Memories, Not Mementos

My father kept a box in our garage which contained – among other things – old French and English primers, math textbooks, his vintage drafting instruments, and his father's early 20th century brass microscope.  At one time his wooden chess set lived there too, but it made its way into the house and we all played with it.  

My brother claimed the long-hidden microscope after my father passed away, but the lens had clouded after years in the garage.  The books had to be dumped – they had been ruined by bugs, heat, and moisture.  (My daughter has the chess set, still in use.)

vintage brass microscope

We need to rethink this.

How often do we keep things because we think we should?  We don't use them, we don't even look at them.  We pile them in the attic or basement and let them molder.  So do those boxes of souvenirs really have sentimental value, or are we just caught in inertia and guilt?

When we have boxes full of stuff we never actually look at, it seems silly to claim we keep those things because of the wonderful memories they evoke.  If that's the case, why aren't all of those things on display in our homes?  Perhaps we need to consider whether the items truly mean as much as we think they do.

3 reasons we hang on

1.  We feel guilt or obligation.  

Your husband's grandfather, or your beloved Aunt Edith, gave it to you.  It was important to her, so you feel you have to keep it, even though it's not your style and you have no use for it.  Trust me, Aunt Edith didn't intend to burden you or keep you trapped by guilt (and if she did, you have even less reason to honor her wishes).  Even if it was a gift, you have permission to let it go.  This is your home, and you have the right to make room for whatever matters most to you.

2.  We fear we'll lose memories if we lose the items.  

You're not looking at or using items stashed in the back of a closet or in a box in the attic, so they're not actually available to jog any memories.  Realize that the memory and emotion you value resides in your mind and heart -- it doesn't exist in the item.  If you're concerned that you'll forget, take a picture of the item before decluttering it.

3.  The items represent a past accomplishment or phase of our lives.  

If you have a box of newspaper clippings of your high school sports career, pick out the best ones and frame them for display, or make a scrapbook, and let the rest go.  If you're too embarrassed to make a big deal of your teenage athletic accomplishments, maybe that's a sign the stuff isn't worth saving.

In fact, anything on a "glory wall" of memorabilia that's more than a decade old needs to be reconsidered, so that your display isn't sending the message that your best days are behind you.  You don't want stagnation, you want movement and possibility.  So take it all down and choose your favorites, replacing only half, or a quarter, or even just one representative item.  Make space for new events and accomplishments.

Your past is important.  The people you've known, the places you've been, the things you've learned have made you who you are today.  But who you are has nothing to do with possessions and everything to do with relationships and experiences.  Those are a part of you and won't disappear even if your house and everything in it burns to the ground.  So you can be thankful for, yet move on from, past versions of yourself.  Who are you now?

Cherish one.

Think of it this way.  One carefully chosen keepsake is able to get the attention it deserves.  A dozen is crowded – there are too many to share the spotlight, and none get careful consideration.

Pro tip:  The more mementos you keep, the less meaningful each one will be.

For example, you could:

  • Buy a beautiful frame to display your favorite wedding photo, and sell or donate your gown (you certainly don't want to guilt your daughter into using it someday).  
  • Choose and hang your son's kindergarten masterpiece, then recycle the rest of his art (you don't need to keep everything from age 4 to whenever in a huge box you'll never look at again).  
  • Keep one of your mother-in-law's Waterford vases if you'll enjoy using it, but sell her doll collection if it's not your cup of tea.

As you decide what to keep and what to release, you'll find that you enjoy your possessions more because each is unique.  Your chosen items represent your taste and values, rather than being a stale memorial to your past or to other people.  And your memories are visible, so you'll savor them more often.

A few items = precious mementos.

A huge mass of objects = overwhelming clutter.

Gretchen Rubin
The Happiness Project *

Which of your possessions will you put in the spotlight?  Do it today, and consider decluttering all the rest.

* This blog is reader-supported.  When you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

Updated October 2022


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