Smack In The Middle: In Life And In Death, What Is It About The Things We Keep?
A few weeks ago, I wrote a Facebook status update about a conversation I had with my daughter, Makayla. She’s pretty quick-witted and astute for a 5-year-old. This is my post:
A few months before he passed away, my father brought over a container of instant coffee so he would always have something to drink when he came over. I’ve never been able to bring myself to throw it away, so it’s still in my freezer. Makayla knows why I have it, but this is our conversation today: M: Why do you still have that coffee? Me: Well, it was my dad’s and I like to keep it to remember him. M: You don’t need to keep it anymore. Me: I don’t? Why? M: Because you’ll never forget your father. Me: That’s true, Makayla. I won’t forget him. M: Right. Why would you? I don’t know where this girl came from! (I’m still keeping the coffee, though.)
From the mouths of babes, right? I shared this conversation because Makayla is full of observations about life, but I’m not sure where she picked them up. I felt that people probably would enjoy the story. But what happened next surprised me. This status update got 76 “likes.” While the number of “likes” a status update receives doesn’t necessarily signify anything, I had never received so many—not even when I announced big life events.
Then, people chimed in to talk about things they had from loved ones who had passed away. The things people kept are interesting: hygiene products, makeup, clothing, jewelry. And what’s even more interesting is that some of these loved ones have been gone a long time. My aunt said that she had a jar of pear preserves that my grandmother canned. I’m not sure how old that jar of preserves is, but my grandma died 20 years ago this month.
The conversations got me thinking about why I keep a jar of instant coffee. I remember having the thought that I would drink the coffee not too long after my father’s passing. Something about doing that didn’t feel right, so I stuck it back in the freezer with the intention of getting rid of it later.
Later never came.
I have other things that belonged to my dad that are more meaningful and useful. I can’t throw the coffee away because getting rid of it would be getting rid of him. (I know this is not a reasonable thought, but I stand by it and I revel in it). He is the reason I’m a coffee drinker.
When I was just out of college and living with my parents, we would sometimes enjoy a cup and share the newspaper. Whenever we drove anywhere together, he always wanted to stop at McDonald’s for a large coffee with two creams and five sugars. Drinking coffee was a social activity for the two of us and those are the times I was sitting at his knee learning some of the most painful and joyous life lessons. It’s not a stretch to say most of my best conversations with my dad happened over a cuppa joe. I drink coffee by myself 95% of the time and when I do I often find myself reflecting on our coffee conversations. I use that time to think about my dad and what he would say or do in any given situation. And sometimes I imagine that he’s right there with me.
So, no, I don’t think I will ever throw the coffee away. Seeing it is a reminder of all the good times we had and it’s the one thing that facilitated so much of our bonding. It’s something he touched and left at my house for the specific purpose of visiting me and having more conversation. I can’t possibly throw it away. That task will fall either to my husband if I precede him in death or my children if I don’t.
Keeping a loved one’s things reminds us that our loved ones existed, that they had full and wonderful lives, that they did meaningful things, that their influence is far more powerful than the distance of death. We can’t keep everything, but what we do keep is often loaded with sentiment and emotion and has a story behind it. Makayla is right—I wouldn’t ever forget my dad without the coffee. My memories are in my heart, right where they belong. But her words are a reminder that we are not our things. Memories of our loved ones won’t be found in freezers or drawers or storage lockers. The things we keep are just that—things. I’m still keeping the coffee, though.
What about you? I’m interested in hearing about what you keep from loved ones and why. Join the conversation below.