24 September 2023

Avez-vous des souvenirs?

Got souvenirs?

This topic has been bugging me for some time. As you may know, I went on a road trip at the beginning of the summer with the intention to visit some places I had visited long ago and some places I had yet to visit but had always wanted to see. I never planned to take lots of pictures and create an amazing travelogue, something to equal tourism pamphlets. It was a personal trip. I only started taking pictures to send them home to prove I was where I was at each major stop, such as the Badlands of South Dakota, Devil's Tower in Wyoming, and Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.
I also did not plan to gather souvenirs. Yet I did. I should've known better, given my recent battle with souvenirs. But what do we mean by 'souvenir'? From French, the word means 'to remember'; hence, a thing that helps you remember a person, place, or event. A memento. Fair enough. But we have photos on our phones (if not in our cameras), and we have memories stuck in our heads. We have music which holds memories, too. So why the need for tactile objects ("objects-de-tactile") to place in our homes and look at occasionally, perhaps pick up and rub in our hands to briefly restore that ephemeral vision of a lost time and place?

It began with my grandparents who traveled around the world from the early days of commercial aviation to well into their retirement. They collected souvenirs from everywhere they visited - long before the shift to limiting how much you could bring onto an airplane. They stuffed souvenirs into every nook and cranny of their home. They gave many souvenirs to my mother (their daughter) and some to me. I was fascinated by all the things from far-away lands. That probably was what got me interested in traveling like them.

My mother tried to follow the family pattern by going on her own trips to places around the world. And she collected souvenirs - some of which I thought worthless. She put them around her home. She bought a curio cabinet just to display some of them. Looking back, I might suggest she was trying to keep up with her parents. The difference was that her parents brought back things which were unique, items you could only get if you went to those far-away places. By the time my mother did her international traveling, those same items could be found in stores in any suburban mall and weren't so unique.

When it was my turn - I actually lived overseas for some years - I tried to be more selective. For example, I brought back boxes of dishes and other typical kitchen items from Japan, intending to replicate a Japanese-style kitchen back home in the US. I bought plenty of other things, too, focusing on what would remind me of this or that adventure in the place. And, once home, how did I display them? With limited space and an apartment rather than a house, I couldn't hang them up or put out everything to remind me of the trips I'd taken. Move after move required me to put them into boxes anyway; gradually, I stopped unpacking those boxes.

And that brings us to the Hurricane that swept through the Texas coast and destroyed my parents' retirement condo just off the beach. I spent a lot of time salvaging the souvenirs from that place. Who cares about clothing on hangers or dishes and cups? What about the sacks of bank records, or every kind of receipt imaginable? No, it was that curio cabinet's wares that I took. Also, my mother's coin collection she thought would be valuable one day (her father had collected rare coins, too, but her brother inherited that). I carefully packed the souvenirs into boxes - only the souvenirs I personally thought were "cool".

The boxes of my parents souvenirs remain unpacked. No room for them. So I'm passing them down to the next generation. I've traveled a bit and will pass along those things, too. But a t-shirt reminds me where I was and I can wear it now. A magnet stuck to the fridge reminds me where I got it. (A magnet given to me has no power; only those I buy for myself while I'm at the place work.) A book, even if unrelated to the location where I bought it, jogs my memory about where I bought it. For example, at the visitor center in the Badlands National Park, I happened to see a book I'd been searching for off and on and bought it finally. I can wear my Montana State University t-shirt and remember that perfectly fine day in early June when I walked the campus, devoid of students, and enjoyed myself.

The point I dare make is that we don't need souvenirs. Sure, they bring a thrill in the moment, and perhaps a few moments later on. But we already have those memories; we can just bring them up to the surface. Maybe seeing a thing can help, maybe it doesn't matter. What does matter is that souvenirs pile up, get boxed up, get passed along, and unless destroyed by a hurricane, tend to last forever - and that's a mighty-long time. Even so, I still bought another t-shirt and mug on my latest trip back to that condo on the beach - sold and repurposed as a rental unit - just to have some closure to the place where my parents last lived.

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  1. I too have difficulties with souvenirs because they do represent memories. Our recent move pared down the pile to a tasteful minimum. But I have saved the postcards a certain friend sent from overseas, as they are flat and store well!

    1. I understand what you're going through. Now I'm thinking of what I have in terms of what to pass on vs get rid of. Sometimes the choice is difficult.