the memory keeper

Held discreetly between the palms of my hands, or grasped tightly in a clutch of one, I carry my identity in a compact bundle. Small laminated and paper rectangles slide inside into slots. Paper money, unfolded or halved, and a handful of change finds space elsewhere. 

We cling to our wallets, identifying who we are in a concentrated capsule—driver’s license, medical insurance card, a credit card, a photo of a loved one, to name a few. If ever lost, we’re frantic. Who we are seems to have vanished, too.

I recently dug into a metal file box. My hands found puddles of rosaries, a wooden cross with a hidden compartment on the back of Jesus’ feet, a small ceramic statue of Mary, and a grass-green envelope with copies of my mother’s obituary and death certificate. My fingers passed through the sharpness of beads, the roughness of wood, the clamminess of heavy coated paper. And then something soft and smooth. The feel of her leather wallet ran deep with the physical and wide with her being.

The red wine-stained wallet came from Italy, where I was on vacation over twenty years ago. It was one I had picked with my mother’s taste in mind from a plethora of leather goods being sold by an old, bent man dressed in black who tended a wooden cart in Sienna. The wallet was simple in design, shaped like American currency, and its opening of a lengthwise fold in half was secured with a gold-tone clasp, an elegant detail I knew my mother would like. And inside, a social security card, driver’s license, Medicare and insurance cards, one credit card, and a never-used library card, among other cards, were filed as tangible evidence of her history. The expired ones, she held on to like keepsakes, in remembrance of her days when she used to drive a car, or in hope that one day she will make it to the library.

Steeped into the leather’s grain were remnants of her, her favorite rose-scented hand crème, and lingering spritzes of L’air du Temps Eau de Toilette. The wallet appeared newer despite its regular use of taking it from and putting it into her purse, and the positioning of it in her hands just so, to enable her to open the clasp. The once stiffness of the leather had softened, yet remained strong, and the essence of its owner remained embedded, deep into the seams and cracked lines.

From our journals, to address and date books, to our favorite literature classics, what is kept between leather covers are our most beloved stories, ones that are written about ourselves, and the appointments we keep with others. As for a leather wallet, we have marked adulthood with our first one, carried our first paychecks, money earned from a summer job, and a driver’s license. We got a wallet when we actually had something to put into it. It became the start of a story of our selves.

I was intrigued to learn that there are several meanings of leather and its symbolism, from strength, power and independence, to wisdom, perseverance and protection. Leather has been used from ancient Rome and continues into modern-day. It is a symbol of elegance, style and power with an ability to showcase a unique beauty and importance in whatever it may cover . . . or hold. Think first editions or classics of literature. Because it is a natural material, it’s easy to see how it can be associated with the earth and the elements. When you wear leather, or hold it in your hands, you are connecting yourself to the natural world in a very real way.

There’s a particular feel we are drawn to when running our hands over a leather wallet. Stained from the touches of oily, dirty fingers, worn from being tossed into a purse, or shoved into a back pocket, it is malleable, conforming to the fit of our hands or the contours of a backside. It seems we have grown into it, and it has molded into us.

The feel of leather is one thing, but the smell of it is certainly another. I describe it as earthy, woodsy, maybe smokey, a little burnt. All the evoked scents can remind me of nature and my connection with it. Inhaling a leather scent makes me feel grounded and centered. Its scent can also awaken memories of its owner who may have passed.

The leather that binds tells a story of our years, starting in early adulthood and continuing our journey, accompanying us through the ups and downs of our lives. Our history is noted by plastic cards on the inside and the wearing of the leather on the outside. Much like reading the palm of your hand, where traces of where we came from, where we are, and where we’re headed are revealed in the imprinted lines, our stories, our selves are ingrained in its wearing.

Over the years, elements of our identification are replaced. Outdated photos, entry cards to an office building or fitness center have been discarded because we have a new job and no longer go to the gym. We clean out our wallets, updating our life stories.

My mother’s red wallet is in memory of her. When I peak inside and see the tangible traces of her existence, when running my hands over the engrained leather, I think of her hands in mine. Our wallets are our memory-keepers soaked into their origin and because of this, we hold on to them for a very long time.