A month ago, when a shovel that had belonged to my grandfather broke, I was shoveling snow on our front walk with it, it led me to remember and write about my grandfather. My grandfather had been captain at Fire Station/Caserne 46 when he retired in the early 1940s and, years later, my mother gave me a shovel that had belonged to him. When the shovel broke I thought I would throw it out. I used to have two of these heavy iron shovels, one had already been lost when our barn burned down around 1985. I wasn't careful with the remaining shovel; I left it outside all year, behind our garden shed, it was only an old shovel; still, it had been special to my mother mainly because they don't make shovels like this anymore, it was a shovel made to last, and it had belonged to her father; "hang on to that shovel" she said.
But now, when the shovel was broken, I remembered Robert Johnson's Balancing Heaven and Earth (1998), a book I had reviewed, and in which Johnson remembers something he thought was junk and had discarded, it was a clock that had woken him for important events in his life. In the review I wrote,
As one would expect, there are many anecdotes in this memoir, always with the effect of returning us to the importance of the inner world. The resolution of life's contradictions lies in becoming more conscious, and this sometimes requires the ritualization of the mundane; Johnson describes how a broken clock that was unceremoniously discarded was later retrieved from the garbage. Alone, he made a ceremony of burying the clock, a ritual during which he remembered with fondness the many events the lock awoke him for, including leaving for Europe, visiting Dr. Jung at his home, and so on.
Thinking of this I retrieved the two parts of the broken shovel and glued them together, it was as though the shovel had never broken, it had been restored and I had the shovel as a souvenir of my grandfather. It was a memento and mementos are limited in number; sixty years after his death I have been revisited by him and reminded of the importance of one of the few things that I have that belonged to my grandfather.
I have a few mementos from my mother and I have this old shovel. But what to do with the shovel? Put it on display? Hang it on the wall? Prop it against the wall? Maybe. But this shovel will be a nuisance if I don't do something with it. And when I am gone the shovel will mean nothing to other people, it will just be an old shovel and one that will break again, if used, and then be discarded. I know why things from the past don't last, why they end up discarded even though they have a personal importance; antiques have some monetary value but most mementos have no value except to the person who values them. There is no reason why anyone will keep this old shovel after I am gone.
Being a literary person and a poet, and a teacher, I see the symbolic value of things. It is that a shovel like this was once used to clean up after a fire, or shovel snow, but while a shovel is used to dig in to the ground, to clean up things, it also has an archetypal value, a psychological value; and this is what we do, we who are archivists of memory, we see the symbolic and meaningful aspect of things pertaining to the psyche; it is one of the things that gives depth to life. The broken shovel reminded me of my grandfather and my relationship with him, it reminded me that he is important to me; his story is unique in our family's history.
As a last resort, maybe I could bury the shovel in my garden, but I am reluctant to do this, for some reason I think it is rather ghoulish; a shovel is not a corpse. It is a shovel that will live on in memory; but always knowing that these mundane things can break, be thrown out, be discarded, and even memories have a certain limited longevity, based on how long we remember. And, one day, everything is forgotten unless it is written down and, even then, everything is temporary.