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The Treasures We Keep: Author


“Gloria said that her mother had kept all these things safe for her in her cedar box, and she spoke about the importance of discovering them there after her mother’s death.”

book cover Treasures
This sentence, taken from Treasures: the Stories Women Tell About the Things They Keep, by Kathleen V. Cairns and Elaine Leslau Silverman, will probably evoke another image for most of us. It will remind us of something we ourselves keep to bring back someone from our past.

Researchers Cairns and Silverman from the University of Calgary found that women keep a wide assortment of materials including letters, photos, plaques, tiny boxes, wall hangings, and items of clothing. And these objects are often preserved and handed down to family members, or passed along to other women, thereby connecting generations of women.

In Treasures, the researchers tell stories culled from interviews with more than 100 women, aged 14 to 92, and representing women’s diverse lives and circumstances. These stories are rich, compelling and sometimes haunting.

Ruth Dempsey reached co-author Dr. Kathleen Cairns in her office at the University of Calgary to speak about the book.

RD: You begin with: “Every woman’s story is a story of creating herself. The act of keeping a particular thing is always an act of self-definition.” Can you talk to us about the treasures women keep and the role these objects play in their lives?

KC: I often return to my own memory box to revisit events and people, or moments in time that have been central to my understanding of who I am as a person, a woman and a mother.  Understanding that other women also practice this kind of life review – that they use objects as keys to experiencing again the people, places and events that are central to their lives – confirms my belief that every woman’s life contains both great joy and great tragedy, and that these experiences are active in shaping our present and our future.

I believe that our efforts to understand ourselves are central to our ability to support and nurture others, and to our ability to forgive ourselves for our past errors and work through present difficulties. In a sense, these objects are containers for experience, gateways to memory, confirmation that we lived and struggled. They are anchors that represent our values and commitments and that will keep us alive in the memories of the people who cared for us and understand their meanings.

RD: This idea of ‘objects as containers and anchors for experience’ emerges as a powerful theme in the book. In other words, it’s not the objects themselves, but the meanings women invest in them that give them their importance. Can you tell us about two or three of the women and their treasures?

KC: Several different examples stand out for me as particularly clear instances of the role of these ‘treasures’ in women’s lives. One was the travel documents kept by a refugee to remind her of her many losses and of her new freedom.

Another was the thick braid of hair cut off by a girl at the age of about 13 when her father abandoned her (as she saw it) to be with another woman. They had had an evening ritual together of his combing and braiding her long hair in preparation for going off to bed. When he left, she cut the braids off, sent him one and kept one in her memory box – a reminder of lost love and a marker of a sea change in her life.

Anne’s dolls have an opposite message – confirming her father’s love for her by recalling how he struggled against poverty and a severe winter to get the new eyes for a cherished baby doll that her brother had broken.

I think that the other kind of story that had the strongest impact on me were the larger number of objects used to remember grandmothers. I think that going into the study neither Elly nor I had any idea how important grandmothers are in girls’ lives. But they are hugely important.

RD: Your book struck a personal chord – so many of the stories resonated with my own. Please tell us about your feelings on completing the study.

KC: I felt that I had learned a great deal from the women we interviewed, and very grateful for their willingness to spend time with us and to trust us with their stories. I felt too that I wanted as many women as possible to read it – get on Oprah with it, since it speaks to something we all experience.

I thought that women who read it might feel more strongly connected to other women and more accepting of their own need to keep these treasures. I still feel that way about it, but it’s not, after all, the kind of book that is a ‘good read’ – the kind you read in one or two sittings. It is a book meant to be read in pieces and to provide ‘food for thought.’ So, probably not likely to be widely read, sadly.

Treasures is published by the University of Calgary Press and can be bought in most bookstores.