Prompt: What I Kept of My Ex

I asked my friends if they could do something for me. Take a photo of something from a previous relationship that you’ve held onto, and tell me a little bit about why you kept it. It was inspired in part by a conversation I had with my boyfriend, and in part by an afternoon curled up with my stack of old journals. Why do we keep these mementos, and what do they tell us about ourselves?

What I didn’t realize was that the question “what have you kept?” would cause people to go back through these things and, well, feel stuff. It wasn’t until the last day if this project that I went into my own closet and took a real look at the things I’d hung onto. It was startling. I have small mementos from just about everyone I’ve ever gotten significantly close to, friends, or boyfriends. Photos, letters, notes, small gifts, little tokens I’ve forgotten the importance of. I actually used this opportunity to sort out what I wanted to keep and what I didn’t want to keep, and it was hard for me. I had to call back to something I’d read in Marie Kondos book re: tidying. Mementos are the hardest to get rid of, but ask yourself this question: does the person this memory is attached to even remember it exists? (For me the answer was a resounding probably not.)

With much fanfare, here are the submissions:

This is a ring gifted to me by a man I dated when I was 19-20 and again at 21. The ring was a very thoughtful gift, combining my draw to all things Scandinavian, and my wanderlust. The runes on the ring were picked out by my then boyfriend to ensure a safe journey wherever I go. I’ve held onto it and still wear it when I’m not working (rings hurt when tree climbing), and he and I are still friends to this day.
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This is the only note I have kept from C. It is, of course, a beautiful lie. But I hold onto it because, as much as it was nothing more than fantasy, I like to imagine that maybe it meant something. It is a lovely thought, like a good story that makes you smile even though you know it can’t possibly be part of reality.

So I hold onto this note to remember that even the ugliest situations can have glimmers of joy. Even if they are without meaning, the smiles were real enough.

Still, though, there is a lingering sense of hurt. So even looking at this note isn’t enough to produce the smile it was meant to bring.

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 ‘Do you know you are a good person? And I like you! Interesting.’


My ex lent me his shirt for the last Blazers game we went to together. I really loved going to games with him.

He didn’t talk to me for two months after he broke up with me. I suppose I could have a mutual friend pass it along, but it’s been so long now that I feel weird about it. Mostly it just sits tucked away in my bottom drawer. I feel a pang of hurt every time I see it.

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David Bowie… Random, I know. But for whatever reason the guy, let’s call him Max, the guy who made me realize it was capable to love two people at the same time, we shared a love for David Bowie. Every time I see that magical figure or hear his captivating music it transfers me back to last year when we were still together. Nights of cudding next to Max, the way he brushed my hair out of my face and followed it up with “you’re so beautiful.” It moves me to this day.

When David Bowie passed away I was heartbroken. Not just because a legend died, but it transfered me back to Max when I thought I was over it all. Apparently not. He still holds a piece of my heart. We loved each other more than we anticipated, which made his primary worry and uncomfortable. We had to end it, though neither of us wanted to. It’s always hard, still is.

“The stars look very different today.” They have ever since that night we decided to walk away from it all.

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I realized recently that I’d gradually and dispassionately gotten rid of all the sentimental items from past relationships. They’d all become meaningless junk to me. Whenever I’d come across one of these mementos, it was like finding someone else’s clutter. So now it appears that I’ve thrown the last of them away without even noticing when it happened.

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My ex boyfriend’s tack hammer. It was the longest relationship I had (over two years). We met when I was 18 so I didn’t know what to look for as far as red flags. He was emotionally abusive, possessive, and hypocritical. Even though this hammer and the hard-learned lessons are the only traces of this relationship in my life, they’re both very useful so I keep them around.

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This is a drawing an ex gave me for my birthday in 2009. I kept it because our relationship was this intense mess of two damaged people using each other over and over again. To look back on it, you’d think there wasn’t any moment of tangible affection from her, just desperate emotion from me. Except this picture that she worked a whole weekend on showing the story of how we met. That was a sign it was at least somehow more real than imagined.

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This was from a boyfriend I met my senior year of college (he was an Officer in the Marine Corps). We dated off and on for about 3 years. The off and on stemmed from the inevitable difficulty of keeping an emotional connection across the miles that separated me from him and whichever base he was moved to, let alone fearing deployments. We would have a perfect few weeks when he was on leave and then he’d be gone and every day was lonely/combative/frustrating – texts taken the wrong way, long distance phone calls that consisted of crying or arguing, flowers sent to make up for what he couldn’t provide in person. He wrote me this letter toward the end of our relationship. The fact that it’s on base stationary makes it feel like a memory from a movie. It was the first time he sat down and perfectly explained why we couldn’t work (the military had to come first), but also why he wished we could and the sadness he felt in realizing someone could do a better job of loving me. Telling me I deserved that. It all fit on one page and tied every loose end I had desperately tried to resolve for myself for years. A closure so well crafted that I keep it.

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As these things tend to go in unhappy relationships, I was unhappy but didn’t see a way out. I finally went to a therapist who told me to make a pro and con list. I think putting it down on paper made me see the quality and quantity of evidence on one side versus the other and gave me the strength to have the tough conversation. When I did break up with her, it was terrible. But I stuck to my guns, for once, and ended up falling into the arms (waiting, I learned later) of a friend. 2 years later we’re still together.

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7 Comments

  1. This is so interesting! I have jewelry that I’ve kept, not for sentimental reasons, but just because I like the pieces. A while ago I gave away stuffed animals from all my exes. I feel like I keep a lot of non-physical things in my mind though.

    1. Absolutely! I think jewelry is a lot easier to hang on to. I have only received one piece of jewelry from an ex and I got it when I was, maybe, 17? I still have it even though the string to the necklace broke. I honestly don’t get a lot of joy when I look at it though, so I might be reaching the point where I get rid of it.

  2. I never knew how much these small mementos and tokens of past relationships really meant to me until they were gone unfortunately. If I’d had any say, I’d still have all of them: the dandelion given to me by a sweet reckless boy, the dry board eraser that had ‘I love kaitlyn’ written on it by my first love that I found under my desk in 8th grade math class, the cheap jewelry, a golf ball and tee from an ex who was a groundskeeper at the country club, the snickers wrapper from the first time I got high with the boyfriend who took my virginity, and the hundreds of letters, from boyfriends, friends, best friends, including the countless letters sent by that same first love from county jail and later a shock camp. They were all so important to me, though it sounds like junk. Maybe it’s because I was afraid I’d forget everything if I didn’t have these things. I have almost no memories of my childhood, hardly any of my father who passed away when I was 7. I’m guessing the fear of losing the people important to me, and not being able to remember anything about them, was what made me keep everything. It’s sad that I basically knew when I was younger that almost every single person I kept these mementos from wouldn’t be a part of my life in the future. It doesn’t even matter that much to me if the person would remember them or what they signified. Just having those pieces of my past was comforting. But of course I left the shoeboxes at my childhood home, and my mom threw them away thinking they were junk. Not her fault but it’s still almost devastating to think of all that, just gone. This was an amazing and thoughtful post. Thank you.

    1. Thank you! Do you keep a physical journal? That helps me a lot. In fact, if I had shared something it likely would have been a journal entry about a person, not a physical token. It can offer the same comfort, I think.

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