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Column: Possessions bring back memories

“This shirt is old and faded, all the color’s washed away. I’ve had it now for more damn years than I can count anyway,” – Mary Chapin Carpenter

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MARQUETTE — The magical quality of memories to be able to attach themselves to inanimate objects, like old pocket watches and hunting jackets, is something that fascinates me.

It seems to be a slippery kind of thing to understand.

Why do some items – like an antique compass I keep on a shelf or my dad’s old pocketknife – seem to attract, hold and enhance memories, while other things hold no significance whatsoever, even if I’ve had contact with them for longer periods of time?

It’s one of those notions that seems obvious on its face, but the more I think about it, the more elusive it becomes.

Like electric blue impulses coursing through my heart and mind, memories are alive inside me. Though often innately faulty, their power is real and true.

These recollections almost take on lives of their own, movies playing in my mind, while I’m living each day in real life.

Meanwhile, within that life, certain more tangible items like charms or talismans hold the ability to capture and contain representations of memories, like a currency represents a storehouse of treasure.

If I lose the compass, the memories don’t die.

But I don’t seem to realize that, enchanted by these objects I hold dear to me.

So strange.

I had a Dave Edmunds tour shirt once that I bought at a concert of his I went to in Texas. This was in the early 1980s when the Welsh guitarist who had once fronted Rockpile with Nick Lowe was touring in support of his seventh album.

It was a baseball jersey-style T-shirt, white with black long sleeves and a colorful blue, yellow and red graphic on the front which reproduced designs from the album.

Edmunds, a roots rocker famous for his hit rendition of “I Hear You Knockin,'” was playing at a club in the Dallas area so small they misspelled his name on the tickets.

I had gone to the show with a friend named David, who I met oddly while waiting in line with my now ex-wife at a metroplex movie theater.

He was an usher.

From idle movie line conversations, we became fast friends, sharing a love of early Beatles’ music. He played drums and I played bass back then and we used to get together at his house and make some noise.

He had never heard of Dave Edmunds before this, but the show knocked him out.

We got to meet Edmunds after the concert. I bought the T-shirt and got a big poster I’d had autographed. I lost the poster somewhere between here and California and I’ll be damned if I know what happened to that shirt.

If I close my eyes, I can feel its soft cotton in my hands, recalling how I used to love to push the sleeves up to my elbows.

It wasn’t that long after the concert I lost David too.

He fell from a ladder changing the marquee at the theater. He hit the back of his head on the cement curb and he died.

A national family magazine wrote a story about how his donated organs helped a good number of people. His ashes were spread over the lush basalt lava-flow countryside of Hawaii, where he used to live.

I miss him. I wish we would have had more good times together.

The souvenirs are gone, but the memories live on.

Some of my favorite keepsakes that retain powerful memories are my dad’s old Eagle Claw fishing pole, tickets stubs from all kinds of concerts, photographs of family, friends and places I’ve been, the compass and the pocketknife and rocks I’ve picked up along the railroad tracks.

Sometimes I wonder what will happen to all these things once I’m gone.

Will I take the magic imbued within these items with me as a relic of this world or will it remain charged inside these antiquities, becoming meaningful to new owners?

Did my dad have a sentimental connection to his pocketknife? He carried it with him every day, but was it just because he needed one?

I’ll likely never know.

Perhaps these mementos of mine will lose their powers altogether and one day find themselves buried in a landfill or sitting on a shelf in an antique store next to some old tumblers, porcelain bowls or a quaint set of rooster salt and pepper shakers.

At that point, wherever I am, will I be aware or care?

It seems doubtful.

This is another one of those things that at once makes the world seem so big and so small to me. So many questions. I wonder if they will ever be answered.

A couple of days ago I watched a little brown creeper on the trunk of a maple tree outside my window. These small birds walk up the sides of tree trunks.

They land at the base of a tree and work their way up in a spiral fashion – like stringing lights on a Christmas tree starting from the bottom up.

This bird wanted to eat some suet from a couple of feeders I have attached to the tree. He landed at the bottom of the trunk and walked up about 4 feet to one feeder and took a bite or two.

He then flew back down to the bottom of the tree. He then walked back up to the second feeder, had a taste and repeated the process.

It seems to me he could have saved himself a lot of effort by just remaining at the feeders and eating, but instead seemed compelled to go back to the bottom of the tree in between tastes – out of habit.

I think I’m probably a lot like that bird, taking precious extra steps or breaths to complete even the most basic of tasks. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m getting anywhere or just circling the same tree trunk – from the bottom up.

One online description of memory says “it is the retention of information over time for the purpose of influencing future action. If past events could not be remembered, it would be impossible for language, relationships or personal identity to develop.”

I wonder what future action my lifetime of collecting, decoding and retaining information in memories I am hoping to influence in the afterlife. It does seem like a lifetime of study should prepare one to graduate to some next level.

For now, I’m content to sit here watching the trunks of the maple trees outside, wondering whether the brown creeper will come back.

The wind swirls the snow around, lifting it up here and putting it down there, taking with it, tattered pieces of my memories, blowing them down the road to some summer day or some spring afternoon, when they’ll return to me again.

Sunlight moves across the snow followed by the shadows of the afternoon.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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