26 February, 2016

The Keepers of Memories

I now have no-one living anchoring me to the past, but no-one anchoring me to the future either. You might think that I would feel cast adrift, lost and alone, but I don’t. Even through the stress of my mother’s last days, and of the funeral and its aftermath, I was surrounded by family, by sisters and brothers-in-law, by nieces ranging from a mere seven to a worldly thirty-six years old, by N, a cheeky and much-loved great-nephew, who at such a young age knows and understands loss himself (having lost his Dad not quite two years ago), by the husbands and partners of my nieces, and by little P (whose Dad loves N's mother). He too had lost his own mother, and I was conscious of that as he said so sweetly and sincerely, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I love them all dearly.

As we sorted through my mother’s things, I realised I was fast becoming the “Keeper of Documents.” My cousin D (also without children after loss, and an only child so no nieces or nephews either) found herself taking some family things too, because she felt they should be kept. Another cousin also without children is the family genealogist (although I am always forgetting to raise that with her). Cousin D wondered aloud,

“are the childless the Keepers of Memories because we look back, not forward?”

I thought about it, and agree that it is possible this is the reason. Perhaps we look back simply because we have the time to do so. But I prefer to think that, as keepers of memories, we’re doing it out of love and a feeling of connection, a belief that the past will matter to the future. That without the past, there is no future, even if personally, I am not going to be part of that future. 

And so I took great pleasure in seeing things pass down, my littlest niece inherit the cute little rabbit figurines I remember so well from the mantelpiece when I grew up. I was thrilled to see a medal from my great-uncle go to my great-nephew. With no skin in the game, I was keen to see certain sentimental items stay together, rather than any motivation to ensure that my child wasn't missing out. But more important, I was happy to see that the family treasures and memories were valued, and would continue to be valued.
Ultimately, I prefer to think that we’re the Keepers of Memories because we know how precious they are, how easily people and memories can be lost, and that once they’re gone, they’re gone. That it’s not always about the family tree, but more about the memories and connections and links.

My cousin stayed for several days, not because we are cousins, but because she thinks of me and my two sisters as her surrogate sisters, because she loved my mother, because she has fond memories of spending time with our family during her childhood. She was there because of shared experiences, and a need to maintain and nurture those connections that have been there all our lives.

I hope that one day, one of my nieces will become a Keeper of Memories. I suspect I can guess which one, but I won’t name her and put that burden on her now. I know that when she comes to do it, when it comes naturally, it won’t be a burden – whether she has children, or not.


  1. I found myself nodding along as I read this. Being a keeper requires a special type of person as it involves passing on stories and treasured items in a manner to preserve what once was and what is still important. It's a hard job as many view life as fleeting and are usually looking forward.

    I'm not a keeper, though I once aspired to be. Hence I know how precious and important these individuals are. I'm glad you are, though, and have good company within your family.

  2. This brought me to tears, Mali... I live in hope that my nephews & some of my cousins' kids will take some interest in the stories & things I have to pass along to them someday. I was recently messaging with my cousin on some family history matters & he was so appreciative; it gave me hope. ;) As I have said before, others may expand the family tree by having kids; I believe I'm doing it by delving into the past. :)

  3. I am sorry for your loss
    And sorry to just be saying that now.
    It is heartening to know that there are Keepers of Memories out there. It is a very important job.

  4. Damn it, Mali, you made me BAWL. I am sitting at my desk, sobbing. What a gorgeous post.

  5. This is a beautiful post. I too am in tears. It honestly makes me wish that I were a keeper of memories but truthfully I'm just not that sentimental (also, I've moved something like 12 times across three states since I turned 18 so I generally just don't accumulate that much stuff since it'll all have to be moved at some point). Thankfully one of my sisters is this person in our family.

  6. What a beautiful post!
    I felt so serene and comforted by your words.

    Sending more hugs and love

  7. Your post nicely echoed the themes of this week's "Downton Abbey" episode (which was actually the series finale), and I blogged about it here:


  8. Such a beautiful post--and such a beautiful responsibility, to be a Keeper of Memories. I loved this in particular: "But I prefer to think that, as keepers of memories, we’re doing it out of love and a feeling of connection, a belief that the past will matter to the future." Just gorgeous.

  9. Keeper of Memories: what an vivid description. You're never without when you have memories to share and bring comfort. May you continue to savor these riches with the next generation of memory keepers.

  10. What a beautifully heartfelt post. I teared up practically the whole way through the first reading of it.
    I found myself nodding quite vigorously in agreement at your cousin D’s comment about the childless being the keepers of the memories and also at your thoughts about it.

    I’m the “keeper in training” in my family, as my aunt (single and childless), told me the last time I saw her in January. She has been “the keeper” for many years and although I have quite a collection already of family papers/photos etc, she is still the main source for our extended family memories.

    I did spend the first year of my retirement working on the family tree as I was more internet savvy and we have a good number of historical records available online. I think this sealed my future fate. Not that I’m complaining. I feel proud to be able to pass on the stories of the past and present to those still to come even though I will have no direct link to them.

  11. Quite thought provoking. How true that the responsibility of keeper of memories falls to someone special in a family. That they have certain qualities that helps them to value the past and find meaning in making sure the dots stay connected. I like your observation that a childless person may be a natural fit because they really understand how precious memories are and easy to be lost, so delicate. Deep post.

  12. This post is like a lovely tapestry. Connections, memories, love, links, family. I love the connections you have with your cousins and nieces/nephews. :-)

    My mom is an excellent Keeper of Memories, but funnily enough she doesn't like reading at all. She is a very social person who keeps me in touch with my relatives ever since I was young. I know bits and pieces of the family history from her and I love listening to those stories.