I remember when my Dad died, suddenly, aged 45. After the initial shock wore off, I was literally struck dumb, immobile, for a few days, faced with the enormity of knowing that all of his knowledge, all of his insights, his stories, all the stories that were attached with his possessions (of which he had few) were all lost. Had all been lost with him. Never to be told, discussed or laughed along with again. That hit me hard and, to this day, I’m still – occasionally – paralyzed by a fear that stems from that time. That I won’t know why he insisted on keeping chalk, loose, in his pockets after his lectures or where he was planning on taking his half-finished book, or why he took so long to set up his own consultancy. A million unresolved questions, hundreds of conversation starters that will never reach a conclusion. It’s terrifying for me and is, I think, what fuels my obsession with documentation. I can’t bear the thought of my children not knowing all the things they might like to know about me, were I, heaven forbid, to die tomorrow.
When my Dad died, I only wanted to have one thing of his: his gardening jumper that he used to wear when we went to the allotment together. It was a favourite Sunday morning activity of mine – accompanying him to the allotment to help him. I often wonder what the last thing I think of will be before I die and I wonder if it might be one of my very clear memories from walking to the allotment with him. Skipping alongside him, pure childhood joy in the joltingly fresh spring air, blackbirds singing to us as we went on our merry way, birds eggs, Tiffany blue, laying innocently in the nest in the hedge, worms, brusquely and accidentally halved, trying to burrow themselves back down in to the clots of soil. I’d like it if that were the case. They are some of my happiest memories, after all.
The jumper he wore seemed to capture so much of him, for me, that it was the only thing I wanted, in order to be able to remember him more clearly. I saw it, touched it, smelled it and I could, again, remember all the essentials about him – his patience, his sense of humour, how he made me believe 1000% in my self and my capabilities. It screamed ‘Dad’ to me. All he was – and still is – to me. My rock. But I digress, as I’m not going to be able to keep the jumper in my box because I no longer have access to it or its comfort – it was lost ‘accidentally’ by my Mum in a cull of my childhood home a few years ago. Not remembering it meant the world to me, it was thrown out, deemed no longer necessary, no longer worthy of a place in the new life she is forging for herself. Tears were shed, are still shed, for it, but – ultimately – I have rationalised this to myself, that it was, after all, just a ‘thing’.
What, then, does make it in to my small box labelled ‘must be rescued in the event of a fire’? His half-finished book, written long-hand. It sits on my desk. A simultaneous reminder that we can all do great things with our ‘one wild and precious life’ and that life is too too short. He’s dead, the book is dead, but there it sits – used, often, as my mouse pad and flicked through when I’m in need of some perspective and comfort. The book wills me on to ‘dare greatly’ and to just get on with it, especially in those moments when I simply don’t want to ‘get on with it’. He’s no longer here in a physical sense but his power is still with me, forcing me on to be a better me. The dream Helen.
Thanks, Dad: even in death you continue to teach me, to show me the way.
What else makes it in to the box? My Grandad’s letters – all two of them. He wasn’t a letter-writing man but wrote me two, in very quick succession, when I went down to the ‘Big Smoke’ as he used to call it, to start University. The small mining town girl making it big and heading off to where the streets are paved with gold, her Grandad, I imagine, worried sick thinking about all the horrible things that could befall me. If that wasn’t enough to make him put pen to paper, I don’t know what would have been! The first letter tells a story of him, recently married, being paid a visit by the police (a mix up, thankfully), the second contains a joke letter about how the Irish write letters (he was Irish, his parents having come to the town he lived in all his life to open a Catholic Church). Both of them transport me, immediately, to sitting with him at the dining table, him telling me stories, making me laugh with his very unique and infallible sense of humour. I take them out, often, just to touch them and read them, the words guaranteed to make me laugh hard just when I need a pick me up, laugh so hard, indeed, that the tears come, quickly replaced by ‘real tears’ (as my Gran would have said) when I remember his recent death.
Other things that would make it in to the box include my son and my daughter’s first shoes. Blue suede Fisher Prices and a pair of silver sandals, the blue suede scuffed at the toes and the silver leather worn from the only very few months of use. I touch them, I immediately remember the first moments they both walked, their smiling faces as they realised they could do it, they could move – fast – on their own. Their curly blonde hair, their innocent smiles, their hearts bursting with excitement they couldn’t contain and which transformed itself in to joyous laughter.
My bird spotting book, that we – me and Dad – used when we went bird spotting on weekend mornings. A complete record of our weekend mornings from 1983 to 1987, the place and the weather records at the top of each page immediately transporting me back to those mornings. Clumber Park, Cley, Blakeney, Rufford, I read the book, read the entries and I’m there, my nine year old self, thrilled to pieces because we’d spotted a crested thrush or a puffin. Marvelling at the puffin’s shiny striped beak, like he’s just been painted and buffed. I can trace my whole career path in those entries and experiences – from biologist to author. Don’t underestimate the power of indulging a child so they explore their interests, the entries tell me now, my Dad speaking to me, again, through the years.
Yet more things would make it in to my box. My Gran’s letters. She wrote me more than 5000 of them, one every day from the day I left for University to the day I graduated from my D.Phil., and then less frequently from that day until a week or so before she died. I don’t think I could fit all 5000 of them in my box – and they’re safely stored somewhere else anyway – but I have room for a few choice ones, ones that evoke her kindness and utter devotion to me, her beloved Granddaughter, and to her commitment that I’d ‘never be lonely’ because there’d always be a letter from Gran waiting for me. I think of what she did and I am always awe-struck by the enormity of it. She wrote to me every single day for 11 years! As my Dad used to joke, she’s the Allan Bennett of the Northern mining town where she lived. Her letters, covering politics, daily happenings in the house, the village, the county and the country, are a veritable treasure chest of information. It’s fascinating to read the ones I have with me – and read them I do, often – her voice is so strong, she comes alive to me, her warmth, her comfort, her little laugh and cheeky grin (exactly the same as my daughter’s). I read them and I’m 18 again, wide-eyed, having made it to UCL, I’m 21, recently graduated but frustrated because the grant didn’t come through for my D.Phil., I’m 22, Masters gained, a year filled, travelling to Oxford, grant finally in hand, scared to death as I walk past the Examination Halls, pinching myself that I am here, unbelieving, still, that’s its all happening and that I have the privilege of living in this great city for at least three years. I read her words and there’s not one that doesn’t fully support me or rejoice in me. She truly was an amazing women, the best Gran I could have wished for. My fairy Gran-mother.
So, my box. It’s my magic box. My time travelling machine. I touch, read or smell the items in there and I’m transported to my past, to what – and who – has made me what I am. I live without my immediate family – the perils of being an ex-pat – but I am, through the treasures in my magic box, supported by the people who have loved me and who I love. That love doesn’t know an end, doesn’t have an end. It’s eternal. It’s power is eternal. I’ll take my magic box filled with seemingly worthless things any day, over anything. You won’t find this kind of magic in even the most expensive shop-bought items.