I am overwhelmed by stories.

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.

 

We begin to empty the loft

It’s tricky getting up in the loft. First you have to pull down a very heavy folding ladder using a long metal pole with a hooked end. A few years ago, I could release the ladder and just about let it down without it crashing on top of my head. But I’ve never had sufficient strength to push the ladder back until it folds up and clicks into place above the trapdoor in the ceiling. It can’t be left down permanently as it would block the way into the bathroom.

The ladder is very unstable; it rocks and buckles as you climb. Then at the top, you have to haul yourself over the edge and into the loft space. My father loved going up there – until he nearly fell off the ladder – after that he was forbidden to do so. That upset him as much as having his driving licence taken away! But he squirreled away all kinds of things up there. Over the last few years when we can’t find something we know must be in the house, we’ve said: dad must’ve put it in the loft.

Both Brother and I were particularly keen to find a box of old photos: black and white snaps of the sort taken by a Brownie box camera which we remember from our childhood. They were always in a particular box but no one had seen that box in years. We said: ‘Dad must’ve put it in the loft.’ Brother did go up and have a scout around, but without success and we’d begun to say, a little fearfully: ‘perhaps dad threw them all out.’

It will be impossible to put the house on the market before the loft is emptied. And for the last few years Brother has kept saying he’ll come and empty it. Even if the ladder were down, I couldn’t get up there anymore because of my bad shoulder etc. so this is one job my brother actually has to do but, as we know, he likes to take his time. He said he would come last year, but never did come. To be fair, the last thing I wanted at that point was any extra stuff to add to all the rest of the junk I already had in front of me to sort out. Anyway, I didn’t need to worry because although he said he would do it, he didn’t do it. And then, this year in early March, he made a start.

He worked very hard. It’s dangerous carrying stuff down that damn wonky ladder. He brought a lot down and took loads of it to the tip and to charity shops – but he also left quite a lot in piles on the floor to be sorted out – and to get in my way. He was, of course, intending to return a few weeks later – but then came The Lock Down. So here I am with all of it to step over – and to sort out.

However! The great thing is – he found the photos. In a different box, in a suitcase, in all kinds of receptacles. While he was here, we spent a couple of happy evenings going through them. Exclaiming over old favourites! Puzzling over who everyone was! But we didn’t really sort them out. Now Brother can’t come back and I am here, ‘living la vida lock down’ by myself, so I’ve made a start sifting through them all.

I’ve worked out who many of the people are: some are even quite closely related to me; some I didn’t initially recognise because they’re so young – but there are others I really don’t know. Some of the snaps belonged to my mother’s three sisters – my dearly beloved aunts – but I don’t know where they were taken or who they are posing with. Is one of them the Swiss boyfriend of my aunt who never married? I know of him because they were separated by the war and although they met afterwards things ‘just weren’t the same’. Then there’s all dad’s war photos. He’s posing with his fellow guardsmen. Is one of them his best friend whose tank was hit by a shell and dad had to stand by and watch helplessly while the crew were all burnt alive? I’ll never know.

There’s lots of mum with her girlfriends. Is one of them her good mate Primmy? Or the pal whose family were on the stage? Or the one whose brother was gay? It’s such a shame these photos were hidden away. Mum would probably have recognised most of the people but it’s too late to ask her now. I emailed a few of the photos to a relation in Canada because I thought some of them were of her – and indeed of her wedding day and I hoped she’d be able to identify some of the other people there. But she’s in her 80s and, although she sends emails and seems quite computer savvy, she didn’t seem to understand what I was asking. And there’s no one else to ask.

It’s sad to have to consign all these human lives and memories to the rubbish, but what can I do? It’s hard enough to decide what photos to keep of the people I do recognise. How many baby photos of myself do I need, after all? And yet, they’re all so sweet! In fact, I seem to be building, brick by brick, photo by photo, a picture of a happy childhood which – to be honest – I didn’t remember at all.

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It’s been a long time

It’s been along time since my last blog. Mainly because I’ve been unable to type. It’s a long story…

In the middle of December, I went on a short trip to Amsterdam. We had a great time but, on the last evening, I fell over and broke my arm very badly, right up close to my shoulder.

Thank goodness, I wasn’t alone. I was with friends. They got me to the hospital, sat with me till the small hours, got me back to the hotel. The next morning, they brought me coffee, helped me get packed and dressed, got me to the station and onto the train. The journey back to London wasn’t easy. Every now and then, I get a flashback and when the memory returns, I feel sick, because actually, it was pretty dreadful! Luckily, oh how luckily, I’d arranged to spend the night with friends in London. I got a cab to their house and the next day they helped me get on my train home.

