Creating Memory Boxes

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Choosing the box is the second to last step.

Creating a memory box for oneself or a family member or friend has steps similar to decluttering. We will gather the memorabilia, sort through it and keep only the best of the best. Let’s begin with your personal memory box first.

  1. Gather the memorabilia together in one place. Search the attic and basement and bookshelves and under your bed for the baby toys, theatre tickets, yearbooks, jewelry, science awards, whatever it is you are storing because its only purpose is to jog your memory or document your existence.
  2. Sort through with several thoughts in mind. First, could this item be put to use? Say it is Aunt Edna’s teacup and saucer and you don’t drink tea. Could you plant an herb in it and put it on the windowsill? Put it on your dresser to catch your loose change and keys? Be creative and see if you can put the beloved item to use. When I was a child, it was a thing to have baby shoes bronzed and turned into bookends. No need to go that far, but you can poke around on Pinterest for ideas of creative repurposing.      Second, could one object represent a group of them? The trophy you got for first place with your best time ever in the breast stroke to represent all 112 ribbons and medals that you accumulated over the years?        Third, does this object represent only happy memories? Only sad or angry ones? Or a mix? If happy ones only, put your object in the keep pile. If the object elicits only bad feelings, consider letting it go. Life is difficult enough without giving ourselves an unexpected jolt of nastiness every time we bump into the object again. Long ago, I worked for an attorney who represented a man who had been brutally beaten by the police. The blood-stained clothing he wore that night were in a box in my file cabinet. Every time I opened that drawer and saw the box of bloody clothes, I felt fear and anger and a general dis-ease with humanity. Are you keeping an “evidence box” in your house? Can you let it go? If the object elicits a mix of feelings, hang onto it. We’ll talk about those later.
  3. Regarding the objects in the let go pile–is there anyone else who might want to have them? After my father died, I took his favorite shirt home with me. When I was missing him particularly, I would put it on. It felt a bit like an ethereal hug. After several months, I did not need the shirt anymore. I had found a way to drop into the memories of my father that I most treasured without the talisman of his shirt. Before I gave the shirt away, I checked with each of the members of my immediate family to see if any of them wanted the shirt. None of them did. My mother in particular was glad to see it go. Because it had been my dad’s favorite, it was threadbare and she had been trying to replace it for a decade. Only you might know who else might have an emotional connection to this object, check with those persons before you let the object go.
  4. There is a willingness to let go that is a function of distance in time and maturity. The beloved rocks and buckeyes of childhood are less precious in our teen years and the concert tickets from our teen years are not as important when we are fifty. Never the less, if it has value to you now, keep it. These objects are what speak to your heart and you do not have to justify them to me or anybody else. (Unless you have so many of them that your room mates complain. If so, the scope of the problem is more than I can address here.)
  5. Assess the volume of your items and gather an appropriate-sized container/s. Box it up and don’t forget to curate the collection over time, adding new items and deleting ones that no longer make the cut.

If you have items that stir a mix of happy and unhappy memories, rejoice! You have a powerful growth/maturation tool in your hands. Hold the object and experience the full range of emotions that it elicits. See if you can name the feelings. You can do this work privately using only your thoughts or a written format. You can share your feelings with a trusted confidant and listen to any wisdom they might have. If this process gives you clarity on whether to keep or discard the object-Great! If not, keep the object and revisit the process in a few months or years. It has been my experience, that eventually I come to some kind of resolution of the feelings and knowledge of what to do with the object.

High school was not a particularly happy time for me, but I dutifully saved my high school yearbooks as something I was supposed to do. I had moved to a different state, never saw most of my old classmates and only kept in contact with a few close friends. I did attend my 10 year reunion with one of those old friends. He had acquired a convertible sports car and I wore a backless evening gown. I was voted “Most Changed” and the evening had a Cinderella quality to it. But I didn’t want to return to the unhappiness of my teen years, or the dysfunctional relationships that my high school cultivated. I discarded the yearbooks shortly thereafter and haven’t missed them ever.

If you are creating a memory box for your children you can use the above guidelines, but with a few caveats: when they are babies and toddlers they don’t have a concept of time beyond the precious now, so won’t understand saving objects for later. They also won’t remember much of this time, so go easy on the stuff you save. A precious blanket, one darling outfit, a favorite toy (after it has been outgrown) is enough. Don’t save the whole wardrobe or all the baby books. When the kids are in elementary/primary school you can have them help curate. Each week they can pick which piece of artwork or other school accomplishment they save. It was my experience that by the time they were eight years old, they only wanted to keep a few items from when they were six and by the time they were in middle school (ages eleven to fourteen) they were fully in charge of what they kept and discarded.

Creating a memory box for heirs: when I was helping my mom declutter her home, I came across boxes and boxes of stuff that had belonged to my father, who has been dead for fifteen years. For a variety of reasons, mom was not able to go through all the stuff, and the time is not yet ripe for it to leave her house. So, I consulted with my siblings about what kinds of things they wanted kept, what they wanted to view or just wanted to know about. The early sorting was easy–decades-old paperback novels that had become mouse nests–trash. Clothing that was still usable–donated. Letters written to his family during WW II–saved. When I came to objects I was uncertain about (every check register from his entire life) I checked with my mom and brothers to see if they wanted them. Using this process, I was able to winnow 20 copy paper sized boxes of stuff to one. This box is labeled with my dad’s name and will remain at mom’s house until her death. Then the family historian (my younger brother) will take possession, and perhaps winnow it further.

