“What makes these objects so evocative for us is that they hold the memories of people, of relationships, of places and moments and milestones that speak to our own identity.”
We like to criticize consumer culture, and with good reason. But as with everything, there is also good that comes with inanimate objects. A finding of ones self through the clothes we wear, collecting memories through the trinkets we keep, and seeking solace through the items of a loved one. Items are icons through which we frame our world.
What We Keep is a collection of 150 stories about well, what we keep. Each page delves into the sentimental, first hand account of a different person, from celebrities and CEOs to food truck owners and nurses, along with an image of their object. And it truly does an amazing job of showing just how emotional we as humans are, and how important tokens of remembrance become in that emotional way of living.
The items this book makes you consider of your own, and the intimate stories from others, make you feel a connection to some thing, someone, some experience.
Daniel Goodwin’s story on page 56 resonated with me. He and his brother both altered their birth certificates to join the navy early during the Korean war, one entering at 15, the other at 17. My grandpa did the same, for the same military branch, in the same war. My grandpa never really spoke about his experience in the war or any effect it had on him after, and I was still pretty young when he passed away, but reading another man’s account, though quite racially different, made me feel a connection to him.
Geoff Howell’s story (p. 84) also made me smile. I don’t have the same experience, but I did collect Italy architecture replica souvenirs while there. His is marble, mine plaster, but I enjoyed seeing such a memorable object on the page. He also happens to have my mom’s maiden name.
And not that I don’t think you should read this book from cover to cover, but I also think it could make a lovely coffee table book. Pick it up, open it to a page and read a story. Let that story sink in, then save the rest for another day’s reflection.
As I read through the stories, I cycled through my mental list of meaningful items. The stuffed giraffe Eric won for me during our time working at a camp our first summer together, the shirt I got from a consignment store that feels more like me than any clothing has before, the hand sewn bunny with the tear drop I’d cried for at a garage sale when I was 4, or the doll my mom bribed me with when I was around the same age. I am a collector and there are so many things I could list that I’ve kept for decades – my polly pockets, violin, stereoscope. But if I really had to choose 1 item, I think I’d have to circle back to the giraffe (now what we call our family animal). Giraffey comes with me on all my trips and keeps me company, as he did when Eric and I were initially long distance. He’s the lowest one in the photo above.
I must also admit that I have sentimental value in almost everything I own. Some with good reason, like my grandma’s miniature cabinet, and my other grandma’s baby doll. Both things I bonded with those women over, and both things I received after they passed away last year. And some with less sentimental value, like my cat stuffed animal I got from a zoo gift shop as a kid. No human connection there, or much of a fond memory of the trip, but I haven’t been able to let her go either.
I do however also see the value in sending old dollhouses (one I built in high school) to other homes, or painting childhood remnants grey for what seems like a higher purpose.
My sister happened to post something of a similar vein on instagram in the same time frame I was working on this post. And so I polled the rest of my immediate family on their objects as well.
My sister, Leah:
When we were discussing as a family, she also added (as a note, Amy is a stuffed doll Leah has had since she was an infant):
“I also have Amy, and my choir awards, and a Mozart concert poster. I’m very nostalgic.
Amy connects me with the core of my identity and some primal baby emotion. I found her while packing and teared up and gave her a hug.”
My mom, Tracy:
“Mouse mouse. I used to sneak this in your dad’s luggage when he traveled. It’s very small, and we still have him.
I also have a large shell that my dad bought me when we were vacationing in Florida.”
My dad, Gary (as messaged to me by my mom):
“He’s now holding a craftsman screwdriver that he bought in his early 20s. He just tightened a door knob with it. He says that is it”
My brother in law, Daniel (in quoting a message from his grandma in 2008):
“was lying in bed and looked up at the ledge and saw the little wooden giraffe that you said that you wanted, back when you were young. Are you still interested in it? I think it is hand carved and came from overseas somewhere. I look at different things of mine and think about who would like to have some things that I have.”
These items hold value, and are important to each of us, not because of what they are, but because of the stories they hold.
“Once an object is separated from its story, its importance begins to fade.”
So that’s What We Keep.
I keep my giraffe stuffed animal. My family keeps a dried bouquet, a tiny wooden mouse, a screwdriver and a wooden giraffe sculpture.
What do you keep? What one object brings you joy, magic and meaning?
Join in on the conversation in the comments below, but also through facebook.com/groups/whatwekeep and #whatwekeep.