When my mother died almost five years ago I vowed I would not clutter up any home I lived in so it became a burden for our survivors. This resolve has been strengthened by the recent death of my brother-in-law through illness, and the challenge of dealing with a lifetime’s worth of collections that were of value to him but less to others. They then can become a liability when the reason for their existence is no longer there. John was an avid collector of stamps, cameras, books, DVDs, painted resin animals and birds, and dozens more types of items. He built model railways and model boats but was not a finisher completer so there are unbuilt and unopened projects everywhere. I am thankful that my mother did not have the money to buy and collect the things she liked!
Deciding what to keep and what to get rid of can be a therapeutic experience with limits, and the boundaries between therapy and burden are blurred, but can be set early on. Although at one time Brian and I lived in the same house for 26 years, we were lucky enough to rent it out unfurnished for three years whilst we lived in Solomon Islands, so we cleared out our excess and stored our essentials. We accumulated more from travelling which we again tried to shed when we took possession of this home 12 years later.
When we moved to the current house which we are now selling, our daughter had recently begun university, so never lived here full-time. But until she moved to her own permanent flat in London five years ago, we had everything she owned in our home, as well as all her life history, which we had collected and cherished over the years. She moved into a small one-bedroomed flat which we helped her furnish and equip. Her partner moved in when he finished his studies, and the place is just big enough for two with no room for clutter. They have been very good at clearing out their possessions regularly and have resisted filling newly empty spaces with our offerings, except for a few choice items of my mother’s such as an armchair and some Indian bedspreads. Kiran very sensibly says that if she looks through piles of items we offer her, she will inevitably want to keep many of them, and that those she has lived without for five years, she can do without. I agree with her, but now we are moving on I feel the need to get everything out and look at it. Hopefully, I will be able to throw or give away rather than squirrel away.
First I took out a box of memorabilia collected from just before we left to live in Solomon Islands, and also documenting the first few months there. We had not flown long-haul before, nor outside Europe together, so flying halfway round the world from the UK for the first time was a big step. We first arrived in Brisbane late at night en route to Honiara, two not-that-young parents with a two-year old, travelling Business Class from Singapore, very casually dressed, me a visible minority, and with three very large brand new suitcases. We feel we aroused suspicion and customs officers turned our luggage inside out, and x-rayed the inside, presumably looking for stashes of drugs in false bottoms. This took hours and I had period pain, so not the greatest welcome to Australia.
There was no internet for us there, so we relied on fax and letter mail. The stack of faxes are one thing we must keep, as they document our memories. I also could not part with various letters written while we were newly there, such as one from a friend who subsequently died of cancer. There was so much food for thought in the box that I put it away again to face another time.
Having closed down those memories for now, I decided to deal instead with everything Kiran visibly owned, and to tackle her life history later. She is clear that she wants to keep all her diaries – first begun at age ten and intensely private, and to sort through the camera photographs she took. But very little else. Out has gone assorted clothing, multiple handbags given to her as gifts, art materials and greetings cards. During her between-age years she became interested in different religions and built a collection of bibles, a Koran and a set of Harry Potter books (which could be called a religion, as she has kept the faith with all things Potter for 20 years). She also has copies of some of my publications – on ‘race’ and ethnicity and on working with children and families, which made me reflect on my own employed life. I enjoyed the work but found many of the organisations I worked for quite oppressive, even the charities. However, looking through the books reminded me of how much influence the work must have had on her whether consciously or unconsciously. She has a strong sense of social justice, of her own ethnic background and identity, and has chosen a career as a child protection social worker and family psychotherapist. We could not be happier with all her choices.
