What We Keep

Nicole Jacobsen


‘There are two types of collectors.’                                                                                 

My mum smiled as we chatted in the living room. She was always eager for me to talk about my boyfriend. Soaked up any information I shared.

‘Of stamps?’ she asked. I Slumped on the recliner, my legs dangling off the armrest as I twisted around to face her.

‘Yeah. He’s got them all organised in these folders by country.’                        

‘When did he start doing that?’                                                                                 

‘He started collecting when he was 12, I think he said. Then got back into it when he worked at a post office in Canada. It’s actually pretty cool. He showed me the folders the other day—though they’re not called “folders, they’re called “stock books”. And he only collects stamps from before 1960 or something, I think.’                                                                       


‘He wanted some sort of cut off. Limit the amount he got. He learns a lot from it though. Like, he was explaining how each stamp has a story to it. A special reason why it was made. Maybe an occasion or to commemorate someone. The postal service was sometimes even used in propaganda and stuff too.’                 

‘So, he’s a history buff?’                                                                                                     

‘In a way, yeah. Incidental knowledge. That’s what the difference is.’                    

‘What difference?’                                                                                                               

‘He said there are people who collect stamps simply to collect them and those who collect for the sake of learning.’        

‘What a nerd,’ my mum joked. ‘He’s perfect for you.’                                                 

‘Ha ha.’                                                                                                                      

‘You should have him look at your father’s stamp collection.’                                  


This was news to me. I knew my dad collected and built model tanks and planes and remote-control cars, but I’d never heard of a stamp collection.          

‘Yeah. When we moved in here he –’                                                                              

The back screen door slid open as Dad walked inside.                                             

‘Gary.’ He lifted his eyebrows, unruly and peppered with grey. 

‘Will’s into stamps,’ she told him.                                                                                   

‘Really? I’ve got a box downstairs. I’ll get them.’                                                       

He came back upstairs with a plastic box full of albums and separate rows of stamps, like a filing cabinet, partitioned between little cardboard slips with countries hand-written on them.

‘At least you guys will have something in common.’ My dad laughed and looked over the collection with a glint of pride.  

‘Found them under the house when we moved in.’                                                   

‘Wait, these aren’t yours?’                                                                                         

‘Nope. Someone left them here. Finders’ keepers. Could be worth a lot.’             

My parents had been living in this house for over 30 years.                                   

As he walked me through the unorganised collection, it became clear he had no idea what was in it. He would hold a stamp away from his face, his glasses on the edge of his nose, and then tell me what it was like as if he had known all along.                                      

 I couldn’t help but wonder why he kept something that had no meaning to him.


Earlier this year I found a box at the back of my closet. It was full of old birthday cards, costume jewellery, trinkets and a tiny silver sequined notebook. It had one of those clasps that clicked shut on the front; an easily pickable latch serving as a lock for any nosy siblings. I opened it and was transported to the 7th grade. Disco night. Me, with ragdoll curls and a shiny blue dress with white lace trims, dressed as Cinderella. My brother, with beige material draped over bony shoulders, cinched together with a too-big brown belt, lightsaber in hand.                                                                                                                                     

I won a prize for that costume. It was a little notebook and a pen. I’d packed the notebook in a box after. Like a compulsion. A way of making sure the words I’d filled it with didn’t get lost. I laughed at myself as I read through my old diary. The humour was tinged with nostalgia. But the words meant little more to me than the ingredient list on the back of a box of shapes.                       

So, I’d held the notebook over the bin and tried to release my fingers. And found I couldn’t. 


Our family home contains monuments to our collective pasts. They tower in stacks, reside in boxes, hibernate in dark corners, and wander aimlessly like a nomadic archetype of the fantasy hero. A lot of this is unnecessary worldbuilding—too much of the iceberg showing above the surface of the water. People walk into our house and are overwhelmed by our backstory, a lifetime of info dump with hints of deep lore and stuff, stuff, stuff. It wasn’t until I visited friends’ places that I noticed their houses looked different to mine. Like hotels. Complete with cleaning ladies and rooms that no one used. Our house wasn’t dirty, it was just full. But that’s not what people saw. 

‘It’s a house full of love,’ my mum said when I told her Rebecca from school told everyone our house looked like a storage unit. ‘It’s what makes it home.’     

