Storing Memories

by Elizabeth deGraw Renna

My spouse and I are moving to a new house. Unlike many people who move in order to gain more space, we will be downsizing. We’ll be gaining lawn service, snow removal, and wider, wheelchair accessible doorways, something we might need in 20 or 30 or 40 years. This will be our last house, the one we grow old in together.

We know that we’re losing a lot of storage space as a result of this movement to a new chapter in our lives. We have begun the process of sorting through the years-long accumulation of books, papers, and “stuff”.

Each day as I attack another corner of my space in our old house, I encounter memories from the past. Old work notes that I felt were important to save, from one and two jobs ago. Do I really still need them? No. So into the trash or recycling bin they went, along with both good and not so good memories.

I sorted through old letters the other day, most of which I didn’t take the time to re-read, not right now when time is of the essence to get our house cleaned and cleared. But I’ll be coming back to those letters, especially the ones I wrote to my family when I was in London for a college semester, which they saved for me. I also have the letters they wrote to me, my connection to home when I was so very far away. I also found a few letters from a caring mentor in college who continued to correspond with me after he finished his pastoral internship and left the campus. And most heart-warming of all, the funny and sweet notes that my spouse mailed to me during our dating days. All of those things I am keeping, with a determination to find a place to store them in my new, smaller, home and to read them when I have more time.

Letting things go has been an interesting experience. Some objects are easy to put in the giveaway pile. Other objects have stronger memories attached to them. Books from childhood that I have managed to save when my parents went through a downsizing move. The toy Fisher Price circus train, certainly an antique of sorts now. But do I keep it? What in the world would I do with it besides keep it in a bag (for dust protection) that I then tuck in a box and forget about until the next cleaning binge? I can’t see an 85 year old me getting down on the floor to “play train”!

So I decided to take my childhood train toy to my place of work, a wonderful school for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The group of two year olds, whose teachers I support and supervise, are intensely interested in transportation vehicles of all kinds – trucks, airplanes, trains. They sometimes hear train whistles in the distance when they play outside and pause to comment on them. The teachers readily took the train, composed of four cars that link together, with a long piece of string on the front of the engine so it can be pulled and a button on top that can be pushed to make a toy-sounding “choo choo” whistle sound. There’s a great resonance to that sound, not at all electronic sounding like modern-day toys.

My office sits right next to this classroom, with observation windows that parents occasionally use to peek in on their children. I can hear some of what goes on in the classroom, right through the windows. After giving my childhood train away the other morning, I was seated at my desk. “Choo choo…. choo choo!” I could hear the toy train’s whistle through the window. The sound, suddenly, was so familiar to me. In that moment, unspecific memories of playing with that train and blowing the whistle, or hearing a sister blow the whistle, moved into my awareness.

The memories were vague but positive and happy. Tears came to my eyes as a two year old next door continued to sound the train’s whistle, “Choo choo…. choo choo!” I had made a good decision. The train was already bringing pleasure to someone. I would store away my memories, especially of hearing the whistle through my office window, instead of storing the object itself.