The sun is setting in France, sherbet melting down the trees. You tell me about this, describing Rouen, the fresh scallops you sautéed for dinner, all of the little dogs you’ve seen waiting patiently for their owners outside of cafés. And I place you, face down, on my bed. Photograph by photograph, pulled from the walls of my bedroom to the cadence of your voice. I do not tell you that I am doing this, as you describe the sunset. I listen more closely to the students passing you in the hallway at your payphone post. In my life you have faded to a slow background hum and I realize that I have finally fallen out of love. That I am safe now. I can begin to divest myself, article by article, of our relationship.

Objects are defined by the stories of the people who have given them meaning. Meaning that can change as people change, the gifts they gave you or the things they simply left behind taking on new significance over time.

I come from a family of collectors. My maternal grandparents were in the antiques business for years and their house is filled with collections. Cast iron doorstops line the stairs to their third floor library in the shape of everything from sailboats to reindeer. Shelves of duck decoys and a wall of fishing lures (hand-painted and hand-carved) decorate my Grandpa Amthor’s hunting room. He can tell you where he picked up each of the intricate samurai swords he stows in a closet and only brings out on great occasion. He can tell you where he found arrowheads and rare coins as a boy combing through junkyards in Flint. Or about the man who sold him a Confederate Civil War brass belt buckle at a garage sale 20 years ago. His library is filled with weighty tomes on Incan history and old issues of National Geographic. Every time I visit he has something new to show me. Another story, another history—his or someone else’s, sometimes grandiose, sometimes autobiographical.

As a red-headed toddler with a lisp, I angrily threatened to break all of my mother’s Majolica plates and cut down all of her flowers. Incredulous and amused that I was able to identify her attachment to these things, she still made me eat my broccoli. I grew up healthy and materialistically unsentimental. Or so I thought.

When a person has left your life, they leave behind a space occupied by traces of them. A hickey or a T-shirt. An inscription in a birthday card, a recipe, a bracelet you received for Christmas. These visual cues are not always welcome. They often do not wash off like lipstick bruises. Souvenirs of people you have explored are not always looked upon as fondly as I Love NY memorabilia or shot glasses bearing city names. There are people who have not walked away, but whom you have chosen to remove. Methodically, I have found that the process of removal continues as I purge them from my personal space. In this way, I suppose I edit my own history. Or at least its presence in my present.

Wearing jewelry from an ex has always felt like reasserting that person’s expired claim on me by decorating myself with a token of a now-stale affection. The terms of parting are irrelevant and the piece becomes an artifact. Perhaps stowed in a drawer where it can be called upon to conjure memories at my convenience. Out of sight and yet valued like a private treasure. Too personal to be on display or shared.

There are things that hold meaning to me separate from the intentions of their source. An amber ring that reminds me more of someone’s faith in my ability to make it through a difficult time than it reminds me of him. A silver locket brought back to me from Louisiana one summer, on a chain clasped by a safety pin. It was given to me by a boy I dated briefly in high school, who broke up with me for wearing hot pink pedal pushers to his death metal band’s first show. He was the first person I ever talked to openly about grieving the loss of my cousin—my childhood best friend. The locket reminds me of her, not him. Years later, I still wear it regularly. Always guarded with my feelings, it still makes me grateful that he showed me it was all right to be human, to know loss and to grieve.

There are many things that have simply found their way to the trash or the Goodwill. Right now there is a pile of old concert T-shirts stuffed between a stack of jeans and a stack of dress pants, aggravating me every time I open my armoire. They belong to a doctor from Royal Oak that I may or may not see again. Still saturated with his cologne, still bearing the shape of his broad shoulders. Calling to mind the beer belly I was always tempted to poke, curious if it would jiggle while we lay naked in bed, fascinated to have discovered its existence. When I broke up with him, I asked if he wanted me to mail his belongings back, but was amicable to the suggestion of meeting up for lunch and returning them in person. Here they sit. Intruding on my space. Imposing him amidst my wardrobe. Do I wait until he is in town again? Do I take them out with this week’s garbage? I will never feel that their ownership has transferred to me. I reject them, as I rejected him. I want to close off this little path back into my life.

These misplaced items so often become territorial battles. Physical proof of the navigational limbo necessary for transitioning to life without someone. Boundary issues. I once had a friend call me in a state of panic from Alaska because she had just broken up with a guy who was back in Michigan. And then she realized that he still had her laptop. She hysterically requested that I make a two-hour drive to recover it for her. Another friend endured months of passive-aggressive emails with an ex that held her things hostage, demanding some sort of emotional reparations. All sorts of hurt and the resulting irrationality taking form in inane objects, being levered in an attempt at closure. A scramble toward it or a resistance to it.

I went through a phase where every time I made an ill-advised sexual decision, I lost an earring. Just one. A pearl in the back of a car. A chandelier on a pillow. I held onto half of a favorite pair for months before finally resigning myself to its place in the garbage. Then I attended a party at his house and he produced the missing gem with a theatrical and very deliberate flourish. Until that moment, I had forgotten all about both the earrings and the sex. And I felt appropriately ridiculous, as if I’d truly scattered myself about town in pieces.

We know that is both illogical and unrealistic to transfer our emotions to objects, to allow people and memories to inhabit them. Yet doing just this is ingrained in us in by the very idea of home. In most cultures, people decorate their surroundings and value their private shelters, asserting ownership over the contents. Home is the haven where you ideally get to choose your visitors. Where you get to assert your taste and your preferences. Where you can lock the door. Where you can display the things that you have collected. Cleaning house can mean sweeping out the unwanted, decluttering the personal space that resides within us more than simply around us. Lingering remnants of relationships (or relations) past can be like a haunting.

There is little to be done with the quiet whispering of names uttered just once muscled through your veins from the silent vault of your heart. I believe that you carry people with you, in fragments that comprise a part of you. Lessons you learned, moments you cherished. Like a person who drinks too much whiskey and later reels at the smell of it, there will be things you would rather expel. It is as natural to get rid of pants that you have outgrown as it is to break the hold of memories you have outgrown, and to assert your ability to do so. To expedite the process. The pieces that you need will stay with you, intangibly.

2 Responses to “Souvenirs”
  1. Chris Carpenter says:

    So this is where you’ve gone instead of your other blog. I might have known.

    I heard once that men don’t tend to collect photographs of their friends and former lovers the way women do. Instead, men tend to collect things for their memories. T-shirts, gifts, and other ephemeral are what men hang on to instead of photos. From where I’m sitting in my living room I can see the tumbler that came with the first bottle of Scotch I ever bought on my 21st birthday, the vertebrae I found in the prairie around Laramie, WY when I was there for a debate camp with my friend Josh, and the sleeping domo kun toy my friend Pam gave me. If you are of a similar turn of mind, does this habit add more fuel the already well stoked fire that you are “mannish” in your outlook?

    I also recently read that people with more bumper stickers on their cars experience more road rage. The suggestion was that the more bumper stickers you have, the more you’re “marking your territory” and thus the angrier you get when it is threatened or violated. I see it as a sign of progress for humanity because bumper stickers smell a lot better than piss.

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  1. […] decoys, lost laptops, and a necklace to grieve with: Teal Amthor Shaffer’s post “Souvenirs” is a bittersweet exploration of the emotional power we invest in […]

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