My mother has just had hip replacement surgery at the age of almost 88, a procedure that came with high risk due to a heart condition. And to add to all our heart conditions – as if the worry didn't do it – a few weeks before the scheduled operation, she decided it was time to move from her home of 33 years, to a seniors’ complex in the next village as soon as she was out of the hospital. She was so excited about moving to the 2-bedroom apartment, that she could not wait to get there. The good news is that we’ve managed to slow her down (she was only discharged from the hospital this week), so now the move is scheduled for early August, which gives my brother and I time to really get going on the packing. As John is only here in the UK for a few more days, and I leave in two weeks, (returning to the UK again for the move), we have to go all out to get as much of the heavy clearing done before he leaves. And that means going through lots of “stuff.”
For those of you who have endured this process, you know that memories are dredged up every single day, with every box, case, file or under-the-bed container you find. Your past selves are revealed not only in your own belongings, but in those of your family, and things that never went home after being left by a visitor.
It was when I found a very old 5-year diary that I decided upon what had to be my strategy for dealing with the amount of “stuff” we have to go through. It’s my “Look-Remember-Chuck” method of house clearance. We have several categories for disposal of, well, almost everything. There’s the stuff that clearly has to go to the dump or the recycling center. Why did my Dad keep so much old wood, and so many old wires? They go straight for recycling. Anything beyond repair or that would never be anyone’s treasure – to the dump. Then there’s the donation category, where everything that might be worth something to someone goes to the donation program supporting the hospice where in 2012 my Dad spent his last three weeks. Those staff were truly amazing, wonderful people, and we do as much as we can to support the hospice, which runs almost entirely on donations – there is no charge to the patient for being in their care. They have a huge warehouse distributing donated items to stores in several local towns, or selling them on eBay and Amazon, and they also have a furniture center.
Back to the diary. I was about 12 when I received the diary as a gift from Aunt Lil. I wrote in it for all of about, oh, three months – but yesterday there was enough material to entertain me for a while – when I should have been packing, I confess. I think I have remembered who “X” was – well, it was either him or his brother that I had a terrible crush on. And cccording to the diary, I was fed up with my brother on numerous occasions. I had great fun with my friend Ann – probably because she knew “X.” I was shattered when Jennifer emigrated to Canada – I didn't need a diary to remind me of the shock I felt when she left. I kept every card and gift she ever gave me – from a pen and pencil set (“You’re always writing, Jackie, so I thought you needed another pen …”), to the ring she brought from Canada on her first trip home, though for her it wasn’t home any more. She didn’t sound anything like the old Jen. The pen and pencil set are on top of another pile to go to the hospice donation center. I might waver yet.
I have read old greeting cards, remembered the friends who sent them, and then let them go. I cannot ship everything back to the USA, so I have had to be ruthless – look, remember, chuck.
I have dug out many of my old books – books I’d left at the house I grew up in, but never took with me when I left home, so my parents brought them to this house for storage. The local library was the source of my reading material as a child – no one I knew could afford books. Yet books were acquired, many of them very old – my dad’s job as a house painter and decorator brought him into contact with people who were disposing of unwanted items before having a room or whole house painted, so we were the willing recipients of old books, among other treasures. But here’s the funny thing - in every book read, I’d noted very specific information on the first page. I don’t remember doing this. I’d written my name, my address, the date and my age at the time, together with an estimate of the book’s age. “My name is Jacqueline Winspear,” followed by the address (ending with the obligatory “Kent, England, World, Universe, Infinity, Space …”), and “I am 10 years old and I estimate this book to be approximately 25 years old.” Many of my dad’s clients were elderly and so were the books, so I would say I was out by a good 30-50 years on most of those cast-offs! One of the books I packed up today – thankfully not scribbled in – was a copy of Alice In Wonderland, published in the late 1800’s, which I think was roughly when it was first published. But I wonder why I chose to inscribe my books with such detail? Perhaps it was the way of the child, trying to establish her place in the world.
I have found letters from people I’ve struggled to remember, and many who I would love to see again. I have decided to let go of photographs, ornaments, and all sorts of do-dads. Look, remember, chuck. Mum and John are doing the same, sort of.
My brother is shipping an old costermonger’s barrow back to the USA. My granddad was a Covent Garden costermonger; a man who sold fruit and vegetables from a barrow that was either pushed or horse-drawn. His business was always up or down, dependent upon the state of his lungs, which had been damaged by gas in WW1. When his breathing became so bad he could not function, the red ambulance would come to take him away to the coast for a while. The horse and cart would be sold, and the business lost, leaving the family in dire straits. Then granddad returned and started all over again with a push-barrow. As soon as he could afford it, he traded in the barrow for a cart and he bought a horse. He’d add another horse and cart as his business grew once more. Then his lungs would go, and everything would be sold. He would come home and struggle to start all over again. Such peaks and troughs were a feature of my father’s early life, so when my brother brought home a dilapidated costermonger’s barrow some thirty years ago – the typical costermongers barrow was of a specific design– my father took on the job of restoration, and I think it might have been some sort of cathartic process for him, though my down-to-earth dad would never hold with such psycho-babble. My brother won’t part with that barrow, so off it goes, winging its way to a new home in California.
Each day we begin again. Look-Remember-Chuck. John just came into the kitchen where I’ve been working, and placed a book next to my computer. “This is yours Jackie. Do you want it?” It’s my old copy of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. It came from my school library, and I chose it because it was my cousin Stephanie’s favorite book, and I would have read anything she told me I should read. It's interesting that I never returned the book. My cousin Stephanie passed away almost 19 years ago at a heartbreakingly early age. She named her daughter after the story’s main character. She so loved that name; she maintained that, if she had a little girl, she would call her Fritha. Well, our Fritha now has three children of her own, bless her! Look – Remember – Chuck. No, I can’t let this book go. Maybe Fritha would like it, though I am sure she has a ton of copies. That’s the other option you see – pass the stuff onto other people. When I look around the house, that’s where so many things came from – other people who were much loved. That’s why we need our steely look-remember - chuck resolve.
There are a lot of people out there writing books about getting rid of our stuff, but let’s face it, any house is a big old memory box. Every time you put your hand in, you come out with something that, for better or worse, has a place in your heart. And even if X never did look at me twice, I know I loved him dearly for a good month at least. Well, according to the diary I did.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby