For my 18th birthday, my best friend drove down to the beach, scooped a few handfuls of the ocean into a spray bottle and gifted me the salt water, sealed tightly in its container and tied neatly with a bow.
For my 16th, I was handed a heap of uncooked glittery noodles, dyed various neon colors and strung together into macaroni necklaces.
Another year, I received a plush SpongeBob toy. It is permanently perched on my bed, grinning its two buck teeth at passersby. Much to my roommate’s dismay, the stuffed companion is capable of making the most annoying of noises with even the smallest touch. Nothing like rolling over in the middle of the night to hear the familiar, shrilling laugh of Mr. SquarePants.
I got a sandwich for my 20th orbit around the sun. But not just any sandwich. No, you Midwesterners wouldn’t understand. This sandwich was crafted by the hands of a New York delicatessen clerk and shipped across several states (don’t worry, the flavor was preserved), just in time for me to ring in my next year with a mouthful of chicken cutlet.
A charm bracelet with our high school’s school mascot; an elaborate platter of waffles because they were my breakfast food of choice at the time; a pair of socks adorned with small cutouts of my face; a small sticker of two comic strip characters that has been pasted on my laptop for two years, given to me by people I’d known for merely two months. The laundry list of odd yet meaningful gifts goes on.
I’ve always been pretty keen on birthdays. I think they serve as a wonderful excuse to reflect on a year’s worth of shared memories or to reach out to those with whom you’ve lost touch. Ironically, however, my own annual celebration does not pique my interest quite as much.
Maybe it’s the obligatory “wow life moves so fast” birthday cry, or my inner introvert’s instinctual reaction to any overdose of attention, but I prefer to observe the holiday in a subdued manner. It isn’t a party or a dinner that excites me, and, contrary to any conclusions drawn from the first four paragraphs of this piece, it isn’t a gift either. Yet each year, despite my half-hearted “no gifts necessary” orders, I’m overwhelmingly and pleasantly surprised by the unpredictably personal presents I receive.
I’ll admit: I’m a slight hoarder with a chronic case of nostalgia. This creates a recipe for an intense appreciation for objects that carry any sentimental value. That’s what I’ve come to look forward to — the annual recollection of obscure memories and laughs and their materialization into something tangible. I’d rather receive 10 macaroni necklaces — an unconventional sweet-16 gift — than a real, inedible necklace. They signify some inside joke of little importance five years later, but one that meant a great deal to 16-year-old me.
I keep most of my meaningful artifacts in a shoebox under my bed back home. Not the perishable sandwiches and waffles or leaky ocean bottles, but the items that can fit neatly and exist eternally in my timeless cardboard container.
I sometimes worry that the box will accidentally be discarded, mistaken for a collection of meaningless objects instead of the treasure trove of artifacts that it is. Small landmarks of friendships made and some since faded, momentos of bygone eras of my past — these keepsakes are items I have few plans of ever parting with.
The contents of my memory box are not solely birthday gifts; I’ve done my fair share of accumulating random objects over the years. The pair of eye glasses that cracked in half upon my failure to catch the ball during my adolscent days as a spastic and half-blind basketball player; the detention slip I was handed for excessive pen tapping in 10th-grade calculus; the hideous, tattered khaki shorts I wore for six years to my summer job. I will never, beyond a reasonable doubt, wear those again — they are stained, ripped and now far too small — but throwing them out seems criminal. So into the time capsule they go.
I turn 21 this month, so I’ve already begun my yearly reflection on another 365 days in the books. My favorite part is taking note of the change — the kind that builds slow, gradual momentum, secretly collecting small droplets of moments to pour into one giant bucket. Then, without warning, the bucket tips over. The water rushes over you and there is no choice but to acknowledge that, right under your nose, so much has changed. You’re no longer walking familiar, narrow hallways where pen tapping is a crime punishable by one or more days in detention and the friend who gave you a bottle filled with the beach you once both called home is hundreds of miles away.
But you’ve made new friends — the ones you’d known for two months who bought you the laptop sticker. With them, you’ve laughed and cried and collectively acquired peculiar but meaningful objects to put in a new shoebox beneath your dorm room bed — a bunk bed actually because, despite being a nearly legal person, many of your habits err on the side of childish.
A dramatic apology note handwritten on stationary from your first college quarrel; the plane ticket from when your spring break was rudely interrupted by a plague of sorts; the operating manual for the 35-year-old bike you and your friends half-jokingly purchased on Craigslist last year.
Items in a box. At face value, that’s really all they are. Their intrinsic worth is largely derived from their immunity to the change that sneaks up on us all and to the passage of time. And that worth doesn’t depreciate with time; it appreciates as the distance between then and now grows.
So much of life is fleeting and temporary and resistant to our meek attempts at counteracting change. This year, I’m reflecting on and thankful for the constants — the memories that won’t fade because I’ve captured them in material form and locked them away forever. I hope that in my 22nd year I accumulate the most odd and meaningful objects yet … there’s plenty of room in my shoebox.