This post will be quite different from my previous ones – for better or worse – and that’s why I’m putting it in the “Random Posts” section on my website.
In my previous post, it was August 1973 and I had just left Southeast Asia and flown away to London. Before starting to talk about that new phase of my life, I want to take a pause and talk about how annoyed I am with myself.
Here I am, writing a memoir about my life using mainly photos and my diaries to tell my stories. But, in April 2020, just one month into our pandemic, I had a flash and I recalled that I have a very big stash of memorabilia tucked away in boxes in a storage locker THAT I HAD FORGOTTEN ABOUT – and therefore did not use while writing my previous posts. My immediate thought was that I had missed a big opportunity to add more colour to my writing.
In this post, I’m going to talk about what I discovered in those boxes that I probably hadn’t opened for 40 years. You will learn more about my obsessiveness.
I would like your opinion on whether using what I have discovered will bring added value to my posts or not.
But first I want to review what memorabilia I have already used in telling my stories.
Slides and Photos
You already know that I mostly rely on my collection of old slides and photos to tell my stories. I have already talked about my taking and archiving of photos in previous posts.
As the title of my website “A Gay Man’s Story in Snapshots” makes clear, these slides and photos are a key part of my story telling and they have helped me not only to remember events I’d forgotten but also to bring back the feelings I had at various long ago times in my life and allow me to add literal and figurative colour to my memoir.
Diaries and Agendas
My diaries have also played a role in recounting my stories. I continue to amaze myself that I still have them from when I started writing a kind of diary when I was 13 in 1963. At that point, they were mainly a calendar of upcoming events. During my twenties, I began to write more of a traditional diary but the entries were (and still are) mainly fact based with only a smattering of lurid details. But reading them has triggered memories from the past that I have used in telling my stories. In addition, they have helped me remember what took place in what order, giving me a chronology of my life.
Letters and postcards
Occasionally, in my posts, I have quoted from letters that I’ve received from others. Certainly, you’ll know that, besides the phone, letters were the way we communicated before the internet. You won’t be surprised that I’ve kept most of my letters from the past and have even spreadsheet-ed (is that a word?) them, organized by who sent them and from where. I reckon that I’ve kept well over 1000 letters and postcards including ones I’ve written that have been returned to me.
The reason I received so many letters is because I wrote so many. That’s just what we did – or at least what I did. I loved meeting and keeping in touch with people and letters were how we kept connected.
Reading my diaries, I often see phrases like “wrote postcards this afternoon to Sam and Mom” and “spent evening in writing letters”. When I went on trips, I would take along with me a list of people I wanted to send postcards to while I was away. A huge amount of time was dedicated to this practice.
Obviously my old letters are an invaluable source for writing my posts as they contain information about what I did and how I felt. But I must confess that I am sometimes reluctant to do a deep dive into some correspondence because I fear that it could remind me of periods of my life or relationships that I had with certain people that I don’t want to think about again. Or I don’t want to be reminded of some hurt inflicted on me or by me. I do, though, want to challenge myself to do more of this in the future.
But I should be more positive and say that perhaps a “deep dive” might also rekindle memories of a very positive kind.
Would the time I spent writing and sending letters amount to more or less than the time I now spend on emails and social media connecting with people? My guess is that although the time spent would be around the same for each activity, the number of people I can keep in touch with digitally would be much greater.
There is more to say about aerograms, post office lineups, licking stamps, types of stationery and making the last post but I’ve said enough already.
To write letters, you obviously need people’s addresses and we kept them in our address books. These needed to be kept up to date. Especially during my 20s and 30s, when people would be more likely to move homes, cities and countries, it was easy to lose contact with people and there was no simple way to track them down. You could dial 411 for “Information” in Canada/USA or 192 in the old days for “Directory Enquiries” in the UK but if you didn’t have an address and/or if the person’s name was not very unique, you wouldn’t have a chance to find “lost souls”. Now, as you know, finding people from the past and keeping in touch with them is much easier with the internet.
I used to have a rule that a name wouldn’t make it into my address book until I’d met up with the person at least three times. So that meant that my one night stands wouldn’t fill up my pages unless we saw each other for more than three dates. More often than not, we would not see each other again. Sometimes their choice, sometimes mine.
When a friend or family member died, I would write “R.I.P.” by their name. This, sadly, became a too common event during the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s and there are very few pages in my address book from that time that do not have a “R.I.P.” by a name.
But, now, as we creep into old age, more deaths occur just as part of life and the “R.I.P.”s are appearing once more, but now they are recorded in my Google Contacts.
