One day, while in my mid-teens, I came across my mother looking through a box of old letters. This box, always on the top shelf of her closet, had followed us from house to house and from town to town, but this is perhaps the first time I expressed curiosity.
The letters, it seemed, were written during World War II, letters that my parents exchanged with one another during those war years. Most likely, some of them would have pre-dated their marriage in 1943, while others may have been written later. I wanted to read them, but my mother said that they were personal, and she did not want to share them.
We moved a number of times throughout my growing up years. We would have been perfect disciples of Marie Kondo, had her method of decluttering and tidying up been in existence at the time. As it was, items that no longer brought us joy (or, perhaps, never did bring us joy) were discarded without a second thought or thank you, as we made ourselves ready for moving on to a new life.
The letters clearly were important – important enough to survive multiple purges. Even my brother, who was more likely than I to sneak into closets to explore forbidden items, never mentioned the letters. What could have been so personal that they could not have been shared with us later in life?
Unfortunately, whatever history they might have held will never be known. If only I had asked my parents about their lives during the war years. But life was always busy. We moved so that my father could work his way up the rungs of the corporate ladder. My brother and I attended new schools every few years, and adjusted to life in new environments. Many years later, after my mother died, my father remarried, and I never saw the letters again.
In an April 6, 2019 Op-Ed in the New York Times, Peter Funt makes a convincing case that tactile, physical objects, such as letters and photos, have a more durable place in our collective memory than do digital files. “…Tangible memories,” he writes, “utilize all five senses, evoking emotional triggers and transporting us back to a precise time, place or moment.”
Funt cites credible evidence of the association between physical objects and memory. He quotes both Andrew Hoskins, a professor of social science at the University of Glasgow and author of Digital Memory Studies, as well as Mark McKinley, a psychologist instructor at Lorain Community College in Ohio.
Recently, our daughter, son-in-law, and two-year-old grandson were the sole witnesses at our nephew’s elopement wedding that took place in New York’s Central Park. As a gift to the guests, the bride and groom created a personalized, physical book of wedding photos. My grandson loves to pore over this book, to see himself, and to remember this special moment in time. My cousin Alexa has created similar photo books for each of her children, including photos and narrative depicting their lives while they were growing up.
Photos and letters long entrusted to me still lie jumbled in boxes and drawers. My librarian organizing skills have not extended to my own personal belongings, at least not in a comprehensive way. Pictures of my original nuclear family, my mother, father, brother, and me, are scattered among photos of grandparents, great grandparents, and my own children during their childhood years. I have kept those photos and letters now for over 40 years. They are there for whenever I want to bring back a memory, if I am lucky enough to remember in which box they are stored. Marie Kondo would be shocked.
There are people in life who would advise that I toss the whole lot of them. And perhaps this approach might serve me well. It is certainly would be good to clear out the stuff that has accumulated over the years in our garage. And, if I were to toss out those old letters and photos, would I even miss them? Perhaps not, because the images have already created tangible memories. But for now, I intend to hold on to each box of old letters and photos.
Digital Memory Studies by Andrew Hoskins. Routledge, 2017
Does Anyone Collect Old Emails? By Peter Funt. The New York Times, April 6, 2019
Tidy Your Space, Transform Your Life. KonMarie.