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Memories For Sale

“We sell memories.” That was the proud advertisement on display outside an antique store I passed while meandering through a small town’s commercial district. It immediately triggered a deeply buried rendition of Barbara Streisand’s The Way we Were . .  .  . “Memories, light the corners of my mind. Misty watercolor memories of the way we were. . . .  Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind.” I never really cared for the song, but some things manage to secure a spot in my mental data bank whether I like it or not. Later, a web search turned up several sites that claim to sell memories, as well as a couple of songs on the subject.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen businesses capitalize on the power of making memories as a means to push their wares. And why not? The goal of effective advertisement is to ensure we remember the thing being advertised. But in this setting, selling memories felt different—even questionable.

It was the combination of memory and antique that set up this odd experience. Memories are extremely personal. Even if you and I are together experiencing the same moment, there is strong chance our memories of what transpired or its meaning or value would differ. Your memory and mine are unlikely to be identical. That makes the idea that we could trade memories a bit dubious. Perhaps we can swap tales, but not memories? Would there be a noticeable difference?

As for antiques, these are previously owned items. They have a history with their previous owner as surely as a used car (or, pre-owned, to be automobilicaly correct). The bookcase that spent decades like a sentinel guarding Aunt Lilly’s hallway while displaying her favorite books and knickknacks makes its way to the sales floor. The grandfather clock that announced time for multiple generations finally gets the boot because there just isn’t room for such a large timepiece and the chimes upset the family pet. The ones for which I often feel a touch of sadness are the discarded family photos that fill unwanted picture frames, now for sale at a bargain price. Granted, I’ve got a couple of relatives I’d like to cart off to Goodwill but still, who really tosses Aunt Jane or Grandpa Jones into the recycle bin? How weird would it be to visit a friend’s home and see your old family photos hanging on their wall?

Don’t misunderstand. I’m a fan of recycling. It’s less about being environmentally conscious and more about being frugal when it comes to purchases. Paying 50 cents or a $1 for used jigsaw puzzles suits me much better than $18 for a new one. I’ve found some nice furniture castoffs that, with a little help, are as good as new. And, I’ve parted with some favorite pieces that we no longer needed but that were simply not ready for the garbage dump. The most difficult departure was a mahogany dining room set that we bought for our 3rd anniversary. It was beautiful, but our lifestyle just doesn’t require such a large table anymore.

I prefer to think that items like that are starting new chapters of their lives. Vendors are selling opportunity and possibility. But memories? Someone can buy my table, but not the memory of the Pictionary game played with the young adult Sunday School class, or the Christmas dinner with faculty members the year my caterer suddenly left town to avoid the INS.  Take my items, give them a new home, and enjoy them as much or more than I did; but sorry pal, memories are not included. You’ll have to make your own.

I did waiver on this point for a few moments. It occurred to me that perhaps the vendor claiming to sell memories was on to something. I have a few events in my past that I’d like to forget. Maybe they were moments when I wasn’t my best self, or of a hardship that no doubt shaped me but of which I’d just as soon not be reminded. If I don’t like my past, perhaps I could buy a few second-hand memories and replace those less desirable ones with someone else’s happier moment.

Like the time some of us early teenagers had been horsing around on the bleachers during a softball game. At the end of the last inning as we prepared to leave, we were jumping down to the ground from 6-8 feet high. I pushed a friend expecting him to resist, only it caught him totally off guard. Next thing I knew he was face planted below. Fortunately, it only knocked the breath out of him. Even though it occurred in the context of friendly roughhousing, I still feel regret for my actions when I recall that night. That’s one I’d consider swapping out for a second-hand memory. Perhaps I could find a used bat that comes with memories of home runs swatted rather than friends splattered.

And then there’s the memory of the school bus wreck that occurred during my second-grade year. It had been a rainy day. The rural, dirt road was muddy. The bus driver was in a playful mood with his steering, and lost control of the vehicle. I had actually fallen asleep during the route. The bus overturned, and the window against which my head was propped was the only one broken in the accident. I awoke with a mound of flesh on top of me as people across the aisle had tumbled over for an unannounced visit. When I got to my feet, I looked down and said, “Look. Blood.” Then I realized, “Hey – it’s mine!” I had a nice gash in the side of my head that bled profusely, requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches. But as I recall that event, there are other parts attached. Like the remorseful bus driver carrying me a couple hundred yards to the nearest house. Or the elderly couple who took me inside their home. I remember the wife’s metal wash basin, filled with warm water as she gently washed my wound and stopped the bleeding while her husband called my parents. By the time that was accomplished, my father had arrived. He sat in the back seat of the car with his arm around me while someone else drove us to the hospital.

As I remember beyond the immediate event itself, I realize a web of care and support quickly came to my aid. Some was offered by those who felt responsible for the injury. Some was given by acquaintances I barely knew, but who extended their assistance in a moment of crisis. Some was delivered by those who cared deeply and over the course of their life would repeatedly respond when needed. Recalling those parts of the story brings a smile to my face and warms my heart. Five minutes ago, I was ready to exchange this memory for a happier time, but at this point, it’s not available for trade.

So, to those who offer to sell me second hand memories, I say “Thanks, but no thanks.” Even if yours are better than mine, I’ll stick with what I’ve got. Not every detail of life will be a treasured moment. Not every memory we retain will necessarily lead to a silver lining that redeems the event. Even so, those individual happenings fit within a wider matrix of life and circumstance that absorb some of the impact and perhaps smooth out the dips in the valleys. The trials and the scars wrapped in those memories contribute to who I have become just as much as the delights and joys. The key is to grow and deepen in our capacity for gentle strength, judicious wisdom, and resilient compassion rather than become fearful, hostile, or bitter. There are moments when that is one tall order, but it merits a commitment from each of us. Memorable or not, that is what I’m selling!

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3 comments on “Memories For Sale

Linda Mann

This is one of my favorites. Love the way you bring your stories together with a call to deepen in our capacity for gentle strength, judicious wisdom and resilient compassion rather than become fearful, hostile or bitter. Beautiful message.

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