Looking back, I don’t know how I got through the next few weeks. I was a one-armed bandit in acute pain. I could hardly do a thing. I survived Christmas: friends came and collected me off the train in London and took me to their place where I was made a fuss of – and very well fed (!) – for the holidays. Then there was New Year to get through. Brother came with his partner to help me over those days. After that, there were several weeks which were quite bad. I just had to focus on coping. In retrospect, I’m not quite sure how I did manage to cope! Especially when I get one of those flashbacks! But I did cope. And of course, I was beginning to heal.

I had a few glitches with the hospital but, eventually, I started physio and my recovery began to proceed slowly but steadily. They have told me it was a pretty bad injury and it will take several months – if not the rest of the year – before I finally recover and my recovery will be determined by how diligently I do my physio exercises. However, by early March, after about 12 weeks, the pain had eased and, although my range of movement was still limited, I began to feel better and could start to do more.

In fact, this week I was supposed to be with friends in Spain – but thank goodness we didn’t go! Instead, I am beginning another 12 weeks at home – this time because of the government’s attempt to halt the spread of coronavirus. But at least, I’m able to do a lot more than I could. In fact, the last few days, I’ve been able to type – which is great.

I fell over in the street, for no particular reason that I can see. It was just a silly accident. But it felt like I’d fallen into the underworld. I think I may have mentioned last year of how surprised I was at my reaction to mum’s death. The dreams I’d had of dashing off to new horizons as soon as I could, proved to be just that: dreams. A great abyss of grief and loss and confusion opened up between me and those golden horizons. And I knew then, that the only way to cross it would be to descend into it. However, I expected this descent would be a psychological metaphor.

The truth is, I felt that when I fell, I didn’t just hit the pavement. What I’d actually done is fallen into that abyss; that I’d landed at the bottom in a barren, lifeless, rock-strewn landscape just like the underworld might be. But, at the far end, there was daylight.

I know from my reading of fairy tales and ancient myths, that a hero or heroine may enter the underworld or a labyrinth – some dark place full of danger and mystery but, if they have the right attitude, they will return to the daylight world – this time bearing a gift or a prize that they have earned through their perseverance. Comforted by this, I have tried to find a way forward. I am trying to work out what lessons I must learn, what riddle it is I must answer, before I can re-emerge into the sunlight.

And now, this. Like everyone else, I was not prepared for the global crisis we now find ourselves having to deal with. I will admit, it’s a huge relief that I don’t have to worry about mum being in lock-down in her Care Home. I can concentrate on worrying about myself! And how I’m going to find enough food – and oh god, coffee – to last for the next 12 weeks! And if, during that time, I can find my treasure, solve my riddle or whatever – so much the better.

Since I wrote this I have had two and a half weeks without a landline or internet, courtesy of a balls-up by my provider. I could only communicate with the outside world by texts and a limited amount of minutes on my old mobile, which I needed to save in case of emergencies. This would have been annoying under normal circumstances – but these times are not normal! Anyway, fingers crossed this has been resolved for now.

Keep well, everyone! Stay safe and stay sane!

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My brother and I around 1970, looking pretty cool.

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Me and my dad on holiday circa 1950!

 

I buy myself a magic carpet

I recently went down to the wonderful Chalice Well Gardens in Glastonbury for a ‘retreat’ – a few days of calm contemplation in the lovely surroundings. Once I’d arrived and ‘let go’, I realised how tired I was, not just physically but mentally too. I kept returning to the memory of how I had sat with mum just after she’d died. That had been a beautiful, peaceful moment but, since then, I have felt as if nothing was real; that everything was make-believe. I thought this might be because I hadn’t had a proper chance to mourn. Even that first pure experience of sitting with mum after she’d passed had been marred. I’d been conscious that I was in the Care Home and must let them get on with what they needed to do; I was aware that I needed to go straight from there to the funeral directors; that I needed to get food because my brother was coming etc etc – all of those thoughts overlaying the shock that mum had actually died! For years we’d thought she might die at any time but, she didn’t die. Now she had actually gone, I felt in a sort of suspended animation.

