A VCR tape of Jane Fonda’s Workout from the 1980s.
An orange finger puppet in the shape of an octopus tentacle.
A black and silver artificial larynx.
Visitors to The Keepthings can see and read about all of these objects…plus so many more.
Deborah Way was an editor at O, the Oprah Magazine for 15 years, until the print magazine closed. In April 2021, she launched The Keepthings on Instagram (@thekeepthings) with the subtitle “stories of the things we keep to keep our dear dead with us.” She asks potential contributors to submit the story of an object and the person it’s connected to in 600 words or fewer, along with photos of the object.
“I think of them as love stories told through objects,” Way says. “Some of them are shaped like classic stories, some of them are more like prose poems, but I’m continually surprised at how unique and meaningful every story is. Even though the details are always different, the one constant is the deep sense of human connection.”
Tone, editorial content of The Keepthings
Way notes that the 600-word limit doesn’t leave much room to be “writerly.” “I aim for the tone to be conversational, almost as if you were telling someone your story while sitting at a bar,” she explains.
George Singleton has a piece titled “My Father’s Hip” (June 20, 2021) on the site, illustrated by the photo of a silver replacement hip. The story begins: “In October, 1963, during stormy seas, my father fell 45 feet into the empty hold of a merchant ship on her way to pick up lumber in the Pacific Northwest.”
“How could you not be hooked from the very start?” Way says and describes how Singleton’s father dealt with excruciating pain for the rest of his life, eventually founding a textile company to provide for his family. “He compresses so much into a small amount of space,” Way says of the author. “His tone is matter of fact – he lets the drama of the events speak for itself – yet you feel how deeply he admired and respected and loved his father. It’s very moving.”
Jennie Shortridge contributed a piece titled “The Dickens Humidor” (April 13, 2021) to The Keepthings. It describes her mother, fun-loving yet troubled by mental illness, and an antique tobacco humidor hand-painted with scenes from Charles Dickens’ novels – an object much like that belonging to the alcoholic grandfather who raised Jennie’s mother. Thirty years after her mother’s death, the humidor still has a place in the author’s china hutch.
“It’s unusual and kind of lovely, but that’s not why I keep it,” she writes. “It doesn’t remind me of her, exactly. I guess it reminds me that she loved her grandfather without hesitation, as mean as he was and as painful as their relationship could be.”
Laura Buchwald’s piece “The Buffalo Nickel” tells the story of Tom, the author’s charismatic and charming friend, who – among other interests – was passionate about what Buchwald calls “bygone America.” In the months before he died, Tom talked with Buchwald about the ways in which spirits might reach out to people back on Earth. “She got him books on the subject, and one of the things they read about was coins,” Way explains. “Then he died, and just a few days later, she found a Buffalo nickel on the street. She has absolutely no doubt that it came from him in the afterlife. I was captivated by this magical appearance of a keepthing.”
Way urges people who don’t consider themselves writers to submit pieces, noting that some of the most beautiful stories she’s received come from people who don’t write at all. From the website, “What matters is that you have a treasured object connecting you to someone who was important in your life.”
Lisa Ward didn’t consider herself a writer, but she learned about The Keepthings and thought about a Christmas card mailed from her father to his best friend on the USS Taconic in 1961. Ward’s father died in 1975, when she was 8 years old, and his best friend – Uncle Larry – helped to raise her along with his own children. The card, she explains in her piece titled “The Buddy Card,” is a beautiful expression of friendship between her father and her uncle, and between her uncle’s daughter and herself.
Advice for potential contributors
Way believes everyone has a story about a beloved object from a deceased family member or friend. She also believes everyone can tell a 600-word story, with a little help. She edits all the submissions she publishes, and she’s happy to work with contributors on crafting their initial drafts. She urges potential contributors to contact her whether they have a fully completed story or not. In some cases, she adds, people have sent her photos of an object along with a few paragraphs but were unclear on how to proceed. Way returned to them with questions about their object and the person they lost.
“Then we’d go back and forth over email, fleshing out the story,” she explains. “I wouldn’t want to do that with every story, obviously, but I believe the stories people have inside them are worth sharing. So if you need a little help getting your story out, that’s what I’m here for.”
The Keepthings at a glance
Reading period: Year-round.
Length: 600 words.
Submission format: Online, via website.
—Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of the middle-grade novel Daisy Woodworm Changes the