Over the next few weeks and months, I plan another stage of deep clearing and shedding of old possessions from my home, as I’m sure a lot of people are now thinking about; things I no longer want or need and which feel burdensome to have around me.
One of these is an old, carved, wooden sideboard acquired by my grandma, oh, about 100 years ago. Its not stood in my house for probably five or six years so its now adding damp and mould to its age-worn brittleness (1950s polyurethane varnish over time-weary oak). Yet, until now, I’ve had I-don’t know-how-many clear-outs and still not managed to let it go, even as the clearers stood there asking me if they should lift it into the van. At the very last moment, I’ve always relented…but not this time.
If I no longer want it, why so hard? Somehow, it feels sacrilegious to the memory of grandma and my dad and all of us family members who, as children, remember it being centre stage at Christmas when the sherry was being poured into the glasses kept in it, or bone china plates being carefully put away onto its shelves after their once-a-year use. It has a door that opens downwards, between two leaded glass doors, with a leather-lined writing desk and compartments we filled with “useful” junk, and I recall that coming loose and hitting me on the head more than once when I sat in a small chair underneath it (my dad subsequently fixed the key). Those leaded glass panes got knocked out and replaced….many times. And my mum kept a huge tin of biscuits and snack bars in the lower cupboard, for us, then all the grandkids (and for herself…).
These are fine memories and yet the furniture itself is way past its use. Yet, as the one who volunteered to have it when mum died, I feel a burdensome responsibility for this pot of memories…even though, of all of us, I should really know better!
Because I DO know better than most how burdensome old memories can be when you have to find room to STORE them, to the detriment of having the space to make new ones (a topic I spoke about, from another angle, in my health blog earlier this week; why not read it next, I think you’ll find it highly relevant). Whether in our houses, our cultures or our own bodies, time comes when we have to sift through and consciously decide what is useful to keep…and what we would do better letting go of.
Our modern “just incase” culture has made hoarders of us all and yet most of us live in dread of the kind of spaces that look as though someone is throwing a jumble sale (I know I do). Especially when we have been through overwhelm of any kind, there’s usually a part of us that longs for clear, clean spaces and a fresh start…but that process always begins with us; and starts when we draw some boundaries as to who gets to choose what we keep in our environment. When we do that clearing work, letting go of what’s no longer resonant, our outer world has this uncanny way of following suit!
Perhaps it’s because of the lengths my grandma went to in order to keep this cumbersome piece of furniture, at a time of great change for the family, that I’ve felt so burdened with the responsibility. It must have meant a lot to her to have gone to so much effort. My father, uncle, aunt and her (when dad and his siblings were young adults) moved south from Tyneside, not long after the Jarrow hunger marches, to Nottingham in the relatively booming Midlands, to begin a new life with my dad working on the brave new building sites of its rapidly growing 1930s suburbia – he was a joiner and ended up making roof joists and window frames for the housing estate where we made our family home for 60 years. I was always told this was pretty much the only big possession they brought with them (I’m not sure if that’s true but I’ve always held to it) though I can’t even imagine how they would have transported it, since I can’t begin to think they could afford a removals firm, but there it was…this huge wooden thing in our lives for another few decades…a family trophy of an important transition made between two worlds, so who am I to get rid of it on a whim?
I have to ask, what did it symbolise to my grandma; perhaps, that she was headed for better times in which she would be able to resume aspiring to niceties such as china plates, or to imply that she wasn’t coming from such poverty stricken ones (to her new neighbours), which would have meant a lot to her given they had fallen on very hard times “up north” before the move? If so, what need do I have of those symbols in my life? Why perpetuate them without the authenticity of her experiences (this is how faulty traditions become ingrained in cultures…based on circumstances that no longer apply and yet people continue to make them important, generations later, because of precedent set).
She had been through, what I gather were, harrowingly hard times for over a decade when they moved; a real down turn in circumstances following the death of a husband that meant the world to her (in many ways, my highly sensitive dad never got over those years; they ingrained as his extreme fear of poverty and a certain degree of hypochondria). Things had changed…drastically…in 1921 when my grandad died of encephalitis lethargica at the age of 36 (I have a copy of the death certificate), the awful brain inflammation and “sleeping sickness” virus that followed in the wake of the Spanish Flu pandemic (sound familiar) straight after the first world war. At that time, when my father was only 8, they moved from a decent house with a small garden to a minuscule tenement (I’ve stood outside of it and tried to imagine four of them making a home inside) where my grandma was forced to take in washing to get by. She was a proud woman and a strictly devout one; I can only imagine how these changes played with her sense of selfhood and faith. Shortly afterwards, dad gave up his hard-earned grammar school place to become an apprentice in a joinery yard; made “man of the house” alongside his brother who was sent off to become an apprentice watch-mender and my aunt off into “service”. When they moved to Nottingham, all three were able to make a new start; my dad “on the houses”, my uncle in a watchmaker’s shop and aunt in a big department store for all of her working life, saving for holidays abroad that she could only have dreamed of before, so things improved way beyond what would have been possible if they hadn’t moved south, but that original wrench of suddenly losing their father stayed with them, and my grandma, like an open wound for decades.
