Commentary by Adam McIsaac on objects and memory

14.September 2008


How long do objects hold memory? And at what point does honest sentiment become sentimentality?

I spent the weeks following my father’s death cleaning out my attic. I mean this in the literal sense: I deal with loss using a method that is derived in equal parts from both of my parents: like my mother, I brood when no one else is around. When I am with others, I detach, compartmentalize and push on through, like my father. But though I was alone during this time – my wife and daughter were in New York attending to one of my wife’s projects – the cleansing of the attic was an exercise of the second sort: a physical activity meant to shove feeling aside, where it can safely be forgotten.

This is the logic of the hoarder: like many in my line of work, I hoard. If you work in design, you probably believe, as I do, that no scrap is without potential. Old drawings, books bought for one-time research, pictures that may have seen service in some job and others that survived because of some undefinable interest. Old toys. Samples of work. I have financial records reaching back to my undergraduate days, kept not because of any legal need, but because I can pull out, say, a cancelled check from 1987 and figure out what I was doing and with whom by reading the date and payee. Letters from my first love I burned, years ago, in a fit of drama, but she is still there in eight-dollar checks made out to the 12th Street A&W, across the tracks from campus.

As I set to the attic, my aim was practical: I had two pallets of new work sitting in the front room of my house that needed to be stored. For the past several years I had let half of the space to my friend Bongwater, a bookseller, to warehouse books; but now he had room and I didn’t. And since my wife was gone and I had unrestricted use of her truck, why shouldn’t I return them? And so I did, finding eleven boxes of my own books in the process, left over from two moves ago. My detachment served me well in appraisal: had I considered these books in the last two years? Five? Ten? If the answer was no, they went off to sale.

By then, I had developed a rhythm, and other boxes opened and were emptied. My collection of cast-iron cannon from family trips to Philadelphia during the bicentennial went to the thrift store; toys too well-used even for that purpose went in the trash: GI Joes from the 1970s, piebald from age or from childhood shaving practice (the old 12-inch figures, you will remember, had a head of actual hair and a full beard; my brother and I would customize them by shaving the beard down to a moustache), Star Wars action figures, ceramics from grade school: everything faced the gavel.

This is where work slowed, because I found a measure of grief in every decision. I had to hold each object and try to bring back the stream of memory it held, in the same way I can supposedly read history from the cancelled checks. It wasn’t as easy as I had thought, but throwing the objects away was easier. It was then that I knew I had grown up.

Part of the reason I would hold on to a crude embroidery of a car and cloud, executed with yarn and burlap in second grade, was so that when I returned to it, I could bring back the way I felt when I made it. Continuity is important to children: my daughter, at three-and-a-half, uses objects in this way. Even things she hated during her infanthood — I’m thinking of a small plastic bathtub that she always refused to use — have specific meaning to her, and cannot be thrown away. She has to know that bathtub is in the basement, and during the two or three times a year she actually visits the basement, she points it out. The bathtub is a vessel for her memory: not a memory of use, because she never used it, but a symbol of that part of her life that she knows, even subconsciously, has passed. For that memory to remain intact, the bathtub must remain somewhere in the house.

For the time being; the bathtub has no practical use for us, and might have for someone else. And so it will go, and my daughter will find, after a while, that her sense of self and history is more or less the same.

For myself, I suspect that I have been held back by my hoarding, that my devotion to maintaining my history in vitro has proven to be a lot of work, and has kept me from making new things. And it hasn’t worked: the memory held in those objects has faded, as memory does.

This is the closest to an epiphany that I have gotten out of my cleaning. I have also a much less cluttered attic, and will admit to feeling slightly lighter in my chest. That is something. I have also divested myself of two full recycling bins of printed samples from the past twenty years (I kept one or two of each, habit being so strong, but why did I ever need a hundred copies of the 1994 Tektronix annual report?) All of the software packaging is gone, but the old double-sided floppy discs have been copied over to a hard drive, where I suppose I will sort through them later. And there is still the basement. And all those checks.