Memory: What We Keep and What We Lose

Another spring break has come and gone, and it’s gone by in the usual fashion, filled up to the brim with projects and gardening. My mother makes a tradition of going out to see her mother whenever she can break away during spring break, and, having the time, I decided to join her for the drive and visit.


Now the spring break trip isn’t for kicking up our feet and catching z’s. In our family, that simply isn’t done! Spring break at Grandma’s house means recovering the garden in the backyard—taming bushes, decimating weeds, severing roots, and other necessities in places where gardens will actually take over if you don’t pay attention to them. I suspect it’s rain that causes this.


On top of the usual gardening, we added garage cleaning to our list of things to do. My sister and I are getting a lot of practice with it lately, so we got to work after we had cleared the main beds in the backyard. Avoiding the far-too-common sunburn was nice, but the garage had some fearsome foes of its own.


They say that it is easier to clean and organize someone else’s belongings than your own. Sometimes we feel a similar paradox when we can so obviously see the course of action someone else should take while feeling so utterly lost on our own path. The difference is subjectivity. And the difference is memory.


Cleaning my grandmother’s garage was not too daunting a task. It is relatively small, with relatively few things in it compared to the one I’ve been spending a lot of time in during the past months. Dried up paint buckets and grungy rags were tossed away, along with empty boxes, newspapers, cooking pamphlets, broken garden utensils, used-up fertilizer sprays. This was easy.


What was not easy was remembering what these items used to be to her. I boxed up dozens of empty flowerpots, knowing that she will not need them to plant flowers in. She has not gardened for years, though she might tell you that she put out some bulbs just recently. Logic tells me that these things can go. Memory makes it difficult.


Several paperbacks and other books were added to the pile of things to take away. My grandmother was a voracious reader, and it doesn’t seem all that long ago that she and my mom went to a thrift store for a book-buying spree. We often sent her books as presents, and I remember her telling me once, with a great smile on her face, that they were her favorite “candy.” Practicality tells me that she won’t be reading these books anymore. Memory gives even the thinnest novelette a significant weight.


No one is sentimental about cleaners and automotive fluids. Disposing of them was not challenging, but they still reminded me of a very different time in my family’s life, when my grandparents lived in the backwoods of Missouri. My grandfather had his workshop, with all of the tools neatly arranged and machinery kept oiled and in fine working condition. It was a different time, too, when my grandmother could drive out to see us. Now, my grandfather has been gone for a long time, and there is no car in the garage. Reason tells me that there is no use in having these cans and bottles clutter the garage. Memory whispers again how much things have changed.


The only way to move on, to be able to let these things go, is to realize that keeping them will not keep change at bay. Keeping them will not bring us back to an earlier time when my grandmother could always remember who I am, when I could have asked her about her life as an army wife in France or when she taught on a Native American reservation. If I’ve learned anything in my comparatively short time here on Earth, it’s that growing up is holding out your hands to a steady stream of sand. Imagine an hourglass if you like. A child thinks that she will be able to keep every grain—remember the pattern on her favorite skirt, have her siblings within arm’s reach, hold on to the same loved blanket forever. But she learns her hands are small, and to hold more, she must let some go. And so growing up is an act of continual sifting. Some things we choose to keep, some we never mean to lose. What you cannot do is despair that you cannot hold it all, or rage at the injustice of having such a small grasp. What defines your soul is what you choose to keep and how you cope with letting go.


Perhaps what breaks my heart the most is that my grandmother, and the countless others that suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia, does not get to choose, and she no longer remembers that she has let so much go. It is a loss of self. Personalities change, interests diminish. And I look forward to the small glimmers of the grandmother that I know, the person who taught me to sew, who loved to see historical and beautiful sights, who made clothes for my dolls and me.


Thinking about what is important to keep is something that has been circling in my mind for some time now as I help my parents declutter and simplify. If we keep everything, then nothing is special. Even prized treasures may be forgotten, broken, ruined. So the only answer is to know what you have, choose what is the most important, and give away the rest. Treasure what you keep and let it remind you of who you are.


The best conclusion for our foray into the garage was the discovery of three items. The first was an old cookbook stuffed with handwritten recipes and newspaper clippings. My mom told me that it was probably her grandmother’s, and that it brought back one of the clearest memories of sitting around a table with her family and grandparents with the delicious food that her grandmother was so known for.


The second was a pair of boots that my aunt remembered as being Grandpa’s. As little girls, she and my mom were in charge of shining his Army boots to perfection, and the sight of them brought back some good memories.


The third was a rock collection. I’ve never been much of a rock collector myself, but I know how much my dad enjoys taking a piece of a place with him. So when my sister and I uncovered the rock collection, we set it to the side. It turned out to be a collection that my grandpa and aunt had gathered together. I never knew that my aunt loved rocks so much until I saw her picking up each one and turning them over with such fascination.


So these things? These were things important to keep. Not just memories of what we’ve lost, but some of the best parts of the past and what we still have. The car wax, rusted handle, and icebox can go. We’ll hold on to the memories of our family as long as we can.

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