Sentimentality, in many ways, is baggage. Tiny suitcases filled with the memories and mementos of our life that are emptied out annually and transferred into larger cases. Holy items we’ve deemed indispensable but not altogether touchable. Pieces of us, and of others, that are scraped together into a growing collection that we heap onto our backs, adjusting to withstand the ever-pressing weight as needed.
At first it seems necessary, and then almost too heavy to bear, but shrugging it off our shoulders never presents itself as an option.
In typical “OK, Boomer” fashion, my mom really did a number on me by prenatally teaching sentimentality. The story of my birth, how Blondie was playing on the radio, how it was Friday the 13th, how I popped out at lunchtime and was covered in brown hairs like a coconut — how I didn’t cry until the doctor smacked my butt.
Just as she passed down the mandatory decorative seasonal towels in the kitchen, and the strict importance of sending prompt thank-you cards, my mom gave these details mythical gravity and presented them to me as details to memorize and care for.
Each memory from her own life, and each memory she helped me create, put pins in the map of my life. Each pin had a talisman dangling from it. An item of great importance that I would forever be charged with caring for.
“I’ll have that cake mix for the rest of my life.”
It’s almost like she knew that she was going to die young, and that my father would as well. And since I was an only child, I had to be put through the exercises of learning the details and stories of our family’s treasures, how important they were or else they’d all go into the crematorium right along with them.
If I didn’t learn to value, then love, then box, and move, and dust our most “fancy” Christmas wreath, then who would? No one? And you can’t just throw it away. My god. Even just imagining myself throwing out my mom’s old, crinkled and crumpled Christmas wreath with the too long bow that can never be arranged just right; the wreath she’d pull out of its own special box and hang prominently somewhere, in every house we lived in as a family, and after, while we took silent shifts collecting the faded red beads that would drop from it periodically. It’s enough to make me want to die. And that’s just a wreath.
That’s just one thing.
When my mom died in 2013, and after my dad followed after her into the darkness in 2017, I was left all alone to gather what was left behind. I went through their house like it was on fire, as if I only had a few minutes to grab what I could.
In actuality, I had all the time in the world to stay there and pick through things, boxing what could be donated, kept, or thrown away. But when everything I looked at and touched reminded me of them. Smelled like them. It all had too much importance to rationalize, so I kept what hit me the hardest. My dad’s sweatpants that he’s wearing in most causal photos. My mom’s glasses. All the photos. My dad’s watch. His baseball bat. The small calculator he always had on his desk. Their wedding bands. The f*cking Christmas wreath.
Everything else went, and I didn’t care where. I could only carry so much. I could only make so much of them mine, when I already had so much of them inside of me.
“I wasn’t living anymore. I was obsessing.”
I took these things from their home and folded them into my own. I pulled out yellowed, square photos of them from when they were young, the cool kind with the scalloped edges. I bought special frames for them and hung one of my dad by the light switch near the front door, to honor him, keep him as the man of the house, and remind me that without his life insurance, I wouldn’t even have this house.
I put one of my mom, holding a kitten from her youth, on my bookshelf to remind me to keep sharp, like she was, and to always remember that she taught me how to love books. I put another one of my dad over my nightstand. I put his baseball bat next to the dresser, so he could protect me still.
I built a shrine of sorts in the closet of my office and I put a framed photo from when they were dating, my mom’s nursing school pin, a Betty Crocker cake mix that I took from their kitchen cabinet because when I saw it, I knew that my mom had bought it to make for my dad’s birthday. She died before she could do it. I’ll have that cake mix for the rest of my life.
At the very center of this shrine, a small white plastic container with a bit of my dad’s ashes. I live with these things in this house, and will live with them in any other house I’m in. They are beautiful reminders of the fact that everyone is born with parents, that I had two of them, and now I don’t. They are beautiful items. Beautiful things. And regardless of how much space they take up, they are, each and every one, extremely heavy.
The thing with sentimentality is that it can take you over. It takes a bit of balancing. There’s a fine line between having family heirlooms in your home that you care for, and becoming so wrapped up in them, and the stories behind them, that all of a sudden you’re that girl at the bar wearing her dead mom’s sweatshirt, her dead dad’s watch, dangling their wedding rings around your neck, paying for drinks with money pulled from your dead dad’s wallet, and only ever talking about dead people.
It catches up to you.
At one point it became a joke about me that after two or three glasses of wine a valve would open and ghosts would fly out of me. I was starting to feel like “the death girl.” It was starting to feel unhealthy.
“I intended to wear it every day but, when it arrived, I deemed it way too special.”
The worst was one night, when my wife was at work, and I started getting into the wine and pulling things out. I was looking through all the pictures, smelling the clothes of my parents that I had mixed in with my own in the closet. And then, I got out this ghost detector I’d been given as a stocking stuffer one year and was playing my parents songs, clapping and crying and cranking up the music while the ghost detector — and I’m not making this up — went full tilt wild. I wasn’t living anymore.
I was obsessing.
Placing, and dusting, and memorializing the souvenirs of life as it had come and gone pressed down on me in an increasing fashion. I became so obsessed with looking after the dead, that my own life was beginning to suffer. I either had to shift some of the focus back over, or face the long-term consequences which, honestly, probably would have ended up 51/50ing myself.
For the fifth anniversary of my mom’s death, I commissioned Margaret Cross to make a memorial ring for me. Something I could wear against my skin that allowed me to take my mom with me everywhere I went. As though I wasn’t doing that well enough already, just by remaining alive.
The ring is white gold, with two rubies (my mom’s birthstone) flanking a lock of her hair encased in crystal. I intended to wear it every day but, when it arrived, I deemed it way too special. Now I wear it on special occasions, or while doing things I need her there for, just a little bit more than usual.
When not worn, it lives in a little box on my bedside table, where I keep my own wedding ring and engagement ring. It has a tangible feel to it and can put a charge in a room. Just like my mother could when she was alive.
Receiving this ring, and how I felt a bit over the top to now be carrying around not only mementos of my loved ones, but pieces of them, was the first step in letting go a little bit.
Not letting go of the memories, of the sentimentality in and of itself, but of the general weight of it all. I’m not lining my own coffin. I’m not one of three ghosts. I’m alive.
And with living, comes learning to live well, which often means letting go of things that, well intended or not, are holding you back.
I’m still here maintaining. But my grip is just a little bit looser now. It had to be. I had to allow room for my own artifacts to accumulate. I had to let some air in. No one can thrive in a tomb.
Kelly McClure is a writer who has written for NY Magazine, GQ, The Hairpin, Rolling Stone, and more. Find more of her work here.