Over the next few days of my retreat, I slowly began to relax and unwind; to detox from the stress that had been blocking my emotion. I became able to experience my grief and then, to accept that it will be my companion for a while. I also began to understand that this is just another phase in my life. Because people kept asking ‘what are you going to do now?’ I’d inadvertently fallen into that mind-set – that mum’s death had been a cut-off point and I’d immediately know what I’d do next. But the truth is, I’ve been living here for 5 years. I never expected to be here this long, but it’s ceased to be a short-term occurrence, it’s become a phase of my life in which caring for mum was one aspect – perhaps the central aspect because I would never have come here otherwise – but I can’t just close the door and walk away as if the last few years haven’t happened.

I’m sure I will eventually ‘move on’ when the time is right, but before I can do that I need to sit with my feelings and emotions for a while. I arrived at the Chalice Well on the Equinox, after which – at least in the northern hemisphere – the days grow shorter and the nights longer until we reach the Winter Solstice. I think this is a good metaphor for what I need to do. I need to let myself drop into the darkness like a seed in the earth and – as the light returns, as spring comes again – see what shoots have appeared, see what I feel like doing then.

In the short-term though, here I am still living in my parents’ house, which is not a house I would have chosen, in an area I would never have chosen – and it’s not furnished or decorated in any way that I like. Sitting beside the Chalice Well, I thought: what I need is a lovely rug. I imagined a rug rolled out in front of the fireplace. Yes, that’s what I need! It would cheer up the living room no end; it would make me feel more like it’s my place. (I am rather partial to a nice rug). Later that day, I went into the town and there, outside a shop I’ve never been in before that sells furnishing and bric-a-brac, I saw a rolled-up rug. It was a bit expensive but there was another smaller one at a better price. I didn’t go in and ask about it but the next day I decided to return to the shop and have another look.

The rugs were still there but the smaller one was too small, it wasn’t right. The guy unrolled the larger one. It was lovely. In fact, it was the rug I had imagined. The owner said: it’s not that expensive. No, I agreed, it’s not that expensive for what it is. I told him I’d go away and have a think about it. I got about 50 yards down the road. I thought to myself: what’s your problem? This is synchronicity. You imagined a rug and here it is. You love this rug! It’s come to you from the cosmos! And even though it was a sum of money, at the end of the day, it was a sum I could afford. I went back. I bought the rug.

When I unrolled it at the retreat house (because I had to fold it up properly in order to carry it on the train) the other residents admired it. One of them said: this is your magic carpet! Yes! I loved this idea.

Now I have a beautiful hearth rug that completely lifts the room and stops it looking quite so dull and dingy. If I feel a bit miz, I just go and admire my rug – and cheer up immediately. Perhaps, when I emerge from the underworld, it will help me to fly off on the next stage of my life’s journey – whatever that may be!

 

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Above: Chalice Well dressed for Mabon – or the Autumn Equinox.

Below: My magic carpet! The colours are much more jewel like than in this photo!

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I resolve a tricky problem – with a little help from The Milkman.

For the last 5 years I have dreamed of sleeping in my own bed. It’s a nice bed, a small double with a good mattress and I bought it when I moved into the studio apartment I had in London. When I moved down here, there wasn’t room for it in the spare room where I had to sleep. That only had room for a single bed. So my bed had to be stored in the garage.

After my surgery last year, I couldn’t manage in a small bed, so I moved into what had been my parents’ bedroom and slept on my mum’s old bed. It wasn’t a bad bed in itself – the mattress was good quality but it had been badly stained. I covered it with layers of blankets and sheets before I put my own bedding on top of it. I dreamed of swapping the beds over but the logistics of how I’d ever be able to do that, defeated me.

First of all, I’d have to hire two men to carry mum’s double bed out of the house – and I’d have to co-ordinate that with the pick-up service from the council, who have to be booked in advance if you want them to collect large items. I’d also need time to clean where the bed had been, hoover and dust – before these men would be able to bring my bed in from the garage – which would mean they’d need to leave and return for a second time. I felt exhausted just thinking about how on earth I was going to manage the logistics.

I wrote last time about how I realised I had to make a start on clearing the house and how I did clear out mum’s wardrobe and also, the large storage drawers under her bed. After I’d packed everything up and piled it all in the garage ready for collection by the charity, in the same determined spirit I took all the stuff that had been stacked up on top of my bed base – just boxes and odd bags and things – so the bed could be moved easily if I ever did work out how to get it inside the house.

