Category Archives: Essay


. . . .a sort of essay

Come on, admit it! You keep them. We all do.

I’m talking about objects that may be of no more value than the stuff left after you’ve taken down the signs, lowered the garage door, and sworn under your breath this was your last garage sale.

We call them “keepsakes,” which probably stands for the strange and wonderful things we keep just for the sake of it.

Why do we keep them? Why do we keep indispensable treasures in boxes for years without letting them see the light of day? It makes no practical sense. After a few years the tonnage we accumulate can become unbearable and yet we drag it with us from move to move.

I have my fair share of keepsakes. Some are worthless and some are priceless. I could part with most of them were it not for the faces, fingers, and feelings.

I watched my mother going through sacks of keepsakes as she faced the painful task of downsizing and moving to an assisted living center. An empty box on her right was for the things to be kept; the one on her left was for things to be given or thrown away.

With once supple fingers and eyes grown dim, she examined one keepsake after another, reverently caressing each prized souvenir from her ninety years of yesterdays. Her eyes filled with tears as she seemed to experience, once again, those happy moments when each article became a valued keepsake. . .like, 3:30 p.m. on a Friday, the last day of school more than sixty years ago, when a grinning second grade student named Roxie proudly gave her the inexpensive vase she now can’t part with.

After an hour I noticed the “give away” box was still empty. This sorting job was going nowhere fast.

Why can’t we let go of keepsakes? Perhaps it has something to do with faces, fingers, and feelings.

Keepsakes still have traces of faces attached to them—faces of people we cherish as much as life itself. Like the Kool-Aid stained face of our preschooler who once gave us a homemade Valentine’s Day card, the one with his misspelled name scrawled across the front. Or maybe the reverent face of a young student who gave her teacher some small trinket, thinking at the time the teacher was heroic. Larger than life. Dispose of the keepsake and you forget the face you want to remember.

Keepsakes also seem to bear the prints of fingers that linger, left by the people who once owned what we now admire. We feel reverence as we envision these keepsakes still in the hands of those who once held them.

Keepsakes act like monuments to lives well-lived. They symbolize for us, if only in our imagination, the laughter, love, and antics of one whose memory we hold dear. These are real people who have touched our lives. Like photographs, our recollections of them fade with time, but keepsakes help us laminate those memories and make them last a little while longer. Dispose of the keepsake and you’ve lost, possibly forever, the unforgettable touch of a friend.

Keepsakes also have feelings attached to them. Our emotions are recorded onto a keepsake like movies on a DVD, and they are available for replay any time we choose to pick them up. Mementos dredge up indescribable feelings. They summon from deep within us what Wordsworth described as “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” The keepsake you lovingly hold isn’t impersonal like something purchased. It is dripping with emotion and value. It has behind it the full force of the one who gave it to you, and the power of your feelings in receiving it. Dispose of the keepsake and you deny the emotions you yearn to feel again.

These sometimes silly relics can embarrass us, because we can never quite put into words why we nurture memories the way we do. The reasons we offer make us feel foolish, as if we really are the hopeless sentimentalists others think us to be.

It begins in childhood—this idea of holding on to keepsakes.

With little boys, it may be a first knife or perhaps a rusty key that opens a vault full of treasure somewhere, if only we knew where. With little girls it may be tickets torn in half, or dolls that are most certainly the prototypes of the family she will someday have. Many mothers collect “first” things—baby’s first step, first word, and first drawing. Fathers may have fewer keepsakes, but look in the closet and you’re bound to find a trophy or two.

A keepsake can be anything we empower with value. I treasure a lovely Civil War locket containing a tinplate photo of my great-grandfather, and a piece of slate from a 300-year old rock fence in England’s storied Lake District where Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Tennyson took walks.

But, why do we do it?

We try to save bits and pieces of our lives, and of the people who enriched ours, as fancifully as we try to save “time in a bottle.” Little by little, we know down deep that time is taking away everything and everyone dear to us. And someday it will take us away, too. Every second that ticks is sounding the solemn reminder that life is fleeting, slipping through our fingers like sand in an hourglass.

Mementos are an attempt, if just for a little while, to extend our own mortality. To hold the relentless passage of time at bay, even though we admit we are powerless to stop it. What are photographs and home movies if not attempts to stop time in its tracks, if only for a split second, so we can relive again a scene from the passing parade we call life?

Mementos conceal this resentment we feel toward time and its heartless burglary of our lives. Time is the thief that picks our pocket clean of everything and everyone we love. Keepsakes may be a subtle disguise for our anger, our vain attempt to strike back at time, if only for a moment. We hang onto some symbol—a ring, a dried flower—of the life of someone we love or highly respect to keep their memory from fading forever. Keepsakes are our way of kicking sand in the face of time.

To talk about our deepest motivations is to dig around in the stuff that makes up the human soul: love and fear, faith and hope, life and death. Keepsakes express a primal instinct, the irrepressible nature of man to believe that life outlasts time. That the memory of life lived is made precious by the people who lived it. That every day of our too few days is pure gift.

Our family history, our genealogy, is a form of keepsake. Alex Haley touched something deep within us with his epic work, Roots, and sent thousands of us digging for answers to questions we didn’t have before: Who am I, and where did I come from? Who were the people that gave me this wonderful gift called life?

As I walked barefoot along the chilly seacoast of Ireland near where my family sailed for North Carolina in 1773, I picked up a stunning pebble worn smooth by countless waves. Almost round, it speckled while and black like the rugged cliffs that face the sea.

I sit musing by my fireplace today, holding that pebble in my hand, and I am years and thousands of miles away from Ireland. But I can revisit that memorable wind-swept day and be moved, if only for a fleeting moment, by the same feelings that I had as I shivered along that beach with my wife, Helen, and daughter, Amy. And as I do, I wonder again, with melancholy, about my courageous family who braved the Atlantic in unworthy ships to arrive in America in time for the Revolutionary War. They, and my English ancestors who came from Crewkerne to Connecticut in 1630, gave me some of their DNA that my grandchildren now carry with them into the 21st century.

How we fear being forgotten! So we pile up keepsakes, like my Irish pebble, as a fragile hedge against forgetting and being forgotten. They are our attempts to keep alive the memory of someone we love and long to see, in the secret hope that someone, someday will miss us, and realize that some of those “footprints on the sands of time” are ours.

If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children.”                                 – Will Durant


Don M. Hull (Copyright 2015)