Scraps and Mementos of Myself

Elizabeth Onusko - Yonkers, New York
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, March 2, 2012
Elizabeth Onusko

Elizabeth Onusko has boxes of mementos she’s collected since childhood that she takes with her every time she moves. Instead of being a burden, Onusko believes her keepsakes help remind her of the people and events that have been important in her life.

Age Group: 18 - 30

I believe that remembering is the best way to move forward.

Unfortunately, though, I’ve never had a good memory. The only way I’ve found to push against forgetting is to leave myself a paper trail. Since grade school, I’ve saved things sensible people would have tossed out long ago: tickets stubs for every movie I’ve seen and playbills for every play; birthday, graduation, and even Halloween cards from everyone who ever sent them to me, even if I didn’t like them much; certificates for things that can hardly be called achievements; half of a friendship necklace, a broken lock, and a handful of dried flower petals.

Any packrat who hasn’t moved in a while will have accumulated a greater array of junk. I, however, have moved nine times in the past decade. Why do I schlep this stuff from small apartment to smaller apartment? Why do I hope on some future day, I will lovingly sort and preserve these things in scrapbooks?

The idea of having volumes of memories sitting on a shelf is certainly appealing. How else can I awaken my mind—especially to the happier times in my life? My parents divorced when I was a teenager, and I saw it coming for years before, so I felt compelled to preserve my best family memories while I could. Otherwise, I feared that I would one day look back and only remember how everything unraveled.

This tendency has served me well, which is why each time I have to choose between throwing away an old airline ticket or shoving it into my keepsake drawer, I falter. If I drop that ticket into the trash, I’d feel like I’m accelerating the forgetting process by not honoring the event—the minor miracle it happened at all, and that it happened to me.

A few years ago, while visiting my mother, I cleared out my childhood bedroom. Among the mounds of old clothes, I discovered boxes full of journals, letters, bad art projects, even a silhouette taken of me in the first grade. It felt like I was visiting myself at ages seven, and eleven, and fourteen, and eighteen.

My old selves left me these clues for a reason: a puzzle is incomplete even if one piece is missing. I have lost lots of pieces, but my self-portrait, and the portrait of the world I’ve known, remains clear to me because of these silly mementos.

Sometimes being the steward of all these scraps does weigh me down. Before my last move, I was tempted to not take anything. Even though I did discard some things, I realized I wasn’t leaving the life I knew behind. Instead, I was finding a new way to take it with me.  

I’m a saver, not an archivist. I haven’t preserved myself; I simply help myself remember, and ultimately to grow. Knowing who I was enables me to know who I am—someone who has loved many people, and has been loved in return. I believe this is worth remembering.

Elizabeth Onusko is a poet. She grew up in Cleveland and now lives in New York, where she fundraises for a not-for-profit organization.