My dad used to say that I was a collector of trash and that my mom was my enabler. Long before I was allowed to drink, I started keeping wine bottles that I found interesting: a merlot with a Beatles-themed label, a chianti with a bulbous bottom wrapped in straw. Eventually, I ran out of space on the shelves in my bedroom and so my mom learned the art of softening the glue between paper and glass, peeling back the label without shredding it to bits. These, we attached to parchment paper, not quite knowing what would become of them but sharing the certainty that they shouldn’t be discarded.
To this day, I come across rogue wine labels in my desk drawers or sandwiched between the pages of books and photo albums. To this day, I don’t know what I’ll do with them but still, I am certain that they shouldn’t be discarded.
- A. to bring together into one body or place
B. to gather or exact from a number of persons or sources
I don’t just collect things that are destined for the trashcan, although I do have stashes of ticket stubs, maps, and programs all over my apartment (and parents’ basement). A map of the San Antonio zoo. Ten flyers in three different colors for a Don Juan show hosted by my college radio station. A ticket to a Pirates game. A card my mom sent me when I was away at sixth grade camp in which she wished me well and apologized that our computer game crashed the week prior. I’m not sure if these things constitute a collection, exactly, assuming that a collection requires cohesion, a uniting factor that constitutes their grouping. That’s not to say that they don’t have something in common. They’re reminders of my experiences, kept for the sake of imaginative transportation to another time and place, for the sake of not forgetting. Thematically, I suppose you could group them under the umbrella of sentimentality.
My largest and continuously growing collection is comprised of postcards, in part because they tend to be the cheapest thing for sale in any gift shop, ranging from 25 cents to a few dollars. I also happen to believe that a postcard makes an ideal souvenir. Either the picture on the front or the inscription on the back indicates where it came from. It’s easy to store in a purse or suitcase. It’s easy to display, especially if you’re not afraid of marring it a bit with a thumbtack or two.
Is there a difference between a scrap of paper kept for the sake of sentimentality and a store-bought souvenir? A ticket stub, for example, could be considered a free reminder of where you’ve been and what you’ve done. You exchanged money in order to receive the ticket, but the ticket only symbolized that you paid for the price of admission. Now it serves, by way of sentimentality, to prompt feelings of “tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.” The term “souvenir” has taken on a very specific connotation that entails the selection and purchase of something manufactured for the purpose of remembrance, though etymologically it comes from the Latin “subvenire,” which roughly translates to “come to mind.”
The very birth of the picture postcard came from the push for consumers to buy their memories in the form of tangible objects. The so-called “golden age” of postcards began around 1890 and lasted until 1915, when humankind constructed technological and archaeological “wonders” with a new-found fervor. Tourists bought postcards to solidify their presence at the 1889 unveiling of the Eiffel Tower and delighted over the line of “Official Souvenir Postcards” at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Postcards were the perfect combination of commemoration and communication, providing enough space on the back to write messages to loved ones like, “Having a great time! Wish you were here!” while the front provided proof of an extraordinary vacation.
Rarely do I buy postcards with the intention of sending them. Even when that is the goal, it’s rarer still that they’re ever sent. Amongst my collection are a handful of postcards with notes on the back beginning, “Dear Grandma and Grandpa,” or, “Dear Tim,” a reminder not only of where I’ve been but of intentions I’ve failed to keep.
The same definition used to describe tangible, active collecting (the process of gathering or extracting objects that have something in common) can also describe passive collecting (the collecting of memories) or intangible active collecting (the collecting of information).
Think of the act of expanding our vocabulary as the act of collecting words. It starts early, the first word popping out of a baby’s mouth oftentimes before she has reached the age of one. The first words are usually the most immediately useful to her, helping her identify those around her and address her needs and desires. (The word “no” is typically a big one—at least it was for me.)
Words become phrases and, with practice, sentences. We grant a great deal of grammatical clemency in these early stages. The other day, I sat on speaker phone while the four-year-old who lives across the street from my parents explained to them the wounds beneath her many Band-Aids. She told them what she was doing at the time of each injury, how she received each injury through no fault of her own, and what the nature of each injury was. “And then I scraped my hand,” she said, “and it became bleeding.” Sort of a sophisticated grammatical error if you ask me.
We learn the word “love” and only later do we learn words like affection, infatuation, adoration, and companionship. We put meaning to the title “Mom” long before knowing words like nurturer, caregiver, and matriarch. We may eventually go to college only to discover that there are entire bodies of language that are possessed by, kept behind the gates of, specialists and experts. This may be referred to as jargon or, if you’re feeling particularly snobbish, you might call it esoteric, which is a word that basically means words that only some people understand. If you continue to advance your education, you may discover that possessing the ability to speak and write in layman’s terms is a highly valuable skill that many of your peers will fail to appreciate. You see, they may pride themselves on having collected the most words, and the most specific in meaning, but in this process, they will forget that the whole point of language is to express your ideas to others. To be, you could say, part of the human collective.
When you think about it, a single word is a collection in and of itself. In the world of semiotics, there is always a relationship between the signifier and the signified. Let’s stick to the common example of a tree. I say the word “tree” and you have an idea of what I mean—a big, perennial plant with a trunk and some branches and some leaves, depending on the time of year and state of the tree. My use of the word “tree” and your comprehension of it is the relationship between the signifier (the word) and the signified (the idea we share of what a tree is). In order to make this connection, we may have been shown a tree and told, “This is a tree.” We then had to accept that the tree was a different thing than the ground it grew from or the sky it grew towards, a different thing than the pebbles at its feet and the moss on its trunk. We also had to accept that not all trees would look exactly like this first tree, that without the clarity of knowing whether it is a birch of which our friend speaks or an oak, we cannot know exactly what they mean—and yet, we kind of do. And so, the word “tree” becomes a collection, not of every tree we’ve ever seen but of every idea we hold of what it means for a tree to be a tree.
