really hurt to chuck them out.

New lovers collect everything to do with the halcyon days of first infatuation, new parents cannot bear to discard first bootees, a wisp of hair, hospital wristband, and a million baby photos. Every minute of every day is recorded, documented and treasured. I am glad to say that, as new love grows out of the habit of being new and children grow up and become teenagers, this mania lessens, at least for the saner members of the human race.

There is a valid case to be made for preserving family documents, letters which give an insight into the time when they were written and the character of the writer, as well as all those documents which officialdom requires us to keep to prove who we are. I have never forgiven my mother for ripping up and binning a box full of  papers pertaining to my father's, uncle's and grandfather's role in the war; I would give anything to have them still. When I first learned what she had done, I was furious with her.
She said: "I don't want to be reminded, it's old history, it's over, times have changed." She actually believed that nobody would ever be interested in them. I think she was being particularly stupid and lacking in perception; I still think so, but nowadays I can understand. For her, the time had been hard, the feelings still raw, best forgotten. To her they hadn't been at all heroic, just doing what they needed to do and any official recognition afterwards was superfluous.

Old diaries are in the same category, even the silly ones, which run along the lines of "and then I did, and then I went, and then I said." And if they are worth keeping, how much more interesting are the ones which give an accurate picture of the way our forebears lived. Again, my mother did the unforgiveable: she threw my teenage diaries away the first time I left home as a young adult (as well as children's books). No doubt reading those teenage diaries today would make me cringe, but I'd still like to have a chance to see what a silly and pretentious ass I was.

This post is turning into an unintentional diatribe against my mother,  I'd best get back to the subject in hand, which is clutter. I have no idea why I keep so much of it. Take photographs, for instance. Last summer, I took an old suitcase full of ancient photographs, many of them holiday snaps, landscapes and badly lit groups of people. Sifting through them, I realised that I hardly remembered the holidays, didn't recognise the landscapes and that most of the people meant nothing to me. Very few of these photographs survived the bonfire and, guess what, I haven't missed them once since that day. Landscape photography is best left to the professionals, who have the equipment and the know-how. Digital photography has done away with boxes full of yellowing snaps, which were never any good in the first place. At least the worst of them can now be deleted instantly.

As far as I'm aware, nobody spends many hours pouring over their collection of objects from the past.  What is it that makes me collect train tickets, receipts and theatre programmes?  Is collecting memories less about memories than the action of collecting? The day will come when I will disappear into oblivion; am I trying to delay that moment by creating a barricade of memories around me?  Is writing a memoir part of the same syndrome?

Someday, somebody in the family will have the task to sift through my precious memories, all those bits of paper that prove that I was here. Why don't I make it easier on whoever that will be and make a start myself?


  1. Friko - I'm another such as and I love collecting all those little things like you mentioned. It is so sad that your mother didn't recognise how precious these little bits of information are.

  2. ah! the museum halls I shall wander in Heaven
    of all the keepsakes I've left behind!

    and there is still one big box on the boat
    waiting to come here
    holding treasures, dirt, dust
    memories (cliche` I know)

    Another deeply enjoyable post, Friko

    Aloha from Honolulu

    Comfort Spiral

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  3. 'Is collecting memories less about memories than the action of collecting? The day will come when I will disappear into oblivion; am I trying to delay that moment by creating a barricade of memories around me? Is writing a memoir part of the same syndrome?'

    I don't think so. It's just what we humans do. We build monuments out of paper.

  4. I admit, I add to my 'stuff', but on the plus side, often wander through my memory boxes - laugh or cry, then discard things no longer wanted. That way, anything left is REALLY too important to throw away! lol

  5. Hello:
    Although we cannot be said by any stretch of the imagination to be absolutely clutter free, looking at the glimpses of your collections and reading what you have written here, we are positively monastic in our collecting habits.

    When drawers become unable to be closed, then stripping out becomes the order of the day and we find the best way then is not to look at what is thrown away. Once one looks, then all is lost for there is always a reason for it to stay.

