The Great Unraveling That Happens When We Keep Mementos of the People We Lost
When my aunt passed, we held off cleaning her room for weeks. The weeks turned into months and the months turned into years and the years turned into a perpetual state of listlessness. But at some point, the listlessness ceased and we found something else.
We never admitted it among ourselves, but nobody really did have any intentions of throwing her stuff away. And why would we? These are hers. Of course, part of it was because of the confrontation of pain and denial. My mother had lost a sister while my brother and me had lost our second mom. There were some things we just longed to keep.
I remember those trips to her empty room following the prescribed 40-day mourning service (it was a Catholic Filipino household, go figure). My mother, brother, and I would each come visit during different parts of the day to snoop around. Some days, you'd get visions of her brushing her hair or changing the bed sheets or watching her favorite noontime variety show. Other times, it was lifeless. That space would always be hers, that much I knew. Still, I had always been conscious of the danger of forgetting. That's why I wanted to find something tangible to bring with me during my days.
For my mother, it was an old wallet that she found most endearing. She opened it up to see a couple of old ATM cards, few old bills, and some chidhood photos of my brother and I from way back when. As for me, I found this nifty aquamarine signet ring in her drawer. It was inscribed with the seals of Manila City and the Lyceum of the Philippines University. We ended up keeping these things, together with some of her signature clothes and knickknacks (we kept most of her things, actually). They're our little souvenirs, I suppose. We still miss her dearly.
The concept of mementos of the departed is said to have existed for centuries. A study published by the University of York shows us that everyday items as keepsakes when a loved one passes is a practice that dates back over 2,000 years.
Researchers focused on the stuff that relatives could have neve repurposed. These were items that they just didn't throw away for one reason or another. In the Scottish hillfort settlement of Broxmouth (640BC to AD210), for instance, everyday objects like quernstones and bone spoons were found stuffed in the roundhouse walls of peoples' homes as a means of maintaining a connection with the dead.
“My work uses archaeology to open up discussions around death, dying and bereavement in contemporary society, demonstrating that even the most mundane objects can take on special significance if they become tangible reminders of loved ones no longer physically with us."
- Dr. Lindsey Büster, Department of Archaeology
And that's how I tend to look at what we did. We sought connection to cope. One can make the argument for the universal burden of grief; not the definition, but the heaviness—a loss of that special kind of magnitude where there's this unfathomable, all-consuming void that's, well, so unbearably weightless.
However, sooner or later, it gets exhausting. We may mourn in very different ways and paces, but there will always come a time when we have to learn how to turn the mourning into celebration. The dead don't need our tears anyway.
I put on my aunt’s signet ring on my right pinky finger every day to commemorate her life. At first, I did it as a way to manage. Now, I do it as a quirky ritual I need to do in order to write. The ring helps me get going with my dumb ideas. What can I say?
Remembrance is a religion and mementos are how we keep the faith. When it comes to our dead loved ones, even the most modest objects from them can have a transformative nature. Keeping these items is a nod from us to them and vice versa.
Mom’s old hairclip can be worn on the children's birthdays. Lolo’s favorite handkerchief can wipe off all that smelly anxious sweat after a long day at work. Dad’s favorite Levi’s jeans can become a trusted companion during a night out, especially on crazy ones. Dancing in lola’s favorite daster seems like a pretty cool way to celebrate a win from time to time. And taking care of aunt’s petunia pot should make the porch look lovelier by the day.
To each their own, I guess. Queen Victoria famously wore black for 40 years after the death of her husband, Prince Albert. She even had her servants lay out his clothes every day, even asking them for fresh hot water for shaving. This was done to maintain some form of presence to him around the palace.
These may come off as a little wacky, but hey so be it. When the most important people in our life go, they don't actually have to go, go. Our memories of them evolve constantly. Some details become more vivid than others. Sometimes, we even rediscover stuff, like forgotten scents, expressions, and textures. Most of the time, they catch us off guard with how much things have changed. Their stuff, meawnhile, takes on newer and newer layers of meaning that only we can add to.
Coincidentally, my aunt’s aquamarine signet ring comes from the beryl family of gemstones. Beryl is an anagram of my own name. I always thought that was nice (even if it's kind of a reach). Apart from the beauty of birthing these rituals and finding new interpretations, the “magical thinking” that comes from these things are a thing to behold, as well.
American writer Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after the year she lost her husband, journalist John Gregory Dunne. There’s a passage in the book that especially sticks with me after someone told me about it. While there were some stuff of his that Didion donated, there were just some things that she couldn't. It reads:
“I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return. The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought. I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.”
Magical thinking happens when we turn certain objects into something extraordinarily emancipatory. These things aren’t supposed to be bound by anything other than the limitless capacity for tenderness we have for the long gone. Magic isn’t supposed to make sense either, after all. In many ways, magical thinking can reveal so much about ourselves and the dead's places in our lives. It's something we practice and get better at over time.
Part of the reason why I keep my aunt’s ring is because, well, there might come a day that she and her old batchmates might have a reunion. She surely must need it by then, right? It's madness, I know, but it is mine. I also remember how much my aunt loved the color purple. Ube was a favorite of hers, too. So each time I put on my purple-tinted sunglasses, I take it as a fun, silly way of looking at the world through her eyes, considering that I'm an adult now. In this alternate ube reality, I see her and she sees me. It's pretty cool.
The act of recollection is a struggle, ritual, and confession of a bygone love that we will always carry. To forget is a disservice to the dead and an even greater disservice to ourselves. We cannot simply dismiss these complicated, lingering feelings. For those who we loved and went, they are only as alive as we want them to be.
I’m nevertheless fully aware that there should come a time when we let the dead be just that, dead. That's when we know that the time for mourning is up. We can’t keep everything, too, I know. But for the objects that we do—whether it be a piece of clothing, furniture, or something more peculiar than that, like an old ashtray or a rusty keychain—they can be just as fragile as any event or any word. And they're going to need the utmost care.
It is our duty to reshape mementos the best we can. These things shouldn't just conjure up old memories, they must unravel varieties of ourselves that come with new ones. Ultimately, holding on to these seemingly trivial pieces is how we know that our old loved ones were here, and that, no matter what, here is where they will always remain.