Flea markets are a bonanza for those who covet small objects well-loved by others. Sepia-toned, unsmiling portraits, vintage tin toys and embroidered French linen are arranged in neat rows on sellers’ tables as my dad and I wander the aisles. I spot something we’ve been looking for, and find him in the crowd to share my discovery, my hand on his arm, “Look what I found!” We travel time in the wonder of another’s belongings. He’s so good at that imagining, and he shares my love of the treasure hunt.

Uncle Tom in 1939 on Papa Harrington’s horse and saddle. Photo courtesy of Nori Sterling Gale

We are both savers, too. This trait does not allow for tidy homes. We believe we could one day use that stray scrap of fabric or bit of velvet ribbon, and that the memory arising from a forgotten ticket stub makes it worth keeping.

Being a saver can prove worthwhile, though not always in the ways we anticipate. Getting the call two decades ago that a friend had died, I experienced something akin to shock. I didn’t cry for months. Then one day a song came on the radio, and I couldn’t see the road for the tears that flowed. At home I uncovered the wooden box that held her letters – she was a world traveler working on her Ph.D. in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. When I finally allowed myself to grieve, I sat at my kitchen table, opened that box and pored over her beautiful words. The keepsakes were there, and she’d been transported from wherever she’d gone into my kitchen that night.

My dad is also a letter-writer and story-teller, often recounting tales of his childhood and details from the lives of our ancestors. Artifacts accompany his narrative: One is my great-grandfather’s saddle, bought from a saddler in Abilene, Texas. The story goes that Papa’s father gave him the coveted Cheyenne saddle for his 12th birthday in 1892. They were traveling south from Salix, Iowa, to Galveston, Texas, to work on the railroad. Imagining my great-grandfather touching the leather of his saddle as he picked it out and all the times he hauled it onto a horse thereafter, I can feel him in the soft, oiled leather. My hands find the places where his hands once gripped the worn hide. I am touching the shadow of his touch.

The treasures I keep for myself are miniatures, tiny blue, purple and orange blown-glass bottles, thimble-sized. A furry baby lamb, the size of a thumbprint. And what my family affectionately calls “guys” – any small figure of wood, stone or glass gathered from far away by anyone who loves me. These are my keepsakes, worn a little from play. Paint rubbed off here and there. Better for it.

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