Why I Keep The Stuff My Exes Gave Me

Why throw away knick-knacks from exes? You can clear away the objects, but you can’t forget their associations, says Emily Heist Moss.

On my bookshelf, there’s a sculpture made of sticks and stone, wire and glue. It’s a bird, arching dangerously away from its small base, precariously balanced, swaying when my errant hip grazes the edge of the shelf. It’s called “Oh, Hello,” and I love it for its delicacy, for the shadows it casts, and for its surprising resilience. It was a gift from an ex-boyfriend.

One evening, several months ago, we went for a “stick hunt.” While walking around a nearby pond, he stooped frequently to collect twigs, bark, rocks, and other natural and unnatural scraps that caught his fancy. I noticed none of the specialness that he saw, the features that made this stick perfect and that stick useless. Despite my attempts to learn the patterns, most of my suggested sticks were deemed inadequate. Back at the house, I watched basketball while he sat at the dining room table and painstakingly glued and wired the collection of odds and ends into this thing, “Oh, Hello,” that now occupies prime real estate in my apartment. 

When we broke up, I thought about throwing my bird away. I got as far as tossing the pile of unused wood and bark, and that was hard enough. It confirmed a fact that I intellectually knew but had yet accept, that this, the first, would also be the last bird sculpture.

These are the most recent, but not the only, exhibits in my personal break-up museum. There’s a book of science fiction short stories on the bottom of a to-read stack, given to me by a Star Trek obsessed college boyfriend. There’s a folded piece of notebook paper with a name, a phone number, and a picture of a T-Rex tacked to the bulletin board, a parting gift from a very creative fling. Best of all, I have two matching ceramic models of the Vatican, one from an ex, a sincere gift after months of travel, the other from a friend, jokingly offered to complete the set.

I could cleanse my apartment, and my life, of these reminders, but obviously the break-up museum isn’t just a roster of physical objects. There are street names and intersections, songs, movies, a certain wine shop, puns, riddles, jokes, scents, and very specific types of weather that will forever (or at least, for a while), trigger memories of that person and that period. The objects could be buried, or burned, but I can’t unmake the associations. Why would I want to?

There are fond memories attached to each of these objects, wrapped inextricably from the sad ones. I had never been stick-hunting until the maker of the sculpture showed me how to look a little more closely. Star Trek was just a nerdfest until the sci-fi guy exposed the great human dilemmas and moral arguments behind the silly costumes. There is a story—painful, pleasant, sweet, and sad—behind each of these exhibits, and I’m not willing to forfeit the stories for the temporary and transient relief of cleaning house.

We can’t extract the joy and leave the husk of disappointment behind. That’s not how it works, but we do get to choose how we remember the donors who added to our break-up museums. Rather than mourn the last of the bird sculptures, I’d rather be happy I went stick-hunting at all.

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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