  6. Aah, Friko, you've chosen to lift the lid on a contentious topic. It seems every family has a little magpie. I have a very dear friend who absolutely cannot toss a single thing and it drives her husband mad. I used to collect all these little memories, too, when I was much younger, but eventually I reached a point where I saw these mementos as little more than dust-collecting clutter and tossed them. My husband, on the other hand, is a collector, as was his Mother. While I certainly see the value in holding on to some things, I do think we can easily slip into an obsession. Possibly, we hold on to things for as long as they still hold meaning for us. When that passes, then I think it's time to ditch the clutter! I do feel that writing ones personal memoirs holds value for future generations. My husband has his great-grandmother's handwritten memoir of her life and this has inspired him to follow the leads of her family all the way back to Ireland. He's hoping to, one day, publish a book based on the research this has led him to do. Yes, I see value in this, but it's not anything I personally feel the need to do. I guess some of us are natural historians, others just live from day to day. I thoroughly enjoyed this very interesting and, as always, delightfully written post!

  7. Friko, I agree with you, that we tend to keep way too much "stuff", while we need to keep the valuable family records and photos.
    I feel more "light" when I have weeded out belongings, stacks of papers and old magazines, etc.

  8. Friko, you have opened a valuable dialog once again. I would like to think there is a balance between what is kept and what is chucked. Obviously tax and medical records need to be kept for some period of time, but not every one is worth keeping for posterity. The same goes for photographs. Make sure the ones you're going to keep have names and dates on the back. And digital won't do! Print them, that's the only way you can reasonably be assured that someone will even be able to look at them later. All artifacts are history. Someone will value them someday, if they survive. History is written not just by the winners, but also by the survivors. Jim

  9. When my mother died and we went through her things, I was astounded by all the things she kept. Every gift tag from every gift she ever received,every card that anyone had ever sent, all the letters from us kids that we sent from camp or visiting our aunt, oh hell, every letter she ever received from anyone. all our letters to santa, a dozen scrapbooks with every bit of everything pasted in from high school and college (that's where all her tickets and programs and such ended up).

    I collect some things but not if it's on paper.

  10. I have my share of clutter, believe me, but none of it comes from the instinctive desire to collect things. Indeed, I'm quite the opposite. My instinct is to discard things and travel as lightly as possible. A good rule, I think, is to retain only that which is either beautiful or useful.

  11. nice..i collect some things...mostly mine fit in the drawer by my bed...other than my books, but yeah i am a collector of sorts...

  12. Your questions ring true with me. I can't answer them for you, because I have the same problem. I am slowly organizing all I've saved. I try to at least get the journals all in one place. I am letting go of much, but not enough.

    I now also have all the pieces of paper, notebooks, scrapbooks, and photos my daughter left behind when she died. So far, I haven't even been able to go through them yet. I ask who will care that they are all still here. Her sisters will someday, I am sure.

    My mother also destroyed so many letters from the war, and much of the correspondence my father had as he did family research. I also was furious with her. Perhaps, that is why I keep so much. I am unable to sort through what is important to keep and what is not.

  13. Sort of rings a bell. But I can offer one tip that has been useful to me. Empty everything out, and then see what you can be bothered to put back in the box. It seems to work even better if you try to put them back in alphabetical order. Sheer laziness will mean that they end up in the recycling. (Unless you're less lazy than me)

  14. Dear Friko,
    Like others, I cannot answer your questions. But I do wonder if sometimes we collect so as to prove after our death that we really lived.

    For myself, I have developed the ritual of using the week between Christmas and New Year's Day every year to declutter my closets, kitchen, and garage.

    Yet I still have letters my parents wrote to me when I was in the convent and the legal papers that released me from my vows. Why have I kept them? My parents hands touched those letters and blessed me with their blessing. I simply keep them because they bring Mom and Dad nearer, despite their deaths so many years ago.

    It's a conundrum, isn't it?

  15. I feel a linked post coming on, Friko. There is a desk in the dining room. It has been moved four times since 1992 and the drawers haven't been touched. I go hot and cold when I think of going into it. If I haven't wanted anything from it in nearly twenty years, then surely I could just toss the contents without even looking!

  16. We also have a lot of boxes. We should trow some things away.


  17. I like seeing the old me passing through the stages of life. I had a very tiny metal revolver (a few cm long) given to me as an infant, and I treasured it. It wasn't a play toy, and my mother kept it with my baby things, but then it was stolen/misplaced. I think about that one lost piece of metal far too often.