So, perhaps, these “stories” are the true keepsakes of the piece; not the great lump of unwanted furniture which is no more than a page marker in the story of time. I have the family story off by rote (I offload it here…) so why keep the heavy, tarnished wood around my neck? And yet people do, don’t they? We all lug around the keepsakes of our past traumas, upheavals and pain, generation after generation, long after we even know what to do with them or how they precisely came about, filling our creative potential up with the bric-a-brac of lives that aren’t ours to worry about and leaving us too full-up with other people’s stuff to work out our own…
Cultures tend to build their belief systems on stories of origin but also upon cataclysmic events that have occurred along the way and the importance of my family’s move “to safety” (with the sideboard…) has almost become such a pivotal story in our collective psyche, though I suspect it goes unnoticed except by me.
Yet, shifting from one place to another was really not such a big milestone for my family, as it turned out, looked at from the bigger picture. When I took a brief dive into genealogy, a few years ago, I unearthed just how many times we had moved from one part of the country to another…which paints quite a different picture. In light of this, I can’t really say I am “from” any one place, looking at either of my parents (who only spent part of their lives in Nottingham, where I grew up), since my ancestors had moved pretty much every generation, for one reason or another, since the industrial revolution; and always as a leap into the unknown, in order to get out of hard times or opportunistically better themselves because things had become unviable where they were. Not even fixed “northerners” either as I discovered multiple sojourns and off-branches to live down south in Surrey and Hampshire, Dorset and all over the south when work opportunities came their way; I even traced my mum’s family to the next village to where I now live, which was quite bizarre. In short, they headed to wherever the work was; the ship building and iron works, the late Victorian London taxi cabs, the toffs needing a gardener or big estates needing farm labourers. I had labelled them (and myself) “northerners” for all those years when, in actual fact, the final laugh was, both sides of my parentage could be traced back to Norfolk in villages that were almost side-by-side!
Which is good! I like this about my roots; that my gene pool has them in the grounding of a typical village life somewhere I know relatively little about (though I took a trip there to walk about some of the churchyards bearing our name) and that we have shaken that all about; we’re certainly not static. From what I found out, when that first generation left Norfolk, I suspect they took very little but the clothes on their backs…no burdensome possessions to speak of.
Because, as I keep bringing up in some of my other posts (and as per link below), movement is good for us…it energises us and sheds away what is sticky yet often toxic and cumbersome. Putting down good strong roots into nutritious soil can be powerful too; but when the idea of that starts to turn into fear of otherness, a dread of change, clinging to the past like a security blanket and fiercely guarding what we have “against” others, we get into all sorts of problems.
Yes, people become so fixed on where they, or other people “come from” but, if we scraped more than just the surface, I daresay we would find that just so many of us have been nomads for decades and mixed up with other people, races, cultures far more than we know. What if moving is the normal…and this trend for becoming so ingrained in our identity of place (or, type of place…to which we add earning bracket and the kind of possessions we own) is a relatively new habit, product of the industrial age, begging to be snapped out of like a bad dream? What if, like my forebears, the final laugh is that we all came from pretty much the same place, near enough same family, which is always true, but that other values matter more than the signpost at the end of our street? That it’s living by those values that join us together into the kind of community that spans all distances; as is instantly recognisable beyond all language barriers and anything else that might artificially separate us.
We plan our own move pretty soon but its not such a big deal for me; I have no strong attachment where I currently live. When I reached 18, I just knew I had to leave and head far south or I would drown in that childhood place, though it has held fast to my siblings; two still live there and another has moved back pretty close so, as ever, I am the contrarian far from what they still consider home but it hasn’t been that to me for decades. I’ve yet to find a place worthy of the name, if I’m honest, yet its not about north or south for me but about finding my particular kind of place, which includes my kind of people…and I’m getting close. Living here was “an accident” of overstaying until life got too complicated to leave and now, well, now we are ready to cut those ties and actively choose what feels right…for us.
That includes letting go of anything…and I mean anything…that doesn’t feel like us or is burdensome to carry around anymore; I can’t wait to set to work on the next phase of clear-out. Though some things remain sentimental, I feel no excessive need for keepsakes now unless those things genuinely warm the heart; so, I plan to pass some photos, trinkets and memorabilia on to other family members (for some reason, I seemed to take it upon myself to become the librarian of these things 20 years ago but my resignation is in the post…) and the rest will have to go.
By the end of the process, I expect to feel ten tons lighter and ready for some new golden memories to flood into my spaces, not to mention leaving room for much more positivity, spontaneity and creativity; looking forwards more so than back!