This is my approach to memory boxes. I am eager to hear what you all have done, or maybe what you might be struggling with.

9 thoughts on “Creating Memory Boxes

  1. Priscilla Bettis says:

    You are right, Fawn. There is a willingness to part with things when given distance of time or maturity. Things that used to be sentimental may become silly. (Of course there will be sentimental items that remain sentimental for a lifetime.) I kept my youth swim trophies for-EV-er. I had worked so hard for them! But when I moved on to other interests, the importance of the trophies diminished until they simply didn’t mean anything anymore. I don’t miss them at all.

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    • Fawn says:

      How funny that I mentioned one of your objects in my post! And not surprisingly, you confirm that a once treasured item, can become less so over time. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with my readers! The memory boxes was a topic which generated a lot of interest.

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  2. Béatrice says:

    I come from a family of “keeper”and I am kind of one myself. And because we keep so much and pass it on, I am not very familiar with the concept of memory box.

    For exemple, clothes and toys are mostly saved if the are in good condition and passed on to next generation. Of course I do question this habit. While it is very practical not to have to go and shop for clothing when the children are small, many baby clothes are more practical today than what the were in the 1970s. However, it works really well for dressed up oufits and wooden hand-made toys. My daughter wears my dresses for special occasions as well as my mother’s dresses that were made by my grand-mother or bought in high-end shops.

    Of course, I am aware that by the time a child is 7 or 8, they will want to dress according to fashion codes. I am myself not very sentimental neither for clothes nor for toys. Since my mother kept most of it and I did curate it myself very carefully from the age of 11, we are using it and it brings back very good memories. It also allows us to limit very much the number of birthday gifts and christmas gifts. But is all this worth all the years of keeping and curating, probably not.

    So I am giving away most of the clothing except for those which have been passed on from generation to generation. When we were children, I remember that my grand-mother owned a big box with many dresses and suits from her parents and grand-parents. We could use it to play on special occasion and it was a lot of fun to dress in 1870s gown and hats.

    I am not so enthousiastic about the idea of repurposing but I will give it a thought. I don’t have any yearbooks or trophees but I do have 5 boxes full of papers in my mothers attic and I need to go through them. I think these are mostly letters, cards and calendars/diaries. I am not sure I am ready to go through that from an emotionnal point of view. But I should maybe force myself and that will be liberating.
    I am sorry for participating so late in the discussion I was asking for. My in-laws are visiting for 10 days and I have an intensive time at work.

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    • Fawn says:

      No worries on the timing–this is a slow blog. Children’s clothing that is for special occasions and hand-made by relatives is worth keeping to pass on, in my opinion. Especially if it has been well-preserved. Keeping fabric items for decades is difficult without decay, stains or insect damage. In my mind, this is one of the best reasons to not try to store clothing for long periods of time–it doesn’t hold up well and then is not useful. About the wooden toys-these are something worth saving for future generations, and they are not prone to rapid decay. My only sadness about them being boxes up for decades is that they are not being used for that time frame. I know you don’t live near family, but in situations where adult siblings and cousins live nearby, these items could be in almost continuous circulation in the family as new members are born. Here is a repurposing idea that maybe tolerable: use some of the pretty wooden toys as décor after the kids have outgrown using them in play. About the boxes in your mother’s attic–it is arduous emotional work to sort through these things. Don’t force yourself, if you are not ready. But maybe, next time you are there for a visit, you can get one of the boxes down and just sort through a handful of the items. No pressure, just sort of a curiosity about who you were when you saved these items and who you are now and do the items support the continuity of you? Keep in mind, we are minimalists to support our growth as human beings, not to punish ourselves.

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  3. Béatrice says:

    Thank you Fawn! This idea of being curious of who I was and that I might not be the same person anymore is very helpful. It is so true, and there is no point of bringing a lot of ego here. I think I will try to pretend I am a journalist going though somebody else belongings and diaries. I know it will not hold all the way but I am sure I can come back to this idea if I feel sadness. I don’t remember which philosopher said that we never bathe in the same river twice (Aristoteles?). And that is so true, we can aknowledge and then leave behind the sad memories. the person we were does not exist anymore and does not define us. The world that was our surrouding when we were a child is not there anymore.

    I think I will use this strategy: I will examine the material item and see what feeling is arising, then I will write it on a piece of paper (I will have a stack of paper next to me), a new piece of paper for every step/feeling along the way. Then, I will re-read them and see what lesson they can bring into my life today and I will write it underneath. Then I will probably throw everything in a garbage bag (a fire would be ideal but with all those wooden fire this summer, it might take time before we are allowed to light a fire).

    I think a little pressure is good though because the main point for me is finding the time. If I don’t make it a priority, it might be years before I can find the time to do it.

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    • Fawn says:

      I like this plan and agree fire would be more symbolic. Maybe destroyed by shredder? Maybe you and kiddos could make a fun paper mache project (IDK, a piñata?) from the shredded paper? Oh, and please report back if you feel this method is helpful. Maybe other readers would want to try it.

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    • Béatrice says:

      It was Heraclitus (born 535 bc) who said:“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

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