  18. I could never throw away a photograph and always find it hard to part with books but just lately I have been clearing away the (other) clutter from my life - I must say it feels liberating.

  19. When I was younger, I loved saving and collecting things. Today, I am continually weeding out what I don't want or need with garage sales. I even weed out my collections and so guess I have what you have except to the other extreme; I suppose-maybe. :)

    However, writing seems to be different, particularly one's memoirs. And so I look at it all as an aversion to things that take up material space. One's writing takes little space when stored electronically and is something that others will love to enjoy some day. I should quit now before I make up more "rules" for storing one's stuff. Your writing always gets me to thinking too much Friko.

  20. I fear that my children will chuck everything away, therefore I am throwing much of it out now. Only saving letters, diaries, pictures from relatives. I starting to re-organize stuff so that it is easily recognizable, but I need neat little acid free boxes to keep everything in. I have been gradually re-reading my college letters to home that my family saved. Certainly eye opening.

  21. I have saved those scraps of paper and journals that start ambitiously then stop after a few entries. Like Jane and Lance I stuff it all here and there until a drawer or bin won't close. Unlike them, I tend to get immersed in examing and reading and remembering, a habit that makes clearing out a long and ineffective process, My husband is a pack rat, too. The difference is that his bits and pieces are receipts from trips that help us figure out exactly what we were doing when and where on trips.

  22. I am one who has saved mementos from across the years, and I could not part with any of them, although I also don't want to revisit them. Once every few years or so, I go through my memento box and remember. Sometimes it's a painful process, remembering...

  23. Guilty of the same compulsion, Friko. In fact, spent time this week clearing out similar "clutter." Some of it went with the garbage, some needs shredding, the rest I kept. Sometimes it is good to go back through letters (for instance) and try to remember what happened when...

  24. I have friends who place their old ticket stubs, etc. into a large bowl on a table. There are hundreds of stubs there. It's fun when visiting to look through them and often one will spark a great conversation and memories.

  25. I know what you mean...I remember sorting through Ron's mother's "treasures" after she passed and found she had saved everyone of the letters I had sent them over the last 20 years! I was really humbled that they meant that much to her. Wishing you a grand weekend! Cathy

  26. I used to save everything from each concert or event I went too. When I sold my house and moved last year I asked myself if either of my kids would want any of the stuff. When I realized the answer was no, I pitched it. As far as pictures I have almost all of over 50 years of pics scanned into my computer. I then put them on DVDs and give the pics to anyone that wants them.

  27. Oh you're not alone. I can't bear to part with most of my memorabilia either. I have three large dresser drawers filled with my kids elementary school drawings and other projects. They're 24 and 21, now.

    A fine post, Friko.

  28. Ah Friko, I have very similar thoughts these days. Someday, I will be burdening someone else with the task of sifting through the boxes and bins squirreled around this house of stuff I've saved. And, every once in awhile, I actually make a dent in it all, and, gasp, throw out those miserable photos that are horrible light, or cut off heads. But, not often enough.

    I'm doubly burdened with being the keeper of the family papers and photos and books passed down from both sets of grandparents and great grandparents. Can I throw their things away? Nope.

    I think that the reason I keep the memorabilia around is because it feels sacrilegious to toss their stuff, and some of it is pretty wonderful. Yet, why can't I throw out my own paper memories, that, I can't answer. I'll probably procrastinate long enough and leave my daughters with that task. By the time that happens, I'm not going to care one way or the other!

  29. How timely as this fall some of my own moments have been serious weeding out & it has been a freeing experience!

    Perhaps future generations will remember me for a brief second when they touch a quilt I have made?

    But no more collecting - too much required in the dusting department. I am refining and simplifying.

  30. Oh, Friko, I don't know how many times I've bemoaned the clutter made by two people who keep papers. We've only been together 10 years, but if this place were to catch fire, we wouldn't survive, there's so much paper. My husband's office alone would see to that.
    I really want to get rid of almost everything, but the task seems so physically daunting. Yet I know it won't be my heirs who have to clean out this place, it will be one or two or more of my husband's four daughters, because I had no children.
    A large part of the problem is his complete lack of interest in the subject, but I can't blame him for my part of it. When I lived alone, I kept my clutter manageable, but the sight of someone else's clutter immobilizes me.
    HOWever, writing a memoir is not the same thing as collecting tickets and programmes.
    Keeping digital photos in a computer or on disks is pointless, however. I have seen computer disks go from 8-inch floppies to 5-inch floppies to three-and-a-half-inch floppies to CDs and now flash drives. I don't know what the answer is.