When I was younger, the space seemed magical. Every object had a story. Photo albums of family members I’d never met. Dresses I had never seen my mother wear that hinted at another life. A white lace wedding dress folded in layers of curling tissue paper that crinkled lightly. Baby booties. Strings of pearls. Little figurines and old magazines. I visited these stories like I visited Narnia, Avonlea, Hogwarts, or Middle Earth. My parents even came with me, like omniscient narrators, retelling events that occurred before I existed or was too young to remember.                  

When my boyfriend asked me to move out with him a few months ago, I was excited and optimistic. Then the panic set in. I had so much stuff.                         

So, I began to declutter.                                                                                             

First, I watched a documentary about two friends who challenged their materialistic lifestyles, The Minimalists: Less is More. After that, I devoured their blog. It offered solutions to the sense of claustrophobia I’d been dismissing. It opened space for reflection. My room functioned as a bedroom, living room, study, linen closet and, as per my own inclination for collecting, a library. Possessions hugged the walls. Clothes overflowed from drawers. Boxes and bags of mystery contents were crammed into spots and hidden away. It was almost impossible to keep tidy.                                                                             

For a week, I donated and threw away clothing, shoes, birthday cards, primary and high school assignments, candles, Halloween decorations, fancy hair clips, and chunky outdated jewellery. I took photos, and at the week’s end, ended up with a digital repository of memories. I’d spent the time between cleaning, sending photos to my friends.  

‘This was my favourite dress in high school. I wore it to death. It made me feel pretty, even though I was teased for my clothes.’                                                     

‘This was the first assignment I got an A for in English. My teacher said I was a natural storyteller and should write more.’                                                                 

‘This was from a family trip to Caloundra when I was eleven. I made a friend there and told her my name was Amanda.’                                                                   

That notebook from the 7th grade disco was the first of many items that incited a mental tug-of-war. It was draining. My stomach dropped with every bulge in the plastic bag or thud in the cardboard box.                             


Why did he keep this? I wondered as my dad thumbed through tiny red stamps in the Canada slot that had “Deutschland” printed on them.                                   

‘I used to have a huge comic book collection,’ my dad said.                                    

‘Used to?’                                                                                                                             

‘I lost it when I moved to Australia.’ He sounded wistful. ‘Bloody shame too. I had some great ones.’                                                                                                       

‘How’d you lose it?’                                                                                                         

‘It got left behind in Rabaul.’                                                                                    

‘With your parents?’                                                                                                  

‘Yeah. They didn’t bring it with them when they came here. Some lucky bugger probably found them.’                                                                                                       

I could hear the regret in his voice, even after 42 years.       

‘Maybe someone found them like you found these?’                                                 

He pondered this for a moment before launching into stories about his lost collection. The dates, the rarity, the style of the artworks, every detail still fresh in his mind. I recognised the same passion in him that lit up my boyfriend’s face when he talked stamps. 

My dad told us stories all the time. Of growing up in Papua New Guinea. Of his Dad and brothers. I knew every twist, could predict the exact moments he’d sputter during the telling, unable to hold in his laughter. Or when he’d turn sombre, sharing a yearning for a time passed. He talked about his comics like he did his family. All the while flicking through the stamp collection like it was a surrogate for what he’d lost.                  

As I carried three black garbage bags of rubbish and two giant Crisco boxes full of donations (Mum had handed the boxes to me after retrieving them from a crowded corner of our front patio and said, ‘see, I knew they’d come in handy’) I felt a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. My parents said they were “inspired” by my clean out. That they’d wanted to do something like that for years, they just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I heard the fear in my mother’s voice as she spoke. It reminded me of my unease when I tried to throw away my notebook. 

I worry that when I move out in a few months’ time, my family will feel I’m leaving them behind. That by moving out, I’m moving on. I guess if they ask, I’ll explain I’m bringing some things with me. My clothes and books, some pop vinyls (despite my boyfriend’s unenthusiastic acceptance of them) and a few photos. I’ll explain that I’ll still visit moments from our family’s past, like when I was a kid; not by stirring the contents of a dust-covered box, but by simply saying; ‘Remember when?’

“Nicole Jacobsen is a Brisbane artist, writer, poet, and aspiring editor who regularly finds herself re-befuddled by the difference between who and whom. Her background in Psychology emerges through character studies, obsessive bouts of self-reflection, and recurrent themes of mental health in her work.”