06 May, 2017

Records and Remembering

My grandparents' wedding day
I was very sentimental as a teenager. There were a couple of days of my life that were so important to me at one point, that on occasions when I had nothing better to do or when I was drifting off to sleep, I’d run through the order of events in my head exactly. I’d relive the smells, sights, sensations, feelings, trying to cling on to these few perfect days so I’d remember them forever, exactly as they were.

I did this mental regurgitation perhaps every few days for about a year. I can’t say it worked in terms of cementing those specific memories in my brain – all I have now are some hazy mental snapshots, but it was fun, and felt necessary at the time.

After a while my life changed, I grew up a little, I didn’t need those extensive experiential mental records to live in any more – I had a life instead. It appears that without my say-so, my brain chucked them out as so much rubbish, along with the memory of whatever I had for breakfast on April 16th 2005, or the name of my Year 8 History teacher. Just irrelevant clutter. Thanks, brain.

With a paper or digital record, barring any accidents, we can choose what to retain or throw away, save or delete. When it comes to memories, it’s easy to forget that there’s ever a danger of completely losing important details of our own lives, because we’re busy living them. And if you can’t remember your own story, how do you know who you are? Are we all several selves, depending on those parts of our lives we can easily access at any given time?

Something happened recently to prompt these thoughts about records. My mother asked me to catalogue and organise a cardboard box full of documents that had belonged to my grandmother. I hadn’t thought about her in ages. I never really knew her as a person, as a complex human being, as anything other than the archetype of A Grandmother that she became in my head. She died when I was 14, and I was too young or stupid or both to really understand who she was beyond the role she played in the family.

I remember her as someone who made excellent cakes, a housewife, a matriarch...she was also a woman at university in the 1930s, an intellectual, someone who advocated for the rights of factory workers, who wrote letters to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, someone who spent the majority of that war at home with the baby with a husband far away. Some of this I learned from her correspondence, pulled from this massive cardboard box stuffed full of loose papers, the odd notebook, photos of people that died twenty years before I was born...  some of it I knew already, but I never talked to her about any of it. My picture of her is formed by what I can recall from the short overlap of our lives, from the events and environments that involved us both.

I remember her speaking French to my mother when she didn’t want me or my sister to understand what was being said. I remember her standing in the kitchen months before December, with a bowl full of half-made Christmas pudding clutched under her arm, offering me a wooden spoon to mix the dough and telling me to make a wish. I remember the house she lived in for the last fifty years of her life, the only environment I can ever really picture her in. I remember more about that house than I do about her. Frankly, it was quite a memorable house.

It was massive, crammed full of trinkets, antiques, heirlooms, books, junk, and all manner of (to me) ancient things. There were portraits of long-dead ancestors sketched realistically in pencil or rendered in oils, casually hanging by the stairs. A writing desk with drawers full of silver letter openers, inkwells made of glass, little red sticks of half-used sealing wax. A set of jangling bells to call the household to meals, which hung on a single piece of knotted string stretched along the banister in the hall. I never saw them used.

There was the 1920s ratting pistol that emerged from the attic during the long process of clearing the house for sale after my grandmother’s death. I wanted to keep it but the police took it, melted it down, probably sold it for scrap.

I make it sound like a stately home, but it wasn’t, despite the objects that might have rested comfortably inside one. It was “just” a large, 1950s-build house in Essex, with occasional instances of dodgy decor. The kitchen cupboard doors were painted a particularly nasty shade of medicinal puce, like Calpol or calamine. The sitting room wore faded curtains with terrible patterns that didn’t quite match those of the sofa, except in hideousness.

Brightly coloured Pink Panther wallpaper hung in the hall. It was eventually replaced by a more elegant (and ultimately more boring) design of hedge mazes and tight, triangular topiary. A tiny bit of the original paper was saved and pasted behind the table where keys and post were kept. For all I know, the cartoon figure of Inspector Clueso is still sleuthing in that hallway, spying on the new owners of the house, hiding amongst the neat greenery that superseded him.

There was an upright piano which was never tuned. Atop it sat a stuffed baby crocodile, with glass eyes and tiny pointed teeth.  A tiny nativity scene, carved and set inside half a walnut, rested on the mantelpiece three feet above the coal scuttle.

In the yard, a rectangle of concrete that separated the kitchen and the garden: piles and piles of muddy wellington boots, disused farm equipment, a scythe or two, spidery old jam jars, and a horned goat’s skull that sat there for years which I was too scared of to touch.

Just outside the room that I and my sister slept in when we visited, there was a doll’s house built into a glass-fronted cabinet. Inside were tiny china inhabitants with frozen eyes. The dolls had a cat upholstered with rabbit fur, and a complete, readable (!) bible the size of a postage stamp. How like the Victorians, to expect even their toys to be devout.

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang. Sorry for creepy.
Some very odd things to find outside of a museum, let alone be given free rein to play with at the age of 5. For me, part of growing up was learning to realise how much of what I took for normal was unusual. Is it like that for everyone? Sifting through what you hold to be true and working out if it’s true for others too?

Experiencing the death of a relative however, is near-universal. When I saw her on her deathbed, in a hospital gown and NHS nappy, it was incredibly affecting. She was vulnerable, human, fragile – not the all-capable, eternal figure I had built her up to be. She became the first corpse I ever saw face-to-face. Peaceful, stiff and rigid, laid out in the dress she’d worn to celebrate her golden wedding in the year I was born. Present but absent. There but gone. I cried at her funeral, but at the time I felt like it was for the wrong reasons.

At the wake, the wooden see-saw which had sat on the lawn slowly rotting for who-knows-how-many years snapped in two. An oddly thoughtful gesture from a piece of furniture, to give up the ghost on the same day we gave up my grandmother’s.

The leftovers of a life, the objects we leave behind, can say a lot about who we were or can say very little. I can’t ring up my grandmother and ask what being a child in the 1920s was like, or whether she felt alone in wartime, or which way she voted, or what she thought about the sometimes turbulent times she lived through. All I can do is guess, and work with the records that are left, be they the scraps of paper and heartfelt, handwritten letters in the box at my parents’ house, or the memories of others. Memories that are fragile and prone to decay, but full of so much life.

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