Things to Remember

When I was 17, love meant personalizing things like yo-yos and ice cream scoopers, cheese boards and cheap jewelry

I worked at Things Remembered in the Monroeville Mall the Christmas I was 17.

I was in love and needed money to buy my boyfriend one of those silver-plated ID bracelets they sold at Things Remembered. This was the 1980s and love meant personalizing things like yo-yos and ice cream scoopers, cheese boards and cheap jewelry.

I hoped my boyfriend would buy me an ID bracelet, too. I hoped he'd engrave his name on the back and sign it "all my love" and dot the i's in both our names with bubble hearts.

We'd hold up our identical wrists in Christmas Eve candlelight. We'd kiss the way people kiss in chewing gum commercials, all evergreen and mint.

"A moment to remember," the Things Remembered catalog would call it.

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My job was to stand for my six-hour shift and wear a Santa hat that drooped like a nutsack.

I would not have said "nutsack" back then because I had a lot invested in being a nice girl. I didn't smoke or drink or do drugs. I liked unicorns and I believed when I did lose my virginity, it would be in a field of sunflowers.

I have never seen a field of sunflowers in Pittsburgh. Who I was back then, I don't know. My job was also to make duplicate keys and write names in glitter glue on Christmas stockings.

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"And remember our slogan," my sad middle-aged boss would say.

Things Remembered was going through a re-branding. People had a hard time remembering the name of the store, according to corporate. They kept calling it Things to Remember.

People like me, the kiosk faces of the company, were supposed to change that.

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"Thanks for your business," I'd say, and hand over a key I knew wouldn't work.

"People always remember you," I'd say, "when you shop at Things Remembered."

I was bad at slogans and key-making because I was nervous all the time. It's hard being a nice girl when what you want to do is say things like "nutsack."

My hands shook like the rabid animatronic squirrels that creeped the kids out over in Santaland. This meant I was also not a strong glitter-glue writer. The stockings I made were illegible. I'd try to write "Bobby" and it would come out "Blobby" and so forth. I compensated by adding more glitter and hoped no one would notice.

When customers walked away, a sparkling mess in their hands, they'd leave behind trails of glitter, paths out of a dark forest.

Sometimes I thought about following them home.

I'd say, "Remember me? From Things Remembered?"

My boss often left me alone in the kiosk. I liked that.

I could watch couples on their way to the koi pond bridge or The Brown Derby restaurant, where they'd ask for window seats. They'd look out over the indoor ice rink and watch the skaters, swirling like silk below, then order The Potato Wheel, fancy like that.

The Potato Wheel was a lazy-susan filled with potato toppings. You could spin bacon bits, sour cream, chives and cheese. You could load up your potato with delight.

Where I'm from, we called this romance.

What I knew at 17: If a date took you to The Brown Derby, it meant something.

If a date ordered The Potato Wheel, it was love.

My Things Remembered boss hated the idea of love and the way the word had to be engraved on everything we sold.

Instead of focusing on sales, he spent a lot of time on his hair.

He held his comb-over in place with a can of Aqua Net he kept under the kiosk counter.

The glitter I'd send flying off stockings would catch in his sticky 'do. I tried hard not to stare at his scalp, which was pink and shiny, like the belly of a seashell.

Glittered up, his scalp sparkled under the fluorescent lights. It looked pretty.

My boss did not glitter. He hated many things we sold, but he hated the mizpahs most.

Mizpah necklaces split in half. Lovers and best friends and mothers and daughters give mizpahs to each other. The classics have the words "The LORD (all caps) watch between me and thee when we are absent one from another." Others just had the word "Forever," with the jagged slash between the "For" and "Ever."

Mizpahs were our best sellers. My boss found this insulting.

"You know these things were about war?" he liked to tell customers and me. "'Mizpah' means watchtower. A mizpah was something enemies set up after a truce to make sure they didn't screw each other over."

He said, "It's funny when you think about it."

He said, "Between me and thee."

"Forever," he said. "Now isn't that some happy-crap."

At 17, I believed in forever. I believed I'd always be in love with my nice boyfriend, even though we didn't have a lot in common.

We did both like Billy Joel and anchovies and Trivial Pursuit. When we won a round in Trivial Pursuit, we both liked to yell "Pie Me!" and were the only ones who thought that was funny.

Otherwise, there wasn't much between us.

I figured love was like that for most people.

I figured love lasted despite people.

At 17, I wanted to see the world as beautiful and I did.

At middle-age, my boss wanted to see the world as terrible and he did.

To believe in people and love requires suspension of disbelief.

Middle-aged now, I can barely remember myself at 17. I can barely remember myself at last week.

The author Haven Kimmel says we all carry our younger selves in us all the time. "It's your acorn," Haven says about it. "Yourself grows around yourself like a tree."

Maybe Things Remembered was a corporate version of a playground tree everyone wanted to carve names on. Maybe we wanted to say we were here, we loved each other, and maybe that mattered a little.

My long-ago boyfriend is happily married now, I think. Facebook says he has kids and a dog and loves the Steelers.

I am happily married, with two kids and two fish. The fish are jerks, but everything else is good.

I'm a writer. Writing allows me to remember things. There's power in remembering, maybe.

"Love you," I said to my boyfriend that Christmas Eve when I slipped the ID bracelet on his wrist.

I'd made it myself, so the writing on the metal was ragged, like I'd written it with my toes.

My boyfriend slipped the iD bracelet he'd gotten me at some other Things Remembered onto my wrist. Within a month, it would turn my wrist green and my boss would look at it and say, "He didn't splurge for the silver-plate. Isn't that some shit?"

But in the moment, in the candlelight I'd imagined, my boyfriend said it back: "Love you."

It's what he'd written on the bracelet, too. "Love you." Not "I love you." "Love you." A hope, a wish.

"A gift that inspires," the Things Remembered catalogue would say.

"Love you."

As in, "... someone, someday, will."

Tags: memoirs