Friday, June 21, 2013


by Sheila Connolly

From the French verb for "to remember," souvenirs are mementos that we bring back from our travels (near or far) to jog our memories about a place and a time.

I am a souveniraholic (there, a new word).  I bring home items from everywhere I go.  Some I acquire from cheesy stores on main streets or in airports, ignoring the "Made in Malaysia" stickers on the bottom.  I keep ticket stubs, not just for tax purposes.  I buy postcards, but only if I can't take a better picture (museums often frown on taking your own in their galleries, although with the ubiquitous cellphones these days it's hard to stop anyone). I even gather keychains, with the net result that my so-called key ring has only two keys on it (house and car), but at last count, five souvenir items.  Oh, and a small LED flashlight someone sent me unsolicited in the mail—very useful.

Seashells from Sydney
Other items I acquire in a more authentic if slightly peculiar way.  I gather things like sugar wrappers (in several languages).  I collect seashells compulsively. I bring back rocks, which may be correlated with the ever-increasing weight of my suitcase.  Most of the time I can remember where the rock came from—a white one from Les Baux in Provence (which I visited mainly in homage to writer Mary Stewart), a small piece of carved stone from the ruins of Tintern Abbey in Wales, immortalized by William Wordsworth (if you're ever in the neighborhood you must see it, because it's
My bit of Tintern Abbey
extraordinarily moving), bits of slate from the crumbling roofs of the houses where my Irish grandparents were born.  Quartz pebbles I pulled out of the red soil in Australia. A small medieval arabesque that had fallen off the medieval church in Malmesbury in England.  The list goes on.  (No, I did not make off with a piece of Stonehenge. Nor do I travel with a hammer and chisel.) Looking around my work area, I realize there are quite a few rocks—and some of them I can't even remember collecting.  I also collect shards of eighteenth century tombstones, particularly those with something inscribed by a long-dead hand.

All of these are squirreled away in various boxes and drawers and on shelves throughout my house.  I visit them periodically—and, yes, they do evoke memories.  I'd like to use the term "touchstone" but that has other, unrelated meanings.  Or I'd opt for talisman, but that too has other baggage, mainly pertaining to some mystical properties of protecting the bearer. 

This most recent trip was notably free of pebbles (largely because my suitcase started out too heavy), although there were plenty of opportunities to harvest them.  Well, there might be a little piece of Carrara tucked into a pocket.  But mostly I acquired things quite legitimately.  I also found I was looking at them differently:  I dubbed my haul "loot."

I know, loot implies I seized it without paying, because I had the power and the opportunity, and that's not quite right.  But I felt as though I was sacking the country, bringing home those things that captured my fancy or meant something to me.  That has little to do with monetary value, and much more to do with items that bring back with particularly clarity a memory, a sense of time and place.  Now and in the future, I will hold something, and I will smile at what it evokes.  I will remember exactly when and where I acquired it, and it will take me back there.

On an oddly related note, last month I published an e book (Relatively Dead) that includes a paranormal element that involves touch.  Pictures are wonderful and I take more than my fair share of them, but having something you can hold in your hand, that has a physical reality, no matter how small, is a different experience. With all the amazing advances in film and computer-generated images made in the recent past, it's harder and harder to believe your eyes and trust a picture.  If you hold something in your hand, it's real.

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