The Therapeutic Value of Remembering “Things”

 

I sometimes wonder what things — stored or discarded objects — might offer clues about who we are and how we got this way? Some carry secrets we’ve forgotten and epiphanies yet to be disclosed.

I was watching my oldest grandson color a month or so back. It’s been a long time since I colored with my kids themselves. The scent, and sight, and size of his Crayola box brought to mind an age six experience of my own.

The teacher must have asked my classmates and me to bring home a supply list on the new academic year’s first day, the Tuesday after Labor Day. I doubt the paper said more than the words “one box of Crayolas.”

My mom probably didn’t give it much thought, other than to fulfill the requirements and not pay more than necessary. The ghosts of her own haunted youth doubtless accompanied her to the store.

Each student took his bag of necessaries to our classroom at Jamieson School and unloaded them when told to. But this simple job was to be something beyond routine.

Once we lifted the tops, my eight-crayon cohort shrunk like small buildings encircled by the many multi-colored, peaked towers bursting upwards from the desks surrounding me. I sensed everyone else lugged the largest case to school — forty-eight crayons worth.

That was the first day I encountered a personal sense of “less than.” Not the box, but I felt “less than” the other kids.

Please understand, no comments or comparisons issued from the mouths of others, nor any judgmental glances. My brain interpreted the sign-language communicated by all the well-supplied boxes.

Such coloring tools carry a powerful aroma. You might ask yourself about scents that continue to remind you of childhood, as well. Alfalfa and cedar come to mind.

The cedar infusion of air came from a wooden toy chest. I can’t attach alfalfa to anything precise. Perhaps the plants grew in one of the many empty lots around our home, places long since filled in by brick and mortar construction. Both smells bring pleasure even now.

I played in those unbuilt spaces: baseball, softball, marbles, hiding, racing, and digging in the dirt for ancient coins or arrowheads. Layers of clay were common as one probed.

If you wish to know more about your roots, poke among the items yet surviving in family vaults and attics. Find old photos and inspect the background articles: the furniture, wall decorations, gadgets, and more. Perhaps their unending patience awaits your notice.

My grandmother also left me with a “thing” whenever she kissed me on the cheek. Each show of affection ended quickly, but her lips’ outsized wetness lingered until I located a towel. I liked her but didn’t enjoy being submerged in the middle of the living room.

What other recollections might return with these? Memories tend to bump into each other, a bit like a line of dominoes when the first is tipped over.

By the time I finished eighth grade in 1960, I observed something else. In my neighborhood, a number of the parents kept a complete, multi-volume encyclopedia at home. I saw those owned by friends, some new and expensive, others not quite so recent.

Ours came from the late 1930s and looked like it had been through an economic depression and conflict, though its arrival in the stores was a bit ahead of World War II. I suspect the set got purchased second-hand a while after my birth.

The volumes were well-worn. Their hard use conveyed the sense of hard times. I only realized this within the last month.

The yellowing pages carried the mindset of my home. From a psychological standpoint, my parents and, therefore, my brothers and I lived in the shadow of a vanished time.

For all the humor the family shared, we inhabited a psychology sprung from a period when bad things happened. My folks’ lived-history stoked fear of their recurrence.

Other objects in the home revealed the same mentality, as did my folks’ conversations. Indeed, if Fate deposited our shelves with a brand new, high-end collection of similar books, the volumes probably would have stuck around for no more than a few weeks. Then, realizing they didn’t fit, the entire 26, from A through Z, could only have grown legs and fled while we slept.

They didn’t belong.

I already knew the truth such things represented but never recognized these hardcovers contributed to the atmosphere.

Yet, we soon got a new set. Jewel, a nearby grocery, advertised a 99 cent special. The letter A began the weekly march through the alphabet and closer to a complete edition. I heard about the ad on TV, and my folks obliged my desire.

Thereby, perhaps, the family took a small step into to more benign present. To the good, the books never departed.

I’d not recommend looking back to everyone, but therapists would be remiss in doing otherwise. History and the processing of its legacy are a part of our work. Not to learn about the past’s impact on your own life, including new insights into the present, recommends finding a different career.

Distant recollections come to me on their own, though not with regularity or unwanted frequency. I’m comfortable with them, and, as the encyclopedia memory tells me, they occur at odd angles, provide new perspectives, and sometimes enlighten me. As time has passed, these recollections also carry more sweetness and humor than ever; enlarged gratitude, too.

As we move along in life, we occupy the successive ages our parents reached before us. Understanding anyone older only accomplishes partial knowledge, whether one is a counselor or not. As I gain more of the age my father and mother achieved, I sometimes learn more about them — and myself.

My parents, gone now for 20 years, still teach me.

———–

The first photo is of my parents before my dad was shipped overseas during WWII. The last image is of the young author.

8 thoughts on “The Therapeutic Value of Remembering “Things”

  1. You weren’t the only one with eight crayons and an antique encyclopedia. A not insignificant benefit of getting old, as you point out, is the reworking of memory into new understanding. Thanks

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    • Doubtless true, Harvey. At the 40th year reunion of our Mather class I found out a good deal about the shadows, ghosts, and darkness we never talked about when we were kids. Thanks for the reminder of how much many of us shared without knowing it at the time.

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  2. It’s amazing the way a current event can bring back childhood memories long forgotten. Growing up poor has shaped my vision of the world and, though my material life has improved over the years, my connection with the experience and plight of the working poor among us. Like your folks, I remember well the “period when bad things happened” and awareness that they could happen again.

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    • Indeed, Rosaliene. The past can have a long reach. As Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To the good, many are able to grieve, accept, make friends with it, and triumph. As always, your observations are much appreciated.

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  3. “Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” Aeschylus

    Not sure I agree. A lot of memories are bittersweet and only bring pain and questions without wisdom, whether they are of good times or bad. However, you seem to be echoing Aeschylus in your essay. I will have to trust in your experience when you say they’re “therapeutic”.

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  4. For those who find they cannot come to terms with their memories, they can be forever haunted by them. PTSD would be the most distressing kind of example. We all carry baggage from the past, as well as at least a few good memories. Therapists deal with this every day in the troubled legacies their patients bring into the consulting room.

    Unfortunately, we do not succeed in helping everyone. This includes those who persist in resisting a therapist’s reasoning for looking back. In the best of circumstances, a counselor can help the patient process memories that have brought only “pain and questions without wisdom,” as you eloquently and concisely describe a real therapeutic problem.

    For me, the question I always ask myself and sometimes others, is, “what else?” By this I mean, if you are thus far in life still troubled by recollections and do not wish to consider further investigation of them, what else might be holding you back? And, are you willing to pursue another path of your making or of a therapist’s invention.

    In my view, one must find a road to take if the place we are in is unsatisfactory. The alternative is to remain just as we are. Only those who find life presently satisfying are advised to do so.

    As always, thank you for your thoughtful contributions. Be well, Brewdun.

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  5. I also had the eight crayon box, while my friends had the jumbo boxes with more crayons than I could ever imagine. I was jealous. It was just another reminder that I was poor and “lesser than..”

    I agree the past has to be delved into in order to heal painful memories. Having a trusted therapist to guide the patient is a must, and my trusted young therapist is almost paternal in not hurting me in the process, which I get a kick out of because someone so much younger than me represents a parental figure. Much better than the alternative. 😉

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