The Keepsake

THERE is a major and a minor quality to every good gift, qualities that may well be termed altruistic and egoistic elements. We give from two motives: first, to confer happiness by the possession of an object, and second, to be remembered by that gift. We may have one reason or the other, or both, for giving; but it is the keepsake quality in presents that the lover or the friend has most need to study if he would play the game aright.

There are gifts enough that are purely altruistic, the gifts of unselfish love, from our mother’s first milk to the last friendly offices of the grave. Such gifts need little art, for the want speaks loudly and must be heard. We give, indeed, in such cases, only what we owe to friendship, as we give food to the hungry or clothes to the naked. We cannot satisfy every want, but what we do give is a symbol of our willingness to give all. Through our so doing the presentation becomes not so much an event as a part of the necessary course of friendship. The father’s allowance, the uncle’s jackknife, and such Christmas presents as come only because the time calls for the ceremony, forge no new links in the chain of relationship. They are debts due us upon the mutual account of love. And so we, in the giving, expect nothing more than that the recipient should be pleased,— the “oh!” and the “ah!” are all our payment.

As in the old rhyme:

“ When the Christmas morning came,
Both the children bounced from bed —
' Whe-ew! Whe-ew ! ’
That was all the children said ! ”

and forthwith, the present, which had never been a part of us, becomes a part of our friend. We are not attempting, in satisfying such desires, to confer upon ourselves a vicarious immortality.

But the lover or the friend has other requirements to fulfill. He desires to present a true keepsake, a permanent and live thing, not a dead one, an instrument whose mainspring is memory, that, like a clock, shall ring out his hour with musical chimes of recollection whenever its time comes. It may be called egoistic to wish this, but it is not necessarily selfish, for what better gift can he give than a part of himself ? What, then, can he find to give that will serve him loyally during his absence ? He is paying no debt, now, remember; he has to do with rites, not rights, — not with demands, but delights. He is planting a seed whose flower shall be remembrance.

First, then, a true keepsake must come as a surprise, not as the answer to a longfelt desire. For, with an object too much wished for, associated thoughts cluster so closely that the memory of the giver has no place to stick. One has wanted it for so long that, its possession obtained, what one will think of is of that old, envious desire, and not of how it was satisfied. One must necessarily unconsciously recall one’s first vivid admiration or one’s need, and then, perhaps, consciously and shamefully, the donor to whom one owes the gift. And so the giver loses in this psychological competition. The gift has still its intrinsic worth, but none of that extrinsic charm with which, as a true keepsake, it should be gilded.

So you may buy that particular piece of blue Canton she likes and has admired if you will: but if you do, you sacrifice your memory upon the altar of friendship. What will she remember first and best ? Only that particular shelf in the cupboard of the curiosity shop where it used to sit, and the old silver teapot that stood beside it! She will have in her nostrils, as she handles it, now, not the perfume of your friendship, but the dusty, mouldy odor of antiques. She will not see it illumined by the color of your love, so much as by that vagrant shaft of sunshine that came through the window to play upon the old mirror. It is not her fault, but yours. She is at the mercy of the subconscious self. Oh, you have done well to please her! It was kind and generous, — but, in love’s service, that is not enough. You might have given her a keepsake; you have but made a present. She will try, — oh, how she will try! — to be grateful every time she looks at it; but you could have made it so easy that it would have required no conscious attempt of her will.

So memory plays queer pranks with us. She never brings back the important, crucial event first; she loves better the minor episodes of life, and especially the little trivial, meaningless accidents, details, and curiosities of the commonplace. We forget how Caruso sang, but we remember how a cat walked absurdly across the stage. May we not, therefore, take advantage of the quirks of such unreasoning recollections, and twist them to our own ends ?

For see! The opposite method, the reversal of the picture, shows how easily we may play upon the familiar and the wonted thought, how we may appeal to the subconscious. You have but to reach to the plate-shelf of your own dining-room and hand down the piece of blue Canton and give it her, when, marvelously, you have given not it, but yourself, into her keeping! There’s a gift that will last, a constant, delightful memory of you forever. Why, it is fairly soaked in you, and all her envy can but make it the more highly prized. Have her eyes turned lingeringly upon its beauty? You have turned that longing into satisfied pleasure when she thinks how she has used it at your board so many, many times. There’s a color that will never wear off. There’s memory that will not crack or chip. There’s the true psychology of the keepsake. It has become as much a part of you, in her thought, as a lock of your hair. Of all gifts, those that have been owned and loved by the giver are the true memorabilia, and most to be prized, most to be swayed by and sweetly spelled.

There’s much difference, too, in the giving of gifts, between the satisfying of a want and the gratification of a wish. To surprise your friend with the answering of a need that was unconscious is a victory that ensures remembrance. There was a man who slept for a year on a bed without realizing that it was hard and full of lumps. A friend slept with him. once, and complained of the discomfort; the owner never lay in the bed again without misery. There was a case for a gift that would have endured. Had the friend but replaced the old mattress by a new one, he would have been remembered every night. So it is with less humorous cases. The keepsake is meant usually not to feed an old hunger, but to help one to acquire a new taste. What your friend wished he has so coated with desire that he will never remember you who gave it unless you present him with your own possession. What he wants he may not know that he wants, or, in other words, he may not yet desire. You must study him with a friendly eye, you must scientifically examine his temperament, his taste, his moods; and it will go hard if, whether by paraphrasing an expressed desire, or by taking the hint from some unconscious admiration, you do not find the loadstone that shall attract his magnet. Put not your faith in a mere whim, — for of nothing does one grow so tired and resentful as of the passed fancy, — but try him again and again till the test is sure.

