The Good Wife Works: On memories and fear of loss

Elizabeth Ellis SquareWilt Chamberlain said it: “Important to you, irrelevant to others.” Experts agree, and advise you to get rid of your junk so as not to burden your family with your stuff. Americans are, after all, five percent of the world’s population consuming 30 percent of its resources, always replacing, upgrading, then throwing away the outmoded.

Don’t throw it away, there is no away, reads a New York Times ad. But are we what we hang on to, hold in our hand, and look at in order to reminisce?

In his essay Treasure Hunt, Umberto Eco (b. 1932, Italy) wrote, “It is not the relic that makes faith, but faith that makes the relic.” Your wedding ring is a devotional object imbued with precious meaning and value.

That worn shirt might be too ragged to wear to the store, but it’s as soft as chamise. Letting go implies it’s not worth keeping. “As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it.” (Gandhi) Regret accompanies the irrevocable, the choices we can’t change, the decisions we can’t take back. “You can throw yourself away,” Tana French wrote, “missing what you lost.”

Your definition of yourself comes from the mortar and brickwork of this temple, this life you’ve built comprised of the choices and decisions that form the foundation. What gives your life its meaning belongs to no one but you. What gives your vacation slides meaning means nothing to no one but you.

When we’ve given a thing energy, it matters. Memories are hieroglyphics on the mind, the self. Etched. When we lose memory, we lose a part of self. Ask caregivers of the Alzheimer’s-afflicted how much memory is identity.

Don’t take memory’s treasures for granted. The mind is file drawers you pull out to examine memories. They spill like a jar of butterflies. “It’s a good thing to have a big good thing to remember.” (Barry Targan)

Eco says historic sites claim to have Christ’s cross, a rib, his crib, his crown of thorns, and the linen that washed his feet. Tourist enclaves hold Jacqueline Kennedy’s gloves or Elvis’ car in Nashville. “Things that leave no trace, do not exist.” (Italo Svevo)

“We risk emptying our minds of their riches,” Nicholas Carr wrote, and we “bypass the inner process,” of consolidating personal memory by relying on something outside ourselves: computers. (Carr) However, we lose even 30 percent relying on memory alone.

“People’s greatest fear is loss,” Sidney Bennett wrote, “whether it be loss of life, loss of possessions or the loss of love. People’s joys and sorrow, their past and present are their most precious possessions.”

How much have we lost already? We “grieve the loss of a relationship that was hugely significant.” (Eric Clapton) A recent show at Vine Arts, Minneapolis, reminds us that cell phones have replaced payphones in the Twin Cities and asks you to contemplate the deeper meanings of this loss. But author Marjorie Rawlings (1896-1953) wrote, “At all times we turn to what we need only when we need it.”

Manic accumulation is hoarding, “to store up beyond one’s own needs” by Webster’s Dictionary, but what is enough?  “Hoarding is also grieving loss.” (Dr. Randy Frost, Stuff) The Tao says s/he who knows s/he has enough is rich.

Forever is composed of Nows, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote. And shops that sell antiques make good history museums.


Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to