Two days later, The Milkman turned up. He also does gardening and grass cutting, and he reaches the back garden by bringing his lawn mower through the garage. I said: I’m sorry, I’ve been sorting out mum’s stuff. You’ll have to move all these bags. He knew mum well, so he was quite understanding. I put my hand on my bed base. I said: I don’t suppose you know a couple of guys who would help me swap my bed over. He said: I can do it. I can do it now, if you want. I laughed in disbelief: What by yourself? He said: I expect the double bed comes apart. Let’s have a look.

With that, he went into the house, took the bed apart and carried it outside. I said: I’d better ring the council to take it away. He said: I can take it in my truck. My eyes were round in wonder: Really???? Yes really, he said, but first I have to go and do another job for an hour. This was perfect. It gave me time to hoover and dust and move the furniture out of his way.

I couldn’t believe it was really happening. I cleaned up – under the bed had been pretty disgusting, as I’d suspected – then he came back and brought in the bed. I have to say, at one point it did seem as if The Milkman had underestimated the difficulties he would be faced with. As he was trying to manoeuvre the bed base through the doorway into the living room, it got jammed in the hallway. Then it got entangled on a low-hanging light fitting. I hate this light fitting but it’s wired in so I can’t remove it. Luckily, I am tall, so although I couldn’t help him by taking any weight, I was able to reach up and help extricate the bed base from the light. And then, somehow, miraculously it was done. Mum’s bed was gone and my bed was there instead. I left it to air for a couple of days, burned some cleansing essential oils and, at last, slept on my own bed again.

I said to The Milkman: you have no idea how horrible it’s been sleeping on my parents’ bed! And I do think it’s been unhealthy for me psychologically, but I just couldn’t work out how to organise the changeover. Since then, even on sleepless nights, I feel so relieved that I’ve finally resolved such a huge obstacle to my attempts at house clearance. Of course, I’m already thinking about the next task I’ll have to complete but, in the meantime, I’m giving myself a bit of breathing space.

And I have now finished emptying out all the things that belonged to my parents from drawers and cupboards and my mum’s desk. I’m not saying this stuff has all left the house! Much of it is in piles: stuff to be recycled; stuff to be shown to brother and/or grandchildren; stuff I may – or may not – wish to keep myself.  It’s a long sad task, emotionally taxing as well as physically demanding. I’m continually coming across items which take me down memory lane, or which contain an essence of mum or dad as human beings and bring me sorrow.

But, at least there’s no time pressure. And at the end of each stressful day, I am very happy to lie down on my own bed!

I can’t seem to focus on anything.

It’s been a strange time. I don’t feel particularly sad or grief stricken, but my brain doesn’t seem to be functioning normally. I’ve had several ideas for writing the blog and every one of them slid sideways, out of the frame. It’s like my brain is fogged and I can only think about what’s in front of my eyes. And even that seems to involve some issues.

In the middle of August, I went to stay with old friends who’ve moved to a city where I’ve never been and now live in a house where I’ve never stayed. So it was the best of both worlds: a dear pal I could share my thoughts and feelings with – and a new environment that had no links with the past. I returned here feeling refreshed but – there was a strange problem: I was developing a stye in my eye. I’ve never had one of those in my life! But I knew that the psychological ‘tag’ for such things is that there’s something you’re ‘not looking at’ or ‘not seeing’.

I wrote this thought down in my journal. Then I stopped writing, raised my eyes and looked around with conscious intent. I saw that I was surrounded by stuff. Stuff that I need to sort out. Stuff that belonged to my parents. Stuff that is overwhelming me. Yet it is also Stuff that must be dealt with before I can even think about moving on from here. So. There was my answer. I’ve been sitting here reading fantasy novels and thinking about holidays – holidays I know very well I shall never book. But, if I do want to move forward, then I have to clear away all the Stuff.

I bathed my eye in warm water – I even rubbed it with a warmed gold ring – and after a few days the swelling and soreness went away. But I also began to work. It was a long weekend and the cricket was on the radio. I began the task of emptying out my mother’s clothes from the wardrobe, and from the remaining drawers of her dressing table. (I had of course already begun this task over the last months, but only in a desultory fashion). Now I packed the clothes into bags and arranged for a Charity to pick them up.

The cricket was exciting; the neighbours were making some dreadful racket in the garden, grinding paving stones for a patio so, although the weather was fine, I forced myself to carry on and empty the storage drawers under the bed. In some ways, this was more upsetting than packing up the clothes, for here were freshly laundered sheets, carefully washed and ironed and put away – which mum must have done when she was still able to do that sort of thing and before she reverted to just using the same easy wash and wear bed linen that she was using when I arrived. I got a sense of a house-proud, happy woman. But I gritted my teeth. I stashed it all into bags. And piled all the bags up in the garage.

