I don’t post much on the Net about my family, partly because it’s of little interest to anyone else and partly because I like them and want them to carry on liking me. Today is an exception, because family matters have been much on my mind of late. And the question of how family matters become history. And how all of history is really the version we choose to tell of the stories of everyone’s families.
It’s almost two years since my father died. My mother has now moved to a new home, taking all the items she wishes to keep and washing her hands of the rest with admirable practicality. Their house has become home to another couple, and I guess we’ve all moved on. But then there’s the Stuff. That’s moved too, but only from my parents’ home to ours.
I have to admit that some of the things in that photo are ours (including the book on the right) but not all. Most of the Stuff consists of items that have been carefully collected over the years but which take up far too much space for my mother to house them. Or indeed anyone. I know much of it has to go, and that if we keep only the important things, Downie Towers will feel less like a junk shop. The problem is, how do you judge what’s important?
Some decisions aren’t too difficult. A bulging manila envelope found inside the “Old Photos” suitcase (my mother is very good at labelling) turned out to be full of the hair I’d had cut off when I was thirteen. That went in the compost bin, where it caused further consternation because every time anyone lifted the lid it looked as though one of us had buried a human head in there. I must ask my sister what she did with the collection of her own baby curls that came back to haunt her via the Royal Mail. My brother was spared, because by the time he arrived my mother seems to have lost interest in the preservation of body parts. I suppose we should be grateful there were no teeth.
There are books. There are photos: too many albums to count. There are postcards from family holidays, some sent by generations long gone. More books. There are records of the purchase & sale of houses, and the documents from Dad’s work as Executor for his own father. And more books. Proudly-preserved details of the achievements of children and grandchildren. Yet more books. Letters my generation was never intended to read, and which my sister and I chose to burn. The Guest Book from when my parents ran a Bed and Breakfast. Still more books. One of them held a folded place-marker I vaguely remember making, bearing the word “Daddy” in wonky crayon. I burned that, too. What else do you do?
In fact, what do you do with any of this stuff? It’s been here for months and I know that’s partly because I’m both sentimental and a terrible ditherer. It’s also, perhaps, something to do with being an historical novelist. These aren’t just Things, they are Sources, and it’s hard to throw away sources even though I know I’m never going to write a novel about mid-twentieth century Britain. At least, not yet.
But the truth is, we have to make some choices. There is no such thing as ‘doing nothing.’ Inertia is effectively a decision to hand over large chunks of space in Downie Towers to the preservation of somebody else’s treasures.
I guess we siblings will divide all the photos between us. None of us has much idea who some of the people were, but comments like “Related to Nanny???” on the back of the pic below mean we dare not part with it.
And then we come to the books. Hundreds of them. Books, for my Dad, were a route to freedom. Books were what lifted him from being an eleven-plus failure, a boy who left school at thirteen, to being a man with a belief that most people could understand anything if they put their mind to it for long enough. Books made him a man who was awarded a Doctorate in political history at the age of sixty-five, after studying on top of a full-time and very demanding job. Books were what made him a man who in his eighties, despite poor health and failing eyesight, sat at his desk every morning to translate New Testament Greek simply for the love of doing it.
So I’m working through the books very slowly. The easy ones – the volumes on cricket, the annual editions of Colemanballs – have found homes, either with family and friends or with the charity shop. The few items the Library can use have gone there. I’ve snaffled most of the Ancient World items, and one day I might even read them. Books that are worth money are slowly being listed for sale. Last weekend there was an historic moment when our dining table reappeared from under the boxes of books I knew were only valued at 1p on Amazon but were too good to throw away. Surely a needy student somewhere must want a battered biography of Asquith, or an out-of-date textbook on constitutional law, or the memoirs of the wife of an Archbishop? What about those old paperback classics – the yellowing, tatty Thomas Hardy and James Joyce we were chucking out because we have Dad’s (pristine) editions?
In the end Husband despaired of me ever finding a student with these very special needs, and phoned the local charity bookshop. The organizer came that afternoon, filled a couple of carrier bags and tactfully confirmed that the rest of what was there was, basically, rubbish. So I went and did something else while Husband took them all up to be recycled. Because it was too painful to think about books which had been so proudly and carefully acquired over many years going to the tip.
It’s not all negative. When he wasn’t translating Greek, Dad’s mornings at the desk were spent writing his memoirs – 1000 pages of typescript that we haven’t yet got around to reading because we’re overwhelmed with Stuff. Maybe we need to crack on with sorting out the Stuff. Because then we’ll have time to find out how Dad himself wanted to be remembered. From a book. Of course.