I couldn’t work out why it’s taking me so long to sort through everything in this small house. Then I realised: I’m overwhelmed by stories. A few years ago, I went to visit the sister of one of my friends after their mother had died. The sister was still living in their family home and she said: everything here has its own story. I got the impression this was a positive thing for her, that it made her feel grounded, anchored in the house.
It’s true, that’s how I feel when I look at my own possessions. I remember when I bought that jug or read that book. Or how I discovered that treasure in a charity shop. I enjoy the fact these objects have a resonance – a sort of animism that gives them an added dimension. But, at the moment, my task is to clear out the things that belonged to my parents. And this is hard because I’m about to throw out things that I know meant a lot to them.
For instance: my mother was very proud that she went by herself to see the exhibition of the Chinese terracotta army which was held in London during the 1980s. I know she thought the warriors were marvellous. So, when I found a set of postcards from this exhibition, I knew they would’ve had special significance for mum. And so, although they aren’t particularly special postcards, I simply can’t throw them away.
For a time, mum studied Spanish. She actually gained an O level – for which she was justifiably proud. In the loft, my brother found all her grammar books and her old good quality Langenscheidt dictionary. When I thought I’d be going to Spain in March (before Covid 19 changed our lives) I used her books to revise my own Spanish. Now I can’t let them go!
And there are other books. Her school prizes, battered, not worth anything. I doubt if even a charity would take them. But her name is inscribed inside. There’s the Pitman’s Shorthand Dictionary from 1935. She earned her living as a shorthand-typist, so this must have been important to her – and she did keep it all her life, after all. Then there’s a miniature, leather-bound hymnal and prayer book. A woman who employed my grandmother as a cook, gave this to mum and told her that Queen Victoria had exactly the same tiny artifacts. Mum mentioned this often, and they were obviously some of her most prized possessions during her childhood. We thought they had been lost, but they had been up in the loft. I don’t care whether or not Queen Victoria had a similar set – but how can I throw out something that mum truly prized?
And then there’s all the kitchenware. I use the kitchen and will probably keep some of it, but I don’t need all of it. Mum was proud of her cooking: if I throw out her plates, her pots and pans it seems like I’d be throwing her out as well. And this is not to even begin to mention my dad’s tools. They really were his most prized possessions. They might even be worth some small amount of money. But the money I’d get wouldn’t really compensate for the sense of loss I’d feel if I sold them.
None of it is really worth anything; its only value is sentimental. So how can I keep it all? Where can I keep it? And yet – how can I throw it all away? Maybe my brother has the right approach: don’t think twice, just go through it all like a whirlwind, then take it to the tip or a charity shop.
For me, it’s not so simple. Because these stories aren’t bad things; they are good things. But on a practical level, I really can’t physically keep all of it. Unlike my friend’s sister, this house is not my home. I may have lived here for nearly 6 years but it is, and has always been, a way-station, where I find myself out of necessity and from where I plan to move on, when I can. So, I don’t want to be weighed down by ‘stuff’. But my parents’ possessions don’t feel like they’re just ‘stuff’. Getting rid of it makes me feel like I’m having to bury my parents all over again.