Mementos: How important is the physical object?

In preparation for moving to a new apartment next month, I’ve been going through some stuff I’ve just had packed up in boxes, stuck in closets. Much of it consists of little mementos from years past. I’ve been thinking, for the sake of saving space, and of preserving memories, of just putting some of these things on the scanner, getting them all on to CD-ROMs, and throwing some stuff out. It would certainly be a space saver.

But thinking about ditching the things sort of bugs me. I know that our senses – touch, smell, sight – can be very powerful evokers of memory, and I don’t know if I’d get that same experience from a scanned image.

As an example, here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about: Back in 1978 (ugh), when I was in the fourth grade and we were stationed in Europe, I won a series of spelling bees which entitled me and my family to travel to Aviano AFB in Aviano, Italy for me to compete the All-Europe DoD Schools spelling bee. I have, from that competition, the little numbered sign each of us contestants had to wear, with signatures from all the other kids I befriended that week. (I didn’t win, BTW; I came in third, misspelling the word “efface.”) I also have the little “suggested vocabulary” book they gave each of us to use as a study guide. (In which one of the words my father had circled as a “problem word” was “efface.”)

I like the thought of scanning them in and having permanent copies of these things. But is “space saving” a good enough reason to get rid of the objects themselves? Is the scanned image “good enough”? Or would I really regret getting rid of them? What would some of you do? I literally have 4 or 5 big Rubbermaid containers full of stuff like this. Opinions? How important are the physical objects?

I think it depends. I’m a big “stuff” person - I’ve got all sorts of stuff just tucked away from all sorts of things. At the same time, I’ve gone through most of it now and then and sorted a bit - Yeah, it’s kinda neat, but I don’t really have any deep emotional attachment to the papier mache globe I made in 4th grade, so I don’t have it any more. On the other hand, I have the little wooden christmas tree I painted at summer camp because it does bring back memories.

I don’t think I’d be able to deal with just having the scanned images. It just wouldn’t…I don’t know, feel the same. It also kind of looses something…you’d probably go and save things in an organized way, and that wouldn’t [for me, anyway] be nearly as much fun as digging through a box and discovering stuff you forgot about.

So I guess I’d sort through my 5 rubbermaid boxes of stuff, and make sure that I was keeping stuff I actually cared about. But then I’d actually keep the stuff. Maybe you’d want 3 piles instead - stuff where you want to keep the actual object, stuff that eh, you don’t want to completely obliterate, but aren’t as attached to and could scan, and stuff that just isn’t that important anymore to get rid of.

So much of the power in mementos is deeper than the sight of the object. For me, the texture and smell of an item are more powerful than its sight. When I touch a clay impression my mom and I made of my hand when I was 6, I can remember so much more about the process of making it-- the feel of the clay, how I worried about positioning my hand on it just right, the coldness of the clay and how it oozed through my fingers… I can make out the raised trails of my hand lines, even though it’s been 19 years and my hand lines were faint then. I remember how my mom used a pointy toothpick to poke in the date in the clay. Things like this I couldn’t sense or recall as sharply if I had a photograph of the impression.

I say you keep it. Years from now, it may take on greater significance to you. If you have kids or plan on having them, it’d be neat to share those things with them. If space in your new home’s a consideration, you can weed out the most precious of the items, and keep those. Perhaps your parents could hold on to the rest? They might get a kick out of seeing your old stuff.

Collectors by definition must believe in the power of stuff to evoke/regain memories. I collect books, and I definitely get a “hit” off the first edition, remembering both the content of the book and how it affected me at that time in my life, and the thrill of the chase as I tried to acquire that book for my collection.

If you understand - or don’t understand, per se, but are affected in a similar way - then you should acknowledge the importance of the physical object and hold onto it. I know many folks who are, and plenty who just don’t get it. YMMV.

It all depends on the person and where they are in life. There was a time when I kept the notes my friends and I sent back and forth in class because I was into those friendships and the current gossip. I got rid of them a long time ago, in contrast to a friend who has kept correspondence and mementos for many many years. She is appalled at the things I have thrown out.

I wil respect her and other people who find these things important, and keep items from them that I know they would be offended if I tossed.

When was the last time you took these things out and enjoyed looking at them? If they basically will stay in the container indefintely, re-evaulate how important they are.

I am distinctly not a packrat, so YMMV.

As a counterpoint, Phil, one of the more liberating experiences of my life was when my house burned and I lost all pre-fire mementos. I have, of course, acquired other things since then, but I’m given to having a good toss every couple of years.

Again, YMMV.