My father is a sailor, which meant that for most of my life he was off at sea for long stretches of time, usually four months or more. And when I was little, four months was an incredibly long time. Practically a lifetime. Goodbyes were always difficult when it came time for him to rejoin his ship, but I remember one particular time when I was seven or eight when my dad’s departure left me particularly upset. The whole family saw him off at the airport, and when he hugged me he must have noticed that I was blinking back tears. After a moment’s consideration my dad reached into his pocket and handed me a quarter.
“There,” he said. “Now, whenever you feel sad about me being gone you can look at this quarter and know that somewhere in the world, I’m thinking of you.”
There was nothing special about the coin. It was just a quarter, with George Washington’s familiar mug printed on one side and an eagle rampant on the other. No particular year; no particular mint. Just a quarter. But I treasured that quarter like it was made of gold. Not because of what it was, but because of what it represented: a brief, special moment shared with my dad. Whenever I saw or touched the quarter, I was reminded that my dad loved me and missed me too. Its power lay not in its monetary value, but in its symbolic value. It had become a keepsake, a talisman whose power was invisible to all but me.
As I’ve grown older I have collected many other keepsakes, objects that symbolize or spark a remembrance of a time now past. Most, like the quarter, have no real objective value, yet are nonetheless precious because of what they symbolize to me. A collection of long emails exchanged between my husband and me when our relationship was still very young. A much dog-eared copy of the Once and Future King given to me by a dear departed friend. A Claddagh ring my mom gave me when we first moved to Ireland that now barely fits on my pinky finger. Each keepsake recalls a time that, on most days, I have no cause to think of otherwise.
But keepsakes can also be less tangible. Singular moments can themselves be keepsakes of larger memories or past experiences. An off-hand phrase or comment that, though immediately forgotten by the speaker, I keep tucked away in my mind so I can occasionally take it out and admire it. A private glance shared between friends silently recalling some inside joke. A meal, a drink, a slice of cake. Like snapshots of another time, these brief memories glint like stars against the ever darkening landscape of our memories, totemic in their ability to represent experiences or memories now long gone.
A keepsake isn’t always a good thing, however. I know that I keep souvenirs of my failures and losses as well as keepsakes of love and happiness. Somewhere, tucked away in a box or in the back of a notebook, is the very first exam I ever took in college, on which I got an abysmal grade. Similarly, I sometimes hang on to memories of deep embarrassment or shame, or words flung at me in disappointment or anger. But, unlike that quarter my dad gave me long ago, these negative keepsakes do nothing but sour otherwise good memories, casting a dark pall over happier moments. They are the seeds of grudges and resentments, destined to fester if they cannot be purged.
At some point I lost that quarter that my dad gave me. I don’t know when or where, and when I eventually realized it was gone it didn’t really matter. Why? Because it had already served its purpose, and when it eventually disappeared I had learned other ways of remembering that my father wouldn’t be gone forever. Our keepsakes can act as positive talismans to help us move forward, but they can also hinder us, reminding us of pain or failure better forgotten. So treasure your keepsakes, both physical and intangible, but use them well, and let them go when their work is done.
Do you have souvenirs or keepsakes that symbolize past experiences? Are they positive or negative? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!