When the guy came to collect the bags, I almost cried out to him: no! It’s a mistake, don’t take them! But I resisted. And now, they are gone. There is a sequel to all of this which I’ll write about next. Suffice it to say that I’ve made a start. Chores like this are not easy psychologically but, as my brain isn’t functioning normally, it probably is quite a good idea to try and complete these practical tasks. Even though my emotionally hardwired brain tells me ‘don’t do it!’ my rational brain knows very well that there’s no point in delaying: especially as, until it’s done I will have no choice but to continue to live here in a place where I don’t feel at home and which I don’t actually like very much. No one else is going to help me do it. My brother won’t. He wouldn’t mind if I spent the next 10 years helplessly sitting here surrounded by chaos.

By the way, I did finally manage to collect mum’s ashes. I brought them home on the bus, mainly because the bus was there, stopped right outside the funeral directors – but also because it saved me having to talk to a cab driver. ‘What have you got there?’ ‘Oh, just my mother’s ashes!’ I apologised to her for not carrying her home along the sea front like I did with dad, but I did put her on the bus seat beside me so she could look out of the window (!?!). When I got back here, I said: well, you’re home, as you wished to be. And it’s not as upsetting to have them here as I feared it would be. So I no longer feel under pressure to find a suitable place to scatter them as soon as possible. I am happy to take time to find the right place.

Some photos I found:

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1953 Coronation Day Party. I’m the little girl at the side with her drink of juice!

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At Bracklesham Bay which isn’t that far along the coast from where I am now, but the charming farm and duck pond are long gone.

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I realise how much I’ve given up!

I don’t mean to be self-pitying, I do try to be positive. But recently on a brief trip to London I happened to take a bus ride through an area I hadn’t been to in ages. In fact, I haven’t been there since I moved down here. It was a lovely sunny spring day and everything looked fresh. We passed a nice old traditional pub that had recently been given a smart coat of paint. It looked particularly appealing next to the bright spring green leaves of the trees in an adjoining inner-city square. I read the name of the pub and did a double take. The Calthorpe Arms! It was a place I’d known well. Upstairs, once a month, it hosts a Cuban film night that I used to go to. I went not only because of my fond memories of a holiday in Cuba but also because at that point I was learning Spanish. I hadn’t recognised the pub because I used to approach it from the opposite direction, plus the meetings were in the evening so I usually came here in the dark.

If I had realised where I was, perhaps I would have unconsciously prepared myself. But with the unexpected shock of recognition, I was overwhelmed by a visceral sense of what I’d given up. I used to have A Life, I used to do Interesting Things, meet Interesting People – and I’d abandoned it all. Of course, I only did that because I was at my wits’ end. 5 years ago, it had become impossible to juggle mum’s needs and my own life. I often had to drop everything and just get on the next train down here – or, once here, I ended up staying for much longer than expected. When I did get back home, my life had been so disrupted, I’d be so tired and so behind with things, that it would take days to get myself straight again. And then… the same thing would happen again. My brother was still working full-time so it all fell onto my shoulders.

In the end, I couldn’t see any alternative: I had to move down here full-time. Of course, I never dreamt that, 5 years later, mum would still be alive. And, I have to admit, I didn’t realise just how full-on it was going to be. I had plans to write a novel, to do all kinds of things, but as soon as I arrived mum gave up doing anything. She expected me to do it all – just like my father had. She tired him out and I said, well she won’t tire me out because I’m still relatively young – but in fact, she did exhaust me. And I’ve developed my own health problems – not something I foresaw! Plus, I’m not getting any younger myself. I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ll ever be able to do any of the things I’d hoped to do ‘in the future’.

Even though I no longer have to look after mum 24/7, I still have to plan my week around visiting her. I had to go in over the long Easter holiday and I had to walk back – as buses are scarce on Sundays and public holidays. But I can’t not go and see her just because it’s inconvenient, especially not now she seems to be fading. By the time I got home, my hips had begun to ache. Even though my walking is improving, I must still be careful if I want to recover – ( and I need to recover: not being able to walk any distance is driving me crazy!) When I’m not visiting mum, I can’t relax. I’m faced with the task of cleaning and sorting and de-cluttering the house which is no small task. Then there’s the garden. I’ve asked my brother for more help but so far none has been forthcoming.