  31. Any hopes I had, about stemming the growth of various archives, were dashed when the grandchildren arrived.

  32. I really related to this post. Just this week I took out the suitcase that has all the papers and photos from my mother. She died almost five years ago. So i took them out and sorted through a few and got so frustrated I closed up the suitcase and shoved it back under the bed in the spare bedroom. Guess I'm not ready to let go yet!

  33. I too have many drawers and boxes filled with memorabilia!! And I need to take more time to sort through them and relieve these memories. But I don't call them clutter....they are precious links in my life and that of my child!
    I know...they do get dusty! Ha!

  34. My parents were not great collectors and keepers so the things they did leave behind were doubly precious. I keep far too many things - programmes, tickets, diaries and Barry hoards different things so our house is terribly cluttered. We'll have to move, I think - I gather that's the way to declutter!

  35. I think you have really struck a chord! I am of a similar mind, but getting better at not buying the programmes and such in the first place. I'm trying to go with the idea of just keeping one thing that reminds me of x, something really representative, rather than everything.

    I think it is kind of comfort thing. I need to find out what exactly I think I'm going to lose if I bin this stuff.

    So glad I'm not alone!

  36. Friko, I would think that some of your collection is now helping you with your memoir. Julian Barnes' current novel circles around faulty memories, most of which would probably not have been improved by any collection!

    Every so often I do a review of the ephemera that floats around me and do manage to clear some of it, keeping only the bits I still treasure. Living in a small space does help me with these curatorial decisions.

    It's interesting to read the prior comments and to realize common themes in our thinking.

    Best wishes.

  37. I've never been a collector(well, except old books~I continued my parents collection). My counters & cupboards are bare & I like them that way. I've often thought many people keep memories because they are often so much better than the actuality. ~Mary

  38. I'm a collector/hoarder... I just can't help myself. It pains me to throw anything out, but I do sometimes feel better once I have! Magazines get stacked up and I will throw those out after a while... but usually hate to throw anything away. Haven't a clue why!

  39. My partner and I are both pack rats. Unfortunately we collect different things. I would happily discard most of his collection and he mine. So the house groans at the seams. Sigh.

  40. I'm saving my old ephemera and photos for the day when my eyesight is still good enough to see, but my hands can't draw anymore. My theory is it will all keep me busy in my dotage...and then my kids can chuck what's left out with the body ;)
    Great post. I enjoyed it :)

  41. When my mother died last summer, the single greatest relief for me was that, at last, the yarn could go. For 20 years I had moved her stash from Iowa to Missouri to Texas, and twice more in Texas. You simply cannot imagine how much there was - tapestry yarn, knitting yard, embroidery floss - and yet in her last years she did nothing with it.

    When I suggested we could donate some, or sell some on ebay, or whatever - it was as though I'd suggested cutting off both her arms and force-feeding her paté, which she loathed. Did she need it for the memories? For security? Was she a yarn-Midas? Probably all three.

    Now, she is gone, and so is the yarn, and I have been working steadily as the disbursement not only of her things, but of mine.
    Like Argent, I keep representative things - but not all. And what determines real value is personal history and actual emotion, I think. Hummel figurines? Gone. Haviland china sets? Gone. Civil war documents? Kept. Costume jewelry I remember playing with as a child? Kept. And so on.

    With no children and no family left, things are different for me. I'm 65, and I see the future. Do I have 20 years left? Maybe. 30 years? Not likely. I want to simplify now, while I have my wits about me, and be ready to move on to whatever comes next easily.

  42. One thing I do Friko to keep me (reasonably) clutter free is that I keep everything for the year. Like 2011 has now got all my cards, litte notes, programmes, photos, postcards, bookmarks, all on display in a wire thingamajiggy. If I'm having a bad day or no do day I haul it down and go through it and smile and feel loved and put it back again. At the end of the year I am ruthless with it. All is binned and I start afresh.

