Seven Treasures: a memoir series

Photo credit: Donna at An Enchanted Cottage blog:

Memory fascinates me.

Why do people remember, and forget, what they do? What triggers their memories? If they focus on an object that uncovers a memory, using “involuntary memory” as a springboard to “voluntary memory,” how deep can they go in recalling emotions and details?

What significant personal stories, unique and at the same time universal, can result from this process?

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writes famously about how a squat, plump little cake called a “petite madeleine,” when dipped in tea and tasted, evokes memories of his childhood in Combray. He describes the experience beautifully as it unfolds:

“And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.” (Read more of the quote here.)

In memoir workshops I suggest that those seeking a way into their writing begin by looking around their homes, or cottages, at the belongings they keep close. Aside from basic utility items — that vegetable brush is unlikely to elicit emotions, though you never know! — many of the items we refuse to part with, whether used regularly, hanging on a wall, set out on a dresser, or tucked away in a drawer or cupboard, may be keys to memory. Each has the potential to remind us of the distant or not-so-distant past: a person, a place, an experience.

And if we look closely, each tells us something about who we were, and who we’ve become.

For “Seven Treasures: a memoir series,” I asked writer and editor colleagues, former students, and friends to share something about their most memory-imbued belongings. The results have been a pleasure to read, the writers’ choices and the reasons behind them unique, often surprising and always revealing.

I hope these writings help you see anew some of your own cherished items, and find your way to the underlying stories that make them special to you.

~ Allyson

Explore this brimming chest of Seven Treasures guest posts.



  1. Dace Mara Zacs says:

    Allyson, your example of Marcel Proust’s “petite madeleine” illustrates just how wondrous memory is. It triggered for me a childhood memory of my great uncle, who in his youth had been an officer in the Royal Guard in the palace of Tzar Nicholas II. In Canada in the 1950s when I was a child and my great uncle was in old age, he babysat me five days a week. For lunches he taught me to make his favourite sandwich: white onion on dark rye bread.
    Now, over fifty years later, whenever I slice an white onion, I’m transported to the Winter Palace!

  2. I am loving this series, Allyson! I recently had an exchange on one of my blog posts with two long-term ‘blogosphere’ pals about how strange it is the things’ that become precious when someone we love dies. One woman found that her mothers favourite recipes were precious, when she prepares them it is as if her mother was helping her in the kitchen. And another is quite attached to her dad’s broom, which she uses nightly to sweep up and loves knowing that he had his hands on it every day, sweeping his kitchen floor. Looking forward to the rest of the series!

  3. Thank you for this lovely series. All the posts are indeed touching and poignant. My favorite keepsake treasure is mother’s handwritten diary started in 1932 when she was 14. In the front it reads, “If you are peering in this book, get out this minute! Aren’t you ashamed?” Such is the mind of a 14 year old. I’m so happy the diary was saved. She would have been 94 this month. I’m also looking forward to reading more posts.

    • Allyson Latta says:

      Thank you for dropping by, Susan, and taking time to comment on Seven Treasures. I’m pleased you’ve been enjoying it. I’ve had such fun encouraging these writers to think about their keepsakes and the stories behind them, and reading the results. Each post felt like a gift for me to unwrap. You’re very fortunate to have your mom’s diary! I love her warning message. So seldom do we stumble on actual words written by a loved one now gone — that’s certainly a treasure.

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