Gifts of one’s own handiwork are, of course, true keepsakes. But the object must be a desirable one, it must have some place in the economy of your life, and not be a mere superfluity, or else it gathers pity rather than remembrance. The most delicate and exquisite present, though it expresses the loving care of your friend, does not fulfill its purpose as a remembrancer, unless it ministers to some need other than an æsthetic one; and the poorest, crudest bit of handwork, if it is usable, will be lovingly preserved, — use will gild its worth and color its homely tones. The thing that is a mere object of art is, so far as its keepsake value is concerned, a dead thing, and it gathers the rust and dust of forgetfulness. It is only itself.

The true gift must not be too trivial, if it is to minister to a permanent emotion. If it is too poor, it loses itself in the background of one’s daily life, it becomes, again, merely property, it becomes a part of the recipient rather than of the giver. A trifle, if it has no previous associations, can hold sentiment, but not for long. The case is fragile, and a mood can break it. The dead rose may be treasured for a while; but put another beside it, and its perfume of memory and sentiment soon dies. No; if a memory is to be enshrined, the reliquary must itself be beautiful and worthy. It must be a thing apart from common things, it must testify to its sacred contents. The jewel of friendship should be set in a ring of pure gold. The thimble she used to wear the knife he kept always in his pocket, — these are of a different category, like the blue Canton piece that stood upon the sideboard; but, though you pick a pebble from the shore upon the very day of days, you cannot make a gem of it, and it will lose lustre and fade.

So, though you cannot arbitrarily assign an extrinsic interest by the mere mandate of the will, there are still ways of tricking the memory. There is craft in the manner of giving, of which a true psychologist can avail himself. To give impulsively, dramatically, picturesquely often ensures remembrance of the presentation by the same appeal to the subconscious reflexes of thought. Tear the chain from your neck in a mood of magnanimity and give it with a divine impulse, and you thread it with jewels brighter than the stars. Hide the ring under her pillow so that she shall find it, when, languid and susceptible, she prepares for dreams, and you give her a living poem she cannot forget. Does all this seem coldblooded and premeditated ? Perhaps; and yet so are memories coerced —so are the links riveted upon the lovely fetters of friendship. We give more than the gift when we give a piece of throbbing life. We give an event, not an episode; we give an immortal excitement. And indeed, such gifts are themselves keepsakes, though we attach to them no concrete object for a symbol. He who makes things happen is never forgotten, and she who punctuates life with memorable emotions lives for aye. Consciously or unconsciously done, these are the ways in which nature herself is tricked, for we do but play her own game. All’s fair in love. The thing can be overdone, it is true, and we cannot always succeed with our experiments in the psychological laboratory; but the secret is there for him who dares attempt the reaction.

It is more blessed to give than to receive, we are told, and he who takes his fill of this rare joy must not find fault if his gifts sometimes are forgotten. Too much giving defeats remembrance,— that is the effect of the mother’s fostering care; when we give overmuch we do but create an atmosphere of kindness and consideration, a monotonous temperature of love that does not pique and kindle the emotions, but keeps the coals of friendship at the smouldering point. Our friend’s memory is apt to become jaded by our very excess, and then he is at the mercy of the first little, solitary gift from another, which makes its own appeal the more insistently from the contrast with our own generosity. The one thing is treasured ardently, and all the rest accepted as a matter of course. The multiplicity of gifts deadens the sense of relationship; the things themselves are no longer hypnotically suggestive. Of course this cannot rob them of their altruistic quality, but the lover loses on the investment.

And so, as there is an art in giving, there should be a metaphysic as well, to counteract the effect of mere accumulations. If one’s gifts are consistently original and individual, they may, by this quality, defeat the cloying effect of quantity. Such gifts should point all to one purpose, like Cupid’s little arrows, flying in different directions, all aimed at the same heart. The goal is secret, a mysterious truth, undefinable, perhaps; but the object should be felt, even if not understood. This unity of aim should correlate all one’s gift-giving. Happy is he of whom it can be said, “Why has n’t he given me this? It would be so like him!” or, “No one could possibly have given me this but he, for it is himself! ” Some presents must, of course, be given altruistically from the sheer delight of giving unselfishly, to satisfy a felt want, and with no ulterior motive; but these will not matter if the main trend of one’s giving be toward that end, — the creating in our friend’s mind of an image of us that will endure, an image toward which each gift has an adjuvant and a cumulative meaning, all pointing to the ideal of our friendship.

And so, in this game of love, we try to kill two birds with one stone. This is the true economy of friendship and of mutual happiness. There is room enough besides for self-sacrifice, for unrequited devotion, for unrewarded service, — we do all that gladly. But may we not, if we can, be happy too in being remembered ? We must, willy-nilly, build our own little egoistic altar, praise-bedecked. The circle of selfishness has often been traced through the emotions, and one can prove any renunciation, any sacrifice, to be due to motives concerned with our own pleasure. Love, of all emotions, is most complex; it baffles analysis. In its highest form is it most selfish or unselfish ? Is service or happiness its greatest reward ? No one can tell.

We know, too, that “not to be doing, but to be ” wins love, wherefore such games as giving of gifts seem futile and of no avail to preserve remembrance. But none the less, if we love we must give, and, giving, is it not best to give with thought, with meaning, and with purpose, that best gift of all — ourselves?