After moving out of my parent’s house twelve years ago, my mom finally made me go through my desk, window seat and closet to clean my mementos out. She laughed as I walked by her in the kitchen on my eighth trip to the recycling bin in the garage with piles of old papers, tests and drawings. I seemingly saved everything from about fifth grade on—every note passed, every ribbon awarded, every paper graded. I saved key cards from hotels, movie stubs, brochures from plays, sugar packets from restaurants. It was phenomenal. Why did this start? How did I think this was a good idea? What kind of time did I waste collecting such odd keepsakes? When did I stop keeping track? As I sifted through decades of report cards, birthday cards and awkward pictures, I was struck by how obsessively I hoarded. It was like I was sitting in a pile of points earned, but years later the competition seemed utterly pointless. I found a cast from a broken arm, a shoe box full of unmarked medals, a ponytail cut off, every flower given to me at a dance- dry and brittle. Turns out I was infatuated with documentation. It seemed I wanted to walk away from each moment with a trophy, something to show from my effort, something that proved my worth as a person. And for what? To remind myself at some point that I truly had accomplished something with my life? To prove to my children that when I was their age I was productive?
Plaques, plaques, plaques–there were oh so many plaques. I actually started to laugh out loud as I pulled plaque after plaque out of the window seat. I was awarded plaques for really miniscule things. At the time, it seems odd to toss them, but a decade later, it was comical how little worth lie in those plaques. Who was the first to think that a block of wood is the perfect way to commemorate big turning points and goals achieved? Why do we try to make big moments tangible with plaques? Can recycled plaques be used for anything interesting?
I had to ask really big, yet somehow bizarre questions. Do I keep the piece of paper that proves I have my Master’s Degree? Do I keep sweet notes from guys I dated even though I found a companion that overshadows even the most tender moments with the others? If we have to be reminded of the big moments, are they really the big moments? How much does the past hinder us from being fully present?
Do you want to know what I kept? I brought back to my apartment one card from each dead grandparent, one paper from my favorite high school teacher who died this past fall that had his scribbles all over it, and a note from my college roommate who died of cancer at age twenty-five. After dumping the last bag of paper reminding me I was an A student when I was twelve (as if that matters now), I walked away with a new resolve to celebrate the people in my life who are still with me and to keep honoring those who are not with how I live my life. That is all that seems to really matter.