The Gift of the Past

This Christmas my mother wanted to give my daughter a locket that had been her mother’s. A marvel of the jeweler’s craft, the locket offered a glimpse into another world: when opened, two leaves, in addition to the cover, pop out to allow four photos to be seen at once. Inside were the photos my grandmother had placed there of her husband and three children. It was easy to imagine the meaning such a magical mechanism made possible: she held her entire family in her hand, could take her world in at a glance.

Such mechanics are hardly called for in an era of smart phones with bigger screens and higher resolution and the ability to hold thousands of images than the four thumbnail-sized, grainy, black and white photos pressed so carefully into the locket, but my mother wanted my daughter to have something from her past. My daughter was struck by the artistry of the locket, but the four photos meant nothing to her. As she considered it, my daughter offered that she might wear it, but she would want to replace the photos.

My mother’s face first fell, and then the blood drained from it. After a pause, she continued as if my daughter had not responded, offering to build a shadow box for the locket, so it could be hung on the wall, since people these days didn’t wear things like lockets.

The conversation that followed proceeded awkwardly and not without hurt feelings on both sides, with my mother feeling like the past, her past, was being too quickly hurled into oblivion and my daughter feeling like she was not being allowed to live her life as she chose. My wife and I encouraged a change of conversation, but I had glimpsed in the exchange something with which I was already struggling.

For in another part of our house, there is a drawer in which I keep a handful of mementoes, a pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather and a pocket knife that belonged to my father. Both men are now gone. Having never enjoyed wearing a wrist watch, I used to keep my grandfather’s watch in my pocket, but it was replaced with a smartphone over a decade ago. I don’t see myself going back. And while I like my dad’s pocket knife, I had already in some way inherited from him the habit of keeping a knife handy by having a pocket knife of my own, and, to be honest, I like the greater number of features my Swiss Army knife possesses over my dad’s simple pocket knife.

So both the watch and the knife rest in a drawer, where, every so often I glimpse them, take them out, think about the men who once carried them, and then lay them to rest again. I may have once shown them to my daughter, but they are not a part of her world. While my father was a part of her world, my grandfather was not, having died almost a quarter of a century before she came into existence. And so these mementoes of mine are mine alone. If such objects like the watch and the knife have any meaning for her, it is in my attachment to them and her attachment to me. Otherwise, when I too am gone and she has to decide where things go, it is just as likely that the watch and the knife will be given or sold.

If anything remains, it will be the act of keeping a knife in a pocket, which brings me to an interesting intersection. I have two kinds of mementoes from my grandmothers. From my maternal grandmother, I have an Oster Kitchen Center, which I use regularly, and I also have her way of making spaghetti sauce, which I make every week for my daughter. From my paternal grandmother, I have an afghan, which doesn’t get much use, but I cook dishes I learned from her, like crawfish étouffée and gumbo. My daughter often requests these.

What I am left with in my thoughts is that the best things we leave behind are not tangible things like lockets, watches, and knives but intangible things like recipes and other such small actions, many of which don’t really strike us as an inheritance, or even heritage. I’m sure some will respond that it’s about making memories and not keeping memory objects, but I don’t know that I ever set out to make a memory with spaghetti sauce.

I guess what I want to say to my mother, and the many like her that fear we are leaving the past, their past, behind, is that you cannot determine the past for the future, only the future gets to choose that, so, if there is a lesson in this holiday moment about the gift of the past, it may very well be: you better be nice. Because if you aren’t, you may very well end up forgotten.