September last year I went to my childhood home, packed up the stuff my sisters had put to one side for me and I shipped them home in three cardboard “tea chests”. Only yesterday did I finally get sick of these overstuffed tea-chests making it impossible for anyone to actually walk into our “walk-in robe”. They had to go. But go where?
I dragged out the contents, sifted through it, got rid of about a fifth of it (brave!), and assimilated the rest into the places of the house where I feel they could be of use or well stored. But I have to admit that I did not even peek at these items for over a year while they were at my house. Prior to that they had been in my mother’s house, victims of my mother’s Great Depression affliction of compulsive keepsaking (yes, hoarding), and where I had never once given even one of the items more than a passing thought in maybe forty years. Surely this must be the big clue for me. If I haven’t thought about them while they were not in my possession, and have not thought about them once even while they were in my possession, surely I do not need them.
It occurs to me even now that I do not need any of it, not in the true sense of need. That state-prize winning watercolour of my cat Ching, do I love it? Empathically no, but it represents the first moment in my life when I my identity went beyond the small town. At age 9, this painting won me first prize in The Courier Mail Art Prize for children, and I vividly remember my school principal being well impressed and calling for everyone to offer me a round of applause at morning parade. I was shocked. It was my first taste of myself outside of the small town context. I discovered I was able to get bigger than my current circumstance. My dimensions could grow beyond it. I hit fame.
So as much as I don’t really like that weird murky coloured picture of a long forgotten cat (no, I don’t remember it), I am keeping the damn picture.
Also in the boxes were a preponderance of correspondence. My mother kept every letter, card, aerogramme, invitation and memo. My sisters had painstakingly (mostly) separated out that correspondence they felt was appropriate to my interest. Namely, they assigned in my stash all letters I had sent to Mum over forty years. There are literally hundreds, written in a wide variety of scrawls, and from a wide variety of circumstances/places/maturity levels. I dared to read snippets of one or two and found them full of spelling errors and self-absorption. One snippet I read was downright dull-minded and nasty so I stopped reading them and started thinking about throwing them all away.
But then, amid the dross, I came across a yellowed letter, written in the gently-sloping calligraphic hand writing of my great grandmother, Annie Glasser. My sisters must have missed this one. In this letter (the first page of which is unfortunately missing) my great grandmother is telling someone about her prize-winning grandchildren, referring specifically to “Marg who is 17” having won a series of prizes for her stories at Farmers (I’m guessing this was a magazine or journal- perhaps the Farmer and Settler Journal which existed in NSW from 1906-1955). This reference to Marg dates the letter about 1943 at the height of WWII. Annie refers to her granddaughter, Winnie (my mother) as having begun work as a nurse, and speaks quite poignantly of my mother’s cousin who had just lost her mother to illness. I believe this may have been one of my mother’s dearest relatives and fellow story-teller Shirley, who had won prizes for her stories in Sydney, who herself died at about the same time as my own mother, ironically.
As I read this letter I was struck by the wealth of information that was packed into it as seamlessly as hair pins into an intricate hair-do. What seems such a casual set of paragraphs are really time-fissures through which I can peek into my own bloodline, my own passions and personality. These people lived and breathed, and wrote letters and felt pain and hardship and great love. That DNA exists in me. I am their inheritance.
As I turned to the dusty pile of letters I had written to my mother over forty years I realised it was not me who was needing the letters and my opinion of them was not important. Posterity is an awful word and makes things sound grand. These letters are not grand, they are filled with pitiful squawking and grammatical nightmares. But they do hold value to my descendants in terms of helping them understand their own bloodline, passions and interests. I put them up for safe keeping.
Then, of course, there are the photos. Hundreds. Many of which I already have a copy. In fact, most are copies I made of my own photos that I sent to Mum and now in the fullness of time, the copies have made their way back to me. I did throw out a lot. But occasionally, amongst the repetitively tedious shots of gatherings or landscapes or blurred pantomime dancing, I would find a beauty. Like the one of my dearest Uncle Walter standing next to his exotic Spanish bride, Nell, on their wedding day in 1948. Uncle Wal was a sniper in the war in Papua New Guinea, sitting for days and days at a time by himself up in a tree, quietly picking off the enemy soldiers. I heard he never spoke much at all about the war, and refused to participate in ANZAC day marches or commemorations or any kind, which leads everyone to think he was damaged badly by his experience. That may well be so. But looking at his wedding day photo, taken three years after his ordeal, I hope I can see just a greatness and clarity of mind that knew how to move on, value his life, and live precisely in the now. The photo gives me tremendous feeling of hope and I’m keeping it.
It took all day to sift through the boxes, but I refused to leave anything undone. Time had come for a reconciliation with them. I hope I kept the good stuff. I hope what I threw away was appropriate. Most of all I hope that of the stuff I kept, it’s valuable memory, useful and instructive, not just memories for memory-sake.