How Important Is It to You to Keep Mementos From Your Life?

How Important Is It to You to Keep Mementos From Your Life?

Do you know anyone who saves things that are meant to commemorate events and serve as reminders of special moments? Are you such a person?

What do you do with things like birthday cards, photographs, newspaper clippings, wristbands from music festivals, programs from plays or sporting events, bib numbers from races and so on? If you keep some or all of these sorts of mementos, why do you hold onto them? How long do you think you’ll do so?

In the guest essay “The Deep Joy of Squirreling It All Away,” Margaret Renkl writes about the things she’s held on to over the years, which she rediscovered while cleaning out her office:

What to do with the stack of holiday cards? Whole families of children grew up between one end of that stack and the other. What to do with the graduation pictures, the wedding invitations, the birth announcements, the funeral programs? Why did I save so many copies of the lyrics to “I’ll Fly Away”?

It was a little overwhelming. I considered asking to borrow the backhoe from the construction site next door.

Then I began to read the letters. A birthday card from my father-in-law, written in a shaky hand: “Thank you for all you do for me.”

A prayer card from my godmother.

A thank-you note for a poundcake. When my friend’s father died unexpectedly, my mother told me to bake a poundcake, slip it into the kitchen and leave it by the coffeepot. Friends will be dropping by, she said, and the family will need something to offer them.

Now she is gone, too, and so are my father-in-law and my godmother.

I read the letters I’d saved from former teachers, also gone now, and from former students, now grown up. So many letters from people whose handwriting I still recognize across the decades. I hardly know my own children’s handwriting, so rarely do they write to me by hand, but I would know my favorite professor’s penmanship from across the room.

As the hours unfolded, I felt my exasperation give over to joy. This small, messy life of mine, this one brief, brief life has unfolded in such interlocking connection to so many other lives! It’s impossible to know where the connections began, impossible to imagine that they could ever end. In time, the backhoes and the masonry drills will come for this house, too, but in the meantime it holds all the reminders — now packed away into boxes beneath my desk and in the bottom of my closet — of so many people I love.

I come from a long line of savers. I am the caretaker of photos going back to the early 20th century. I have my grandmother’s christening gown and wedding dress. I still have my grandfather’s love letters to my grandmother and my father’s love notes to my mother. Without the help of these treasures, I could not have written my first book.

Nevertheless, I find myself feeling in the dark for a moral to this story of what I have lost and what I have saved, this tale of weary petulance transformed into gratitude. Why am I saving Christmas cards printed with pictures of other people’s children? Or finger paintings by my own children, who will never want to reclaim them? These are fair questions.

Students, read the entire essay and then tell us:

  • Do you hold on to the sorts of things Ms. Renkl names in her essay? Does anyone you know have this habit?

  • How do you store or display your keepsakes? Do you make collages or fill scrapbooks? Is there a designated box or folder that you use or, like Ms. Renkl, do you have piles of mementos in your room?

  • If you don’t tend to set things aside for sentimental reasons, does the essay cause you to question yourself? Have you ever lost or thrown out a card, photo or any other object associated with an event or a person that you wish you still had? What was it?

  • The essay is about holding on to objects made of paper or fabric, but what about things that are digital? Do you think of your camera roll or social media accounts as future archives of your current life? Do you curate them as such? Do you create digital albums of photos, screenshots, text messages and so on?

  • Ms. Renkl writes that she comes “from a long line of savers.” Do you? Are there any special photos, letters, objects or other mementos that have been saved in your family over generations? If so, what do these items mean to you? If not, is there anything you wish your relatives had kept so you could see them now?

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.