The Guilt Of Mementos

I used to be a hoarder of mementos, especially photographs. In the days before digital cameras, when film reigned supreme, I loved to take and save photos. Not in an amateur, budding photographer way, I just liked to take pics to save moments, both momentous and mundane. I accumulated quite a number of photos along the way, and in one way or another, became the keeper of many more photographs that belonged to my parents and grandparents, especially those of me as a child. Then I got divorced, had to move homes, and drastically reduce my worldly possessions.

During the summer of 2013, I learned to let go, though not before going through a significant amount of pain. Some mementos were easy to toss when push came to shove, but others were practically impossible; I might as well be tossing an arm or an eye. I got rid of everything I could, everything I could tolerate to part with, and swallowed the guilt of those memories like the most pungent, acrid health tonic I could ever take. Alone in my room, surrounded by the survivors of the Great Purge of 2013, I mourned all those memories I had sent to the dumpster as if I had given up the neurons in which said memories were stored as well. It made no logical sense, but that summer wasn’t a time for logic.

Over time, over various cross-country moves, I have learned to let go of things with far more ease than that first time. Things are chunks of matter that take up space and provide a function. They are useful, but also replaceable. Some things I have turned into digital data that takes little space while still providing the same function. The things that I have retained I’ve done so because they have importance to me, and have been within my means to transport along. But they are things, I know this now.

This past weekend I cleaned up a bookshelf during the process of making room in the house for the arrival of our new baby. I didn’t just move things from one place to another, I took the opportunity to reevaluate each item for its place in my life at the moment. About half the things in the bookshelf did not make the cut, including one fairly large photograph album, thick with sticky vinyl pages storing pics from years past.

I went through it twice to make sure, then tossed it in the pile headed for the dumpster. My wife was surprised when she saw, asked me if I was sure. “Yes,” I said, “they can go.” By the time I said those words I had already wrestled with the guilt demons that haunt old mementos. They whispered words I had last heard almost five years ago: throwing the pics away means throwing the memories away; tossing these pics means disrespecting the memory of your mother and/or father; getting rid of these pics means you’ll forget your loved ones.

Even though I’m not the same as I was in 2013, I still had to wrestle with those words hard because they sting, because ultimately I fear they may be true. But they aren’t. Things do not alter the memories of my parents, of the times we had, of the lessons they taught me, of the love they gave me. Things hold no value in and of themselves except that which we give them, as just as I gave these mementos their sentimental value, I could take it away. And I did. Things don’t define me, and sure as hell I won’t let them guilt-trip me into cluttering my life.

I didn’t get rid of all my photo albums; I still have almost ten of them full of old photographs that I can bring myself to part from. I might convert them to digital files for easier storage and longevity so I can keep the memento without the physical footprint. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to let go of all my mementos, as for as much as I want to claim transcendence, I do still struggle with the guilt of letting sentimental things go. But that said, I also know precisely the demons I face, and every time we wrestle, they grow weaker.

Although, to be honest, I long for the day when I don’t have to wrestle with them anymore.

Photo by Sam Wilson, CC BY 3.0.