The other day I was going through my “memory box,” which is just an old shoe box filled with things from earlier times in my life. I’ve been a nomad of sorts since I was a teenager and have rarely owned much more than a few boxes of books and art, photographs and clothes, yet my small box of keepsakes goes with me wherever I move.
This box consists of: my father’s death certificate, photographs of my brother and sister when they were children, photographs of the farm I grew up on, movie and concert stubs, a picture of my father on Christmas just after chemo, postcards I bought for people but never sent, letters I wrote people but never sent, a poem I wrote a boy when I was 15, a mixed tape from my college boyfriend, a pearl necklace my grandfather bought me in China, some foreign money, and the police report from my brother’s death. This is not everything but these are the pieces that stick out to me.
Once my sister asked me why I kept certain things. You shouldn’t look at them, she told me. Why would you want to be reminded of so much sadness?
Here’s the thing – some of these things are sad, inexplicably sad, but they’re memories I can hold in my hands – the last tangible items I have from lives I no longer live, from people I once knew and loved who have now become nothing more than ghosts I revisit from time to time.
I’m no longer the daughter living with a father battling cancer or the girl who wrote poems to the boy I had math class with. I’m not the same person I was when I moved to the flatlands of West Texas at 18 or even the same person I was three years ago in college when I still had a brother. Life and the people in it are constantly changing and evolving yet we’re left to deal with remnants of what’s left behind once they’re gone.
I realized recently I could no longer remember the sound of my father’s voice and something about that scared me deeply. I kept going through this box of photographs and trying to remember but I simply couldn’t.
When you lose memories like that or if like me, you’re terrible at remembering to take photos of people and events, of yourself, and of moments that later on hold significance, isn’t it easy to wonder if those memories happened at all? I mean, of course they happened but when you lose people and the landscapes that are so greatly fermented in your being, the very things that have made you who you are, it’s almost as if they’re chapters in someone else’s book.
You meet people and they only know you for who you are today – the life you’re currently living, the personality you exhibit on the outside. The stories and images of your life are hidden and it’s up to you to bring them to surface if you so desire.
We live with the ghosts of the people we’ve loved and cared for, keeping them alive in keepsakes in shoeboxes, on friends lists we can’t bring ourselves to empty, in text messages we never delete, letting those memories live on in some way. It’s hard to let go of the people we’ve come to know, even if it’s for the best, even if it wasn’t our choice to choose. It’s even harder letting go of the idea we may never get back to who we were in those moments and likely never will.
We extract the memories we wish to keep and learn to bury the other ones deeper. These are narratives that shape our lives and yet, still, they linger in the background long after we’ve told ourselves we’ve moved on.