Sunday, August 20, 2006

Things and memories and memories and things

I've been moving to a new office lately, in the process (almost literally) unearthing various pictures, notes, papers that students never came to pick up (ahem!), cards given or sent to me on Teacher's Day or Christmas. I even found one huge card that students gave me on my birthday 11 years ago. (I'm not sure how they knew when my birthday was--it's not like department stores hold sales on that day or anything.)

I don't seem to be willing to throw anything away, for fear of forgetting people or forgetting the feelings associated with those things. I remember when I moved to the US I had to throw away a pair of shoes that one of my FENM classes gave me for Christmas in 1993 (that had to be about the oddest gift I've ever received from students). They bought the shoes after asking me about my shoe size (I figured they were just curious, since I have big "foreigner feet"). Unfortunately, the shoes didn't fit very well and were uncomfortable to wear, so I didn't get much use out of them. I kept them for almost 6 years, though, as if I expected to be able to wear them some day, or as if I were afraid some day I'd run into one of those students and they'd ask about the shoes. Or that by throwing something away, I'd be throwing someone away. (The shoes thing proves it--I don't remember any of those students' names.)

I seem to have inherited this from my parents--my mother, at least. She has boxes and boxes of letters, Christmas cards, birthday cards, etc. that she has saved over the years. Now that my parents are at an age where they're thinking about what they'll leave behind to my brother and me, my mother mentioned that she was thinking of throwing away all those letters. My brother's and my responses (not surprisingly) were "Don't!" So one of these days (if the world doesn't end first) I'll have even more things and memories on my hands.

My research also relies on memories, and things, and memories of things. Using archival documents and interviewing people about events that happened to them 30, 40, 50 years ago involve a lot of work with memories. I'm constantly presenting to someone something they wrote long ago, hoping to get a glimpse of what they remember about how and why they wrote it. I always get answers that are helpful, even when the person says, "I wrote that?!"

But working with those people and materials (whether they're archival documents or the letters my mother has kept) also gives me a sad feeling sometimes--kind of an awareness of mortality and of how lives can go in completely different directions from what people expected when they were younger and perhaps more idealistic. To quote one of my interviewees, "The worst part about time isn't growing old, it's the increasing distance from experiences and emotions that have been so important in shaping one's life. The power and intensity fade, and you're left with so little you can put your finger on." Maybe that's another reason I keep all those old things from my own past. They connect me with that other me.

5 comments:

susansinclair said...

I have a large manila envelope filled with letters from my friend Bill, most of them from our freshman year of college, which he spent at a rival institution. At first, I joked that I would publish them when he became a famous writer. Since neither of us seems to be in a big rush to get famous, now I'm thinking that they and my journal from that year would make an interesting basis for a memoir...

Jonathan Benda said...

Yeah--you should seriously consider it. Sometimes I think about using all the letters my mother has saved to write a personal history of our family...

In moving stuff to my new office just now, I just came across some journals from almost 10 years ago. In between wedding preparations, I'm planning freshman English classes and complaining about a paper I'm trying to write and a class I'm planning to teach... stuff I barely remember these days.

heather s. said...

I am a total packrat -- I have letters that my "first love" sent me. Can't stand the bastard now, but it's really fascinating to read the little notes that he wrote in response to my notes (notes in which we debated the merits of Creedance versus Pink Floyd and so on). Hi-larious.

Jonathan Benda said...

Last summer I threw away a bunch of class notes from college that included a lot of notes between me and a woman I liked. I think half the time we were making sarcastic little comments about other people. (Not surprising...)

Mabel Liao said...

Currently I'm busy categorizing my previous letters. Actually I feel some "sad and happy memories" coming back. Those letters also include stories that may influence me a lot, so I keep reading them from time to time. One is from a third-grader who wrote some touching phrases that I feel so heartfelt to have been her teacher for one year.
Whenever I read those letters, they reminded me of what I have done and who I have met in the past.
What a great treasure to have all these memories to keep forever!
Once losing it, it'll never come back again.