Looking under the bed in her room I found her musical instruments and accessories. She played saxophone and keyboard for at least 8 years, and became competent at both. She read music, played in a keyband and took exams, but did not continue with either instrument once she went away to sixth form college at age 16. We wondered if there was anything we could have done differently? Should we have taken more interest in music ourselves? We remember playing music when she was a baby and young child, especially on car journeys, but Kiran says she can remember BBC Radio 4 (news and current affairs) playing continuously, and not music. Neither Brian nor myself play an instrument, read music or sing, so there was no role modelling in the home. Yet some of the skills we possess and practice she has developed: critical thinking; high literacy; writing for publication and public speaking, to name a few. So maybe we didn’t do such a bad job as parents, and I eventually found a web shop that bought her musical instruments.
Swimming was another skill she did well at, but couldn’t sustain after leaving home. Her medals, badges and certificates prove it, and we are keeping a reminder of them for ourselves. For years our weekends and evenings were shaped by her squad training. In summer it was sad to be inside a chlorine-filled environment; on freezing winter mornings at 6.00, it was hard to get out of bed. But we all did it, and she did a good job. Her swimming skills helped her to be a good snorkeler and scuba diver whilst we were in Solomon Islands, but now we are in England, her scuba gear is lying in a huge bag with nowhere to go. As it has not been serviced for many years, it is unlikely to be worth much, and may have to be stored, together with all the other less useful things we can’t part with. Recently, Kiran finally had time to visit and sort through her cupboard of memories. She threw out all the swimming history – and by agreement I photographed it all before it was sent away. She also gave away her collection of bibles and other faith books, and took Harry Potter and her collection of diaries back to London with her. She speedily worked through her photographs as well, throwing away those that had ceased to be of significance to her, and noting that others were available digitally. If only I could be as decisive!
Digitising is a tempting way to save space and put off difficult decisions. We recently met a couple a decade older than us, who had moved from a family home of 48 years, to a retirement flat, with no regrets. The woman had scanned all her photographs before moving, albeit 6 at a time. But still not our way. We have thousands of digital photographs that we rarely look at already, and to add to these would be folly. We are (slowly) doing things Kiran’s way.
Those are the easy decisions. The life history is harder for me. Twenty-seven years of being a parent and of collecting our daughter’s achievements is a lot of photographs, notebooks, drawings and paintings, and other memorabilia. Happily, my husband has put video clips of her aged from one to six years onto digital files and given her a copy. They are priceless as they include her with her two grandmothers and one grandfather, all now dead. They make for the most joyful watching. The ideal pick-u-up for gloomy feelings; they exude love and happiness and affirm our role as good parents – at least in her early years!
Returning to the difficult task set aside at the beginning of this article, I divided the boxed memories into four parts. There are the years before Solomons, and revisiting the files of the years we lived there, abandoned the first time I tried. The next tranche of memories to sort through are Kiran’s early school years once we returned from Solomon Islands; and then fourthly, her time from junior through to secondary school. Once she left home for college and then university, she controlled her memories and possessions, and was decisive in getting rid of her multiple files and folders of student coursework, text books and old examination papers.
Unlike us oldies, much of her course work is available electronically, should she wish to remind herself of past studying. While clearing out paperwork, we have unearthed some of our school exercise books, kept by our parents. These are hard to throw away when they have survived 60 years, and are a reminder of why now is always a good time to deal with such things.
Reliving her birth in pictures was a joy, but we took too many in her first year, and because we only had one child, didn’t stop. Reading the congratulations cards, and seeing pictures of the visitors was emotional, but we don’t need hundreds of photos, so we have kept just the better quality ones, plus those taken with important loved ones. Kiran was a summer baby, and came at peak strawberry season. The time surrounding her birth was also, happily, not a wet weather one, so the memories are of sun and satisfaction and strawberries while we got to know her. As a young baby she was quite small and looked vulnerable and stunned by the world, but she quickly engaged with life and by the age of four months was robust and joyful, and brought much happiness to everyone. It was a wrench going back to work when she was four and a half months old, though Brian then became the main carer; I had been known for my dependence on a watch and a diary, but had not used either during my time on maternity leave. When I look back on it now, it was I think a saving quality that I was able to prioritise other things over paid work when necessary. We reduced three boxes of photos to one for this period of life, and we have video clips of her early steps and other significant happenings from aged one to six as mentioned earlier.
