“I can’t resist a good love story, which is fundamentally what these stories are.”
If you’ve lost someone close to you, there’s a very strong chance you’ve kept, and treasured, an object that reminds you of them. That’s the central idea behind The Keepthings, a project created by writer/editor Deborah Way which asks people to present an item that connects them to someone they’ve lost, and tell the story of why it matters. The result is a funny, strange, and often-heartbreaking collection of “keepthings,” seemingly insignificant objects — a coin, a rock, a rubber novelty alligator — that have become precious to those who haven’t yet shuffled off this mortal coil.
We asked Way to tell us how The Keepthings came to be, and what she hopes her own loved ones treasure when she’s no longer around to treasure them herself.
What was the impetus for starting this account?
The “when” of it is because my job ended and I had some time on my hands. The “why” is a bunch of things. I’m super sentimental and have many keepthings myself that connect me to my dead people, especially my grandparents, and help them feel less dead. And in fact I don’t think the dead really die — I think they’re alive to us, and I think maybe we don’t talk about that enough. And I can’t resist a good love story, which is fundamentally what Keepthings stories are: love stories told through objects.
How do you typically receive submissions? Do you reach out first to writers that you know, or put out more general calls for entries to non-writers?
In the beginning — when I wasn’t sure if this was a bizarro idea and I was the only person who cared about stories like these — I reached out to friends who I thought wouldn’t laugh at me. Now, most of the submissions are unsolicited, and the majority are from writers or aspiring writers. But I believe everyone has a keepthing with a meaningful story behind it, and no way do you have to be a writer to be a great storyteller.
What, to you, makes for an ideal KeepThing post/item?
For starters, one I haven’t read before, which is why I strongly encourage people to scroll through the stories before submitting. From a practical standpoint, although there have been a few exceptions, the object has to be small enough to be photographed on a baking sheet — so, not your grandpa’s Chevy pickup. And it has to be an object, a physical, tangible thing — so, sorry, nice person who wanted to write about a handstand! I’m looking for objects and stories that lend themselves to really bringing a person to life with a lot of great detail. I want to feel what the person meant to the storyteller, and I want to feel their loss. So the story has to give me enough to make me care.
What’s one type of item that you’ve yet to see submitted but would love to include?
A previous contributor has a friend who apparently still has some of his dead lover’s nail clippings. His dead lover’s nail clippings! If that’s not devotion, I don’t know what is. And if you are the friend and you’re reading this, please do the world a favor and send me that story today.
What were some of the most moving submissions that you’ve received thus far?
The ones involving children who died are especially affecting, because we’re not supposed to outlive our children. But almost every story has at least one moment that makes my face crumple. “The Artificial Larynx,” by Rachel Cline, is one I think about often. It’s about her father, who was “a man of few words.” In his old age he had to have his larynx and esophagus removed, and the night before the operation, this elderly taciturn man who’d spent his life “barely speaking more than a sentence at a time” taped himself reciting two poems by Yeats and recounting childhood memories. Making the choice of what to preserve in the face of irretrievable loss: I find that almost unbearably poignant.
“The Forest Gnome,” too. The writer, Catherine Coundjeris, is an adult writing about her big brother, who died as an adult, but throughout the whole story you feel the childlike love she still has for him. He was the kind of person who was deeply tuned in to the magical in the world — ”his eyes saw the beauty” — and he gave that gift to his sister too. So the story is rich with wonder and imagination — the ghosts of trees are contained in the pages of books, that sort of thing — and at the end Catherine writes: “I believe that at the moment of death, when the veil was lifted, he knew the secrets of the universe, and it was all good.” His eyes saw the beauty in the world, hers saw the beauty in him. How can you not be moved?
But there are also stories that are a total hoot. “Mommom’s Stapler,” by Jeremy Lejeune, is about a very independent grandma who, among other things, was so hellbent on making good time when she drove that she kept a Tupperware in her car in case she had to pee. You should probably stop what you’re doing and go read about her right now.
What precious physical item of yours feels most symbolic of *your* life? What object would you want your family to hold onto?
Oh, trust me, my family well knows what’s meaningful to me — the giant china cat that’s in The Keepthings’ logo, the little green foil tree that always sat on my Nana Pauline’s radiator at Christmas, etc., etc. But what I’d love to be able to do is check in from the afterlife and see what they keep because it’s meaningful to them. What they think most symbolizes me. That’s the crazy, confounding thing about death: You’re not here to see. All you can do is hope you meant enough for someone to want to keep a little bit of you around.