The Matter of Things

An illustration  depcits a hauntiong image of a figue wading in a lake.

As a child, I gathered rocks and leaves. I still do.

I build makeshift altars, always at least two, around my home outside Rochester, N.Y. There’s a candle; some matches; a dark, smooth pebble; a red velvet box. I prop up postcards, then make a still life with shale fossils, oyster shells, and rough-cut rose quartz; a watch my mother’s parents gave to my father at the time of his marriage; a folded handkerchief; a crimson maple leaf curled and resting, open like an elder’s palm; a bronze statue of Shiva dancing as Nataraja; a delicate silver Ganesh, remover of obstacles.

Twenty-five years after my poetry professor at the University of Rochester took our class fossil hunting in the Finger Lakes on the shore of Canandaigua Lake, I still keep some of those Paleozoic fossils embedded in shale: brachiopods and trilobites on my desk.

My mother’s house is filled with 45 years of memories—dish towels, photo albums, empty yogurt containers, clothes we once wore. My parents’ neighbors began a business to help older people separate from their things, empty their houses. Caring Transitions.

It is part of the design of capitalism: buy, buy, buy. A lot of things, manufactured overseas and not meant to last. I can’t be the only one thinking things, things, things. Buy nothing—yes! But what do I—what do we—do with the things we have already accumulated along the way?

I write books because I believe memories matter. Buddhism and Hinduism both teach that attachment to the past causes suffering. I believe it. No one wants to suffer. So is it better, then, to add old grievances and injustices to the bonfire now? For certain. Old journals? Perhaps.

For me, writing a book is also a way to let things go. To share them, to not clutch at these objects and memories so fiercely. My forthcoming book braids fictional stories and imagined letters with ephemera from my actual life. There’s a photo of my brother and me, a crayon drawing from childhood, a poster of a literary reading, a photograph of a wooden fence in Sicily, handwritten letters from my friend Jim. These images don’t have captions. They are poetic pauses, not illustrations. I loved that ephemera, wanted to share it, felt that there was something magnetic and mysterious in those things that had stuck by me over the years. I could feel the pull.

In her book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams writes, “When I stand on the edge of land and sea, I feel this tension, this fluid line of transition. High tide. Low tide. It is the sea’s reach and retreat that reminds me we have been human for only a very short time.”

I won’t have my father’s watch forever. It will go to one of my nephews. (Will he want it? After him, where does it go?) And my father’s gray-and-green-and-white-checked handkerchief? No one will care. Or a letter from my grandmother in Gujarati, which I can’t read? I imagine it will be recycled as well. The telling of stories brings the beloved photographs, letters, and childhood drawings into focus to return them to us briefly—before the tide goes out once more and things drift away.

On a Saturday last fall, a blustery day with a low, bright, full moon, my mother and husband and I walked onto a bridge near where the river crosses the Erie Canal in Genesee Valley Park in Rochester. We waited until no one was nearby. We poured half of my father’s ashes into the river, not far from the University of Rochester, where he had worked for over 20 years. The same evening, my brother and my nephews took the other half of his ashes to the Sakonnet River, a tidal strait in Rhode Island. My father had admired the view of the water from my brother’s Rhode Island home, which had satisfied our father’s one-time wish to live somewhere with a view of water.

We split my father’s ashes between two bodies of water. The Genesee River is the lifeline of Rochester and runs through traditional Haudenosaunee land. It flows north to Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes, and from Ontario empties into the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River and Seaway. The Sakonnet River empties into the Rhode Island Seaway, and from there to the Atlantic. We divided his ashes between two rivers, but both lead to the same ocean. I can’t help but note that it’s the Atlantic, not the Indian Ocean. He traveled far from the place of his birth. I live a few miles away from mine.

Some of us are storytellers, collectors, and archivists. But what happens when our time comes—where will these archives go? Poems and stories live on. They have the staying power of Paleozoic fossils and river rocks.

My father had a short temper, a generous heart, and loved poetry. He lent his childhood friend money he knew he’d never get back and sustained a prickly relationship with his only daughter. We—my father and I—are collectors of books and certain kinds of stories. He wouldn’t understand why I am writing about his handkerchief. Sometimes, I’m not certain either.

After he died, I carried my father’s driver’s license in my wallet for a month—where was it supposed to go? Later, I placed the license between the folds of his handkerchief on a cream-colored ceramic dish on my desk altar. Oyster shells, brachiopods, seed pods, leaf, dish, table. Sometimes I add a simple bouquet of flowers from Trader Joe’s or a jasmine blossom from the plant in our living room.

For nearly a decade, my husband and I collected river rocks from the shore of the Sakonnet. Some still rest in our apartment. Looking at these weighty, prehistoric-looking objects, holding them in my hands or arranging them, soothes and settles me. My husband builds cairns: stone sculptures, miniature Stonehenges. I once posted a photo on Facebook of his buildings. An old boyfriend commented: It damages the ecosystem to take those rocks away from the river. Maybe during the next few years, we will take them back. Maybe that’s another kind of gathering, a catch and release of river rocks, a catch and release of memory. Maybe this is what happens after 50. We gather ourselves, readying to go back.

Sejal Shah ’94 is the author of the forthcoming debut short story collection How to Make Your Mother Cry: Fictions (West Virginia University Press, May 2024) and the groundbreaking essay on invisible disability and neurodiversity “Even If You Can’t See It,” published in Kenyon Review. Find her online at

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