  43. By reading the comments I feel that you have touched a nerve here - I know I keep way too many things.

  44. Oh, yes, this is certainly recognizable. Those Africa trip slides, from the year one, moldering away in a closet somewhere, and that's only one of a thousand things. I thought this quite an interesting observation: "The day will come when I will disappear into oblivion; am I trying to delay that moment by creating a barricade of memories around me?" That certainly strikes a chord.

  45. My answer is: no, I don't really collect things. A few books here and there, CDs, the odd picture. Always quality rather than quantity, and nothing obsessive. It taught me a thing or two when I had to sort out my dad's house after he died. He'd even meticulously filed empty envelopes from the 1960s! It took me months to trash/ auction off his stuff. He'd also kept rusty (and extremely heavy) old axles and grinding gear from his milling business in the garage! And that's the very least of it. Travel light, and discard as you go. Let go, let go. That's what I say, for what it's worth.

  46. It's a great question: Why collect if we don't go back and look? There is some emotional intensity at the time of the collection, and I think I want to preserve that, and the ability to go back to it, believing I will find that feeling again.

    I have a collection of receipts, post cards and tour pamphlets from Paris that I cannot throw out. Truth is I have returned to that stash . . . for the Paris blog I ran for a while. So maybe there are certain mementos worth preserving.

    I do feel it is unforgivable for a parent to throw out something of a child's without checking first, especially diaries! My father cleared out all my childhood toys at some point, I have no idea when, but one day I realized I had them no longer. It feels like a cruel disrespect, and something I do not want to do to our children or grandchild/ren, even though our barn is stacked with plastic tubs of their mementos and I'd love to be rid of them.

    The thing is, if you do want to preserve them, they have to be in plastic. Our son was heartbroken when we discovered that one of his most treasured boxfuls was ruined by bats and mice. :(

  47. I had a good clear out a few years ago. Plenty of junk left, but dsome of it is "important." Threw out the diaries ages ago. Too sad, and no one needs to read them.

    The only way I know where I have eaten "fine dining", is from matchbooks. Otherwise all those meals blend into mush. Use the match books to light candles, sometimes. Cards are a waste. Except the post cards from Dad. They tell a story. Lovely provocative sentiment. Thanks Friko.

  48. And - I'm just the opposite..always getting rid of things..wanting to make more of much much less. But then there are days and times and projects I want to undertake..and I look for the memorabilia..and am sad that I actually threw it all away. Maybe there's some sort of balance..but - I have yet to find it.
    Save those memories - yes!

  49. your take on the prompt is awesome. and the ending, made me laugh! i love it.

    about collecting things? yes but not for the last 5 years where i keep moving from place to another. but hopefully when i am settled with my own place here in Canada, I can go back again. altho small things like tickets, passes those first ones are kept.

    have a great week ahead!..


  50. Hi Friko .. others have said the museum they should go .. they'll be historical at some stage?!

    Someone would utilise them and learn from them.

    My mother too threw most out .. I have one box of treasures from another source .. not having children we're not besotted with keeping things so much. I've enough here - that I'm trying to filter again now - and clear the decks a little ..

    Good luck with your decisions .. Hilary

  51. I keep receipts, not just because I am self employed, but somehow they are my proof that I existed. My mother too tossed out dear belongings of mine. After her passing I found myself holding on to odd items. Not necessarily beautiful, or practical, but reminding me of my childhood, such as the Irish Coffee set I will never use, or the purple, plastic cloths pins I occasionally use, or her very ordinary wooden cutting board along with paring knife. We invest items with soul and those we should keep. A lovely post, thank you.

  52. No time to do much of a comment - I'm tidying out memory boxes and paper!

  53. I cannot wait to buy your memoir.

    I will gladly read anything you write. And it will no doubt be something I keep forever.

    ( and I for one have no problem listening to your laments re your childhood. not at all. it never goes away. I just returned from yet another chunk of surreal time spent 'home' which really isn't . sitting bedside with my still dying mother. it's so hard. she is hard to like let alone love. and yet I see with her dementia so much of the child she really just remained . where she got stuck. and it was when she realized her mother didn't love her. )


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