Brother did ask me what my plans were. I said, I can’t have any plans because I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. The only way I can cope is to not think about this sort of stuff, not think about the future. I try to just get up and get through each day. I try to be mindful, to be in the moment. On the whole, I’m successful but, passing that pub made my tightly controlled equilibrium slip and has triggered a sense of despair. It brought me face-to-face with the truth that I’m here living this straightened existence without any of the things I care about: museums, galleries, films, intellectual discourse with like-minded people. I go out one evening a month when a woman I met, who does seem nice, offers me a lift to the Local History Society. And I go because I am making an attempt to be positive about a place where I feel like a fish out of water but where I’ve been living unhappily for nearly 5 years. Well, it’s by the sea. I suppose that’s something.

Anyway, I am getting my equilibrium back – slowly. There’s no alternative after all.

 

I find Dad’s love letters

When I saw mum in the hospital and she looked like she was at death’s door, a lot of thoughts flashed through my mind. As, amazingly, she now seems to be on the road to recovery, I’ve been unpicking those thoughts. The first one was: She can’t die yet! I haven’t cleared out the house. It’s too untidy for me to invite people for a funeral!

When I moved down here, my stuff was stored in the garage. When mum moved into the Care Home, I moved my things out of the garage but I couldn’t put them away. To do that, I needed to make space, which meant clearing out mum’s drawers and cupboards. But I didn’t feel I could do that while there was any possibility she might return to live in the house. And of course, I had my surgery, developed the problems with walking etc etc so I didn’t have the energy, the physical strength – or the sense of psychological permission to get on with clearing out the place.

However, things have changed and one of my new year resolutions was to make a start on this task of de-clutterng. I began with mum’s bedside cabinet. The top drawer was full of documents: some from banks, some from hospitals, some possibly important, some probably not. Some went into a pending pile, some in the bin. The second drawer was full of scarves – most of which will go to the charity shop. The lower drawer had a load of old nail varnish (in the bin), old hair rollers (in the bin), some quite nice hair slides which I don’t remember mum ever using but which I might use (in the pile that will be kept) and then, right at the very back of the bottom drawer: a mysterious box, quite old but with a rather nice design on the lid.

I peeked inside: it was full of old letters. I needed my reading glasses before I could explore further so I put them to one side. When I did sit down with them, I saw the envelopes were addressed to my mum in her family name, that is to say – before she was married. My heart skipped a beat. Mum had a fiancé who was lost in the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. Had she kept his letters secretly all these years? I opened the first one and saw it had been sent from an army camp in Yorkshire. My dad had been stationed in an army camp in Yorkshire. Indeed, he had proposed to mum while they were walking round the roman walls that encircle York. I relaxed. The letters were from Dad.

I skim read a couple, not really wanting to pry and yet curious. I was a little surprised because Dad always said he wasn’t much good at writing. I wondered whether he had asked someone else to write these letters but they seemed too personal, very passionate declarations of love so I thought it unlikely he’d dictated them to someone else. I also realised I’d never really heard his voice. Dad never talked a lot, was a self-professed ‘man of few words’. When I was younger, he and I never really communicated. We tended to have rows about politics – or other things he didn’t agree with concerning the way I was leading my life. It was only in later years we really had anything that could pass as a conversation. I’d certainly never heard him speak like this: fluently, ardently. I looked deeper in the pile. Here the letters were now addressed to my mother as a married woman: his darling wife.

They got married just before the Normandy Landings in 1944. Dad was part of the D-Day force; he had made his way through France, across the bridge at Arnhem and into Belgium. There were no letters from his billet in Brussels – when he stayed with a family with whom we kept in touch with for many years. In fact, I had dinner with them on a visit to Belgium in 1969. And they had told me, my Dad never went out, he only wanted to write letters to his beloved wife. The last letter in the box is from an army camp in England saying he was about to be de-mobbed. That he would be coming home and that this was the last time they would ever be separated.

I got an insight into their relationship. I’ve always known their marriage was a love match but I wasn’t quite prepared for my dad’s ardent outpourings (all very chaste and romantic I’m pleased to add, so I didn’t feel I’d uncovered anything too embarrassing).

But one thing does make me feel uncomfortable: apart from the letters, there was one other thing in the box – a photo of me as a baby. I was the outcome of this outpouring of love! That does feel weird, although I haven’t yet worked out why.

I obviously can’t throw these letters away but how would mum react if I took them to show her? Would she be pleased to see them or cross that I had found them? I haven’t yet made up my mind about that.

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The letters

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Mum and dad on their wedding day.

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Me in my pram!