Finally, after summarizing all those different archival parts from my past, I’m finally getting to the NEW memorabilia that I only recently rediscovered that I’m writing about in this post.
What I found in a storage closet were several boxes full of envelopes – large and small. Each envelope in these boxes, generally speaking, represents one trip I took in the past and each contains maps, guidebooks, tickets, schedules, leaflets, souvenirs, even coins, etc. from that trip.
What I have rediscovered is that, clearly, especially in my 20s, I must have never wanted to throw, literally, anything away; from train tickets to movie stubs. During my backpacking travels, this must have been particularly problematic as space was always tight and the weight added up.
What I have now recalled is that I would occasionally send packages containing these bits and pieces to my father in my hometown of Toronto. He kindly put them in envelopes and stored them all for me in the basement of our family home until he put his foot down in the 1990s and asked me to take them away – which I did as slowly as I could! But eventually they all came back into my hands and were put in these boxes that I only recently remembered and rediscovered.
Having found these envelopes a few months ago, I was able to use some of their contents while writing the recent posts on my travels through Southeast Asia. You may have noticed that I started using these ticket stubs, airline boarding passes and random tourist brochures and other ephemera from my collection to add colour and variety to the stories.
Not only did I keep the artefact but I would write on it, describing what it was. Here, for example, are ticket stubs from the films I saw on that Southeast Asia trip with dates, cities and the names of the films and if I went with anyone: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Lost Horizon, The Big Bounce, Wicked, Wicked and what must have been the 1933 King Kong. I may have been backpacking in SE Asia but I kept in touch with Hollywood.
Below is a slideshow with bits and pieces from just one envelope: bus and airline tickets, entrance coupons, receipts, photos and even a matchbook.
What I also discovered were the meticulous records that I kept of my spending including the cashing of travellers’ cheques, transportation costs and even what I ate.
These are the maps and travel brochures I picked up from my trips through the Pacific region and SE Asia – and kept.
Now imagine that I have this kind of information for the dozens (hundreds?) of trips I have taken over the decades.
Why Did I Do It?
Looking back on this post and at how much I not only collected, but also archived and catalogued from my past, it raises the question of Why Did I Do It? One easy answer is that my Dad collected a huge amount of memorabilia from his own life and I inherited his hoarding gene.
But there’s more. I think that, subconsciously, I felt that if I didn’t keep photos, a map, a leaflet, a train ticket or even coins from a trip, then I would lose my connection to that event. It would somehow disappear as if it never happened. Not only did I want to soak up that experience, but also I wanted to preserve it and that required, somewhere unconsciously in my mind, the necessity to keep all these tangible mementos.
Did I not trust my mind’s ability to keep those memories intact? Did I really need physical artefacts to safeguard my memories? Did I fear that the remembrances would disappear if I didn’t keep the ephemera attached to the events?
Why is the past so important?
Others have questioned why the past is so important to me and I get lectures about how it’s more important to live in the present and looking forward to the future instead of “living in the past”. Well, yes and no. Our present selves are a product of our past and understanding and recognizing how our past influenced and created the persons we are has always been important to me.
It’s just that everyone doesn’t need to be as obsessive about it as I am! And you may be happy to learn that I’m much less obsessive now. I don’t keep movie tickets anymore, for example. Of course, they don’t exist as such anyway.
What I will claim, though, is an advantage of my obsessiveness is that I have had many people tell me how much they appreciate the fact that I did keep these records, especially long-time friends who are happy (usually!) to see photos of themselves from our pasts or letters that they had sent me.
I’m also happy to have recently had archivists and libraries approach me (after somehow finding my posts) and they have asked for permission to use some of the materials and/or have requested that I consider bequeathing my archives to their collections. Now that’s an honour.
I will remind you that, as those archivists and librarians often say, ink and paper are likely to last much longer into the future than digital photos, emails or other data no matter what cloud service they get stored in – or what website they get displayed in. Including mine! Keep those papers!
Note to Self
One advantage of having found this treasure trove is that I can start using the memorabilia in my posts in the future. Aren’t you lucky?
More seriously, I would be very interested to know if you think that these artefacts will, in fact, bring added value to these posts. My very kind Queer Writers Group (who review my posts before I publish them) have cautioned me and said that, although they like the variety and quantity of ephemera I have, what is equally important to them is the words I use to describe what I present to my readers, with the goal of arousing your emotions and feelings. Those feelings can be more important than just adding to the quantity of memorabilia I post. That’s my challenge.
The message is: dwell and reflect rather than just dump more bits and pieces.
What would you say?