Our vacations always began in the dark. Mom would coax my sister, Sherrie, and me from bed, herding us outside to the predawn chill, the sky ablaze with stars. Slumped in the rear seat of the station wagon, we drifted back to sleep while Dad sped east across the Mojave Desert in a long-standing race between the rising sun and our car’s temperamental radiator.
Tires singing on the highway, warm wind blowing through the open windows: Forgotten desert dawns again enfold me at the sight of a palm-sized booklet of Hoover Dam scenic views, saved in a shoe box jumble from my childhood.
Why do souvenirs trail us through the years, surfacing in dusty drawers and corners? How can scraps of paper and trading-post knickknacks hold sway over time and memory?
Je me souviens: I remember.
Since humankind first realized that time passed, lovers have clung to favored tokens and travelers have tried to make tangible their intangible memories of adventure and wonder. Seashells gathered along the tide line, petals from a crumbling bouquet — each whispers: I was there, in a magic time, on a distant shore. I was there.
A red woven stole wraps me in the spring dusk of Mexico City, where I sipped cinnamon-laced cocoa at a sidewalk cafe while a vendor peddled shawls from a basket balanced on her head. My daughter’s jade goldfish pendant recalls the crowded gift shop in Guangzhou, China, where I chose it, my newly adopted baby nestled in my arms. What combination of atmosphere and circumstance blends to imprint some moments indelibly while consigning others to oblivion?
Ever poised on a cusp between past and future, we tie souvenirs to memories like string to trees along life’s path, marking the trail we travel to prevent losing ourselves around a bend of tomorrow’s road.
Found souvenirs — curious twists of wood, flaked mica clear as glass — are treasures for which we exchange time rather than money. Years ago, my friend and I spent an afternoon on a beach near Morro Bay, threading strands of sea grass through rocks bored with natural holes. We strung tidal amulets for each person camping with us that weekend, and everyone laughed when we hung those smooth gray stones around their necks. But each wore that talisman until we drove home.
Its sea-grass cord has long since withered away, but somewhere in my dresser drawer lies a wave-polished stone with a small round hole, calling me back to the sand and the sea.
The best souvenirs speak of someone as well as someplace. I once lifted the fragile remnants of dried wildflowers from between the pages of an old book. A brown shadow image of the pressed leaves and blossoms remained, as if the sunlight that warmed cuttings and collector alike 150 years ago burned into the page forever the essence of that distant golden day.
Hanging on my wall at home is a framed Souvenir de France pillow sham that my grandfather brought home from World War I. Two embroidered flags, American and French, wave against a field of lace, surrounded by gaudy ribbon roses and embroidered vines, all flattened under glass.
I try to picture Grandpa as a young doughboy, sailing home across the Atlantic with that frothy confection tucked inside his duffel bag between an Army blanket and his rhyming French phrasebook. Back in Baltimore, he surprised his mother or sweetheart with the gift. No doubt everyone admired the sham’s delicate embroidery before it was folded up and packed away. Now, nearly a century later, seamstress, ship, soldier, war, sweetheart, era — all are gone. But the souvenir remains.
My own collecting pace has slowed. Instead, I watch my daughter gather stones and shells along the way and drag me eagerly into every gift shop that we pass. And I wonder on which of her treasures time will work its magic, transmuting the favored into touchstones that will one day conjure for her the enchantment of journeys past to distant shores.