The simple definition of “recollection” is “the action or faculty of remembering something,” though I like the possibility it creates to pose experience as the collection of happenings and memory as the act of re-collecting experience.
I’ve admitted already to being a purchaser of souvenirs, which, implications of tackiness aside, entails that I am a person who actively does not wish to forget things. I am a keeper of journals, as well, recording details of days that were exciting or amusing but perhaps not enough that I’ll remember them unprompted. For example, a recent entry includes the following notes on a walk I took around the neighborhood next to my own:
“I turned onto the new street I found, the name of which I can’t remember—right behind Shadyside Presbyterian church—and someone was practicing the bagpipe in their backyard. I couldn’t see them, but they weren’t bad—playing “Scotland the Brave” … Everyone sort of paused to look around. I was absolutely delighted. I think when we wander, we look for spaces and suggestions that allow us to step into another time, maybe a happier one or one we’re trying to work out in our heads. It was as if the bagpiper was answering my question for the day, which was and always is, ‘Am I in the right place at the right time and am I doing what I should in this moment?’”
In the moment, it was the right place because of the Celtic festivals I grew up going to, watching my kid brother enter fiddle competitions against adults and win, petting dogs the size of horses, listening to the procession of bagpipers off in the distance, making their way around the perimeter of the open field. Now, mere days later, this recollection has taken on a separate meaning, a moment of collectivity, of broken monotony, in a time when gathering, coming together to share an experience, is unavailable. It is the lack of intention, of awareness of the experience I was to partake in upon making the unconscious decision to turn left instead of continuing straight, that marks this moment as an experience worth collecting.
I’d like to speak briefly to my favorite form of recollection: olfactory memory, or the association our brains make between certain smells and a place or a feeling. It is my favorite because it never fails to take me by surprise, because it never fails to bring to the surface memories that lie dormant in the subconscious, because the associations are involuntary and so we don’t find them—they find us.
For example, I did not choose for the smell of fresh coffee to transport me back to the communal breakfast shared by churchgoers between Mass and CCD. I cannot pinpoint which floral scents will send my mind to the trails of Mt. Rainier and which will send me to the gardens my grandfather nurtured. I’m unsure of how my brain manages to differentiate between the elementary-school-library smell of lightly used books and the used-bookstore-in-Frederick, Maryland smell of older, mustier books. I just know to observe these powerful moments of recollection when they happen, to breathe deeply and feel my entire brain light up with the sense of community or of tranquility or of family or of imagination that these smells bring, because as quickly as they appear, they disappear. And that is okay. I know I’ll find them again.
Collecting is, without a doubt, a form of meaning-making. It is a way to hold on or to make connections, with our past selves or with others. It is a way to add a little bit of mystery or delight or intrigue to our everyday lives.
In the past few years, I’ve started collecting salt and pepper shakers. It was something I’d been meaning to do for a long time that came to fruition when my mom and aunt and I stopped at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This museum is the perfect combination of kitsch and pop culture history, a small warehouse filled with hundreds of thousands of salt and pepper shakers owned by one woman whose personal collection grew so large, it needed its own home and it needed to be shown to the world. In the gift shop, I bought my own set, a pink poodle and a black poodle caught in a magnetized kiss.
A year later, I was to find myself in Tennessee again, only this time with my fiancé, Sean, in the small town where my nearly lifelong best friend, Emily, and her husband, James, live. One evening, we paid a visit to a neighboring small town where Emily’s grandparents, Nanny and Papa, have lived for decades and where I spent countless summer weeks as a teenager. While Papa enquired about Sean’s yankee status in the living room, Emily and I stood in the kitchen eating boiled peanuts with Nanny. On the table sat a number of oddities, including two sets of salt and pepper shakers, one in the shape of dairy cows and one in the shape of buffaloes. Nanny is not one to part with her belongings, which is why it came as a great surprise to me that she said, in response to Emily’s comment that I collected such wares, that I could have them. How odd it was, in the most delightful sense, to return to a home nearly a decade after my last visit and to receive these unexpected keepsakes imparted with two distinct meanings: 1) the commemoration of a pilgrimage to one of the many places I consider home and 2) the growth of my collection.
Only in writing about it, in my attempt to demonstrate the affect of meaning imposed upon experience collecting can provide, did I realize that this gifting of bovine salt and pepper shakers occurred one year to the day after my purchase of the smooching poodles. If that isn’t proof that collecting, even in the most literal, most kitschy sense of the word, isn’t a process of meaning-making and of enrichment, I don’t know what is.
5. to get and bring with one
This particular definition of the word is the one I find to be the most all-encompassing. You may buy a souvenir or receive a gift that you pack into your suitcase and bring home with you. You might put it on a shelf or in a china cabinet or hang it on the wall and there, at least for a while, it stays. The memory of the purchase or exchange, like every other memory you’ve chosen to collect, you will bring with you wherever you go. And this, this sort of provenance of experience and meaning and emotional attachment, is what collecting is all about.