Returning to the Solomons years, we were ever fortunate to have had those opportunities. From very limited travellers we became regular world travellers, all in the space of three years. These years were a significant change for us and we have many reminders which have not been a problem for 20 years as they sat on shelves and in cupboards. Now we have to deal with them. Brian agreed to make a time line of significant journeys and places visited, and we threw away the majority of flight boarding passes, the travel and tourist literature, and the photos that no longer held meaning.
We have come to realise that endless landscapes without people in them to give context are rarely worth keeping. I had kept dozens of her drawings and her early writing and had to select from these. We had no television in Honiara, so Disney video tapes became the entertainment of choice. Many of her drawings depicted Disney characters such as Cinderella, as well as documenting the travelling we did around the world. From the first weeks we were there, I treasure the photo of her sweeping up dead cockroaches the first morning we were in our rental home, after having put down bait the night before. In England, cockroaches are unusual in homes and associated with dirty places so we were horrified to have them in the house, and soon had the place fumigated, and thoroughly cleaned, and they didn’t return. Later, we found that in Australia and the US they are a fact of life and not feared as much, but I have never learned to tolerate them. One of our final memories of Kiran’s stay in Solomons is a story she wrote about our cat who developed an abscess and had to be operated on. ‘The sick, sick cat’ says it all! It is a tribute to the school she attended, and where she learned to read and write confidently.
There’s a South Pacific Society in the UK where I have sent unwanted Solomon Islands memorabilia and artefacts, which they can use to raise money. For example, one member of the Society took our collection of Solomon Airlines magazines and detailed maps of Guadalcanal. However, there are dozens of items that we treasure from our times there – wood carvings, baskets and trays for example, which we are not ready to give up. But at least we have somewhere to send them when and if we let them go.
On return from Solomons there was a great deal of adjusting for all of us to do. Brian and I were unemployed and had to find jobs, and Kiran started her first school in England. There was also the house to refresh and re-furnish with our stored items and recent acquisitions. I tendered for and won a contract to develop training materials, that was home based and time limited. It fitted in well with school hours and I look back with happiness to the relaxed state of part-time flexible work. We needed flexibility, as Brian had opportunities for job contracts in Botswana and Vancouver which would have meant moving again. Vancouver fell through at the last minute due to Canadian Immigration blocking the position, and I then almost took a job for a year in north east Sri Lanka, but it would have been tough on us all, so we settled down to staying in the UK for the foreseeable future. Luckily, we both eventually secured permanent full-time jobs, and the timing worked well for Kiran’s middle school years. Photographic memories now focused on our holidays. Since Solomons, we had seriously suffered from the travel bug, but our mothers were also ageing and we wanted to see more of them. My father had died while we were in Solomons, and his tangible memories were still in their family home. We were glad we had stayed around, as a year after returning from Solomons, Brian’s mother died. Kiran’s goodbye poem to her, written at age seven, makes me cry every time.
We still have hundreds of photographs to sort and dispose of, but feel that the parenting memories are now manageable. We are glad that we have been able to consult Kiran over what stays and what goes. However, when I wrote at the beginning that we had vowed to not hoard possessions, our double garage and garden sheds seem to have been exceptions to that rule! For example, we bought tropical hardwood and shipped it back from Solomons in 1997. It has moved with us to this house, and we have now moved it out of the garage as we have sold the plot of land with the garage. We will move it once more to the South Coast as for two decades Brian has had plans to make simple beds and tables with it. But if it doesn’t happen this time, it will be donated to a good cause. The garden sheds have had to be cleared in order to make room for the must-keep stuff from the garage, which is still too much stuff. So maybe we will only become better at not hoarding, rather than non-hoarders?