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.

A Big Question You’d Like to Ask Your Therapist: “What is Your Story?”


The ultimate question is always: “What is your story, doc? Not just hints about your life or anecdotes that are instructive or amusing, but a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. What is the truth, if there ever is such a thing, about how you came to be the person you are?”

To start, I didn’t learn anything in my first 20 years. OK, I did learn some things, but many of those needed unlearning over the coming decades.

I listened to stories and — much later — became a good story-teller, to which my children will attest. I had to get over the awful stories I imbibed in order to tell my own. Mom’s stories were tragic, a snapshot of her childhood unhappiness as Jeanette Fabian: the misery of her starvation due to poverty, tuberculosis due to starvation, and the Great Depression driving it all. From these I learned fear of what might (and would, in her estimation) go wrong. Much time passed before I recognized many things were already going right for me; and I could improve still more if I took hold of the chances before me and deafened myself to the footsteps of disaster at my back.

My father, Milt Stein, told funny tales he made up out of nothing. Dad and I were co-hosts in an imaginary radio program of his invention when I was tiny. The “broadcast” was called the Jedna Chennai Peanut Show, named after two Polish language newspapers he sold on Chicago streets as an 11-year-old; and, I imagine, I was the “peanut,” an edible he loved to the end of his days. Real peanuts and me, I mean.

The major stories of dad’s life had to do with acts of self-assertion, something he didn’t always do, but made a difference when he did. The tales were told and retold. For example, he took a course in wood shop in high school, requiring him to make things with saws, planes, and other tools. He was poor at this, but did manage to build a shield, one of the items the instructor said was enough to pass the course.

Somehow he failed. Undeterred, Milt reminded the teacher of his statement about the requirements to get a passing mark. The instructor grudgingly changed dad’s grade to that of a “conditional” pass: if he completed the next course in the sequence with an acceptable mark, dad would be awarded the lowest possible “pass” in the one just finished, thanks to his barely adequate shield. It didn’t occur to me then, but there was a message within the oft-told anecdote: to stand up for yourself and keep plugging. In other words, not mom’s prediction of impending disaster: in effect, that a brick will inevitably fall on your head if you walk beside tall buildings.

My mother was trying to protect me from repeating the trauma of her own life, but succeeded only in terrifying me. How difficult for a parent to grasp the world has changed — the world of their child is not the world of their childhood. I spent 20 years and parts of several more living in the shadow of Jeanette Fabian’s catastrophic youth. Sometime later the sunlight conveyed indirectly by my father broke through the threatening clouds called “your future.” Dad’s “shield,” quite real in my imagination, might be used to push through the everyday battles of life. I needed only to decode his obscure message: the advice to stand up and keep plugging; the advice I don’t think he realized he conveyed, but awaited my discovery nonetheless.

LESSON: You are going to grow up with stories; the things said and those unsaid, like pieces of a puzzle; the anecdotes of your parents and perhaps your grandparents, and some composite version of all the tales you hear as they collide with each other and form a “family” story. You will also fashion a tale from the lived experience of your own existence. NONE OF THESE STORIES IS TRUE! They represent, instead, one of many possible ways to make sense of life in general and the specifics of our time on the planet, in particular. DON’T BELIEVE ANY OF THEM. DON’T IDENTIFY TOO CLOSELY WITH ANY OF THEM. Your relatives’ stories are not yours. You can’t relive them, even if that were a good idea.

As far as your narrative is concerned, you are in the middle of it now. Your story is malleable, like bronze in the hands of a metal sculptor. The creation is a work of imagination and slant, giving you lots of room to experiment — to change its shape. The architecture isn’t frozen until you live it. Indeed, not even then, as you reinterpret the events. You can be the guy who didn’t pass his wood shop course cleanly or the one who persuaded the teacher to do the right thing.

Change your story and you will change your life, your life satisfaction, and the lives of those around you. Think you will crash and burn, and you cut the chances of prosperity. Believe you are as good as your press releases, a self-made person who never benefited from any luck or help from others, and you will be full of hot air and look down on those around you. Every one of us must change our story as we walk through time — refining, redefining, recreating; and making the best of what we have learned from others, all we’ve experienced, heaps of our successes, and a dash of suffering.

What’s your story? You never know whose tiny ears are listening.

The top image is the April-May, 1939 issue of Marvel Science Stories. The artist was Norman Saunders, restoration by Adam Cuerdan. The cover is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.