I’ve been clearing out my Grandmother’s house. She died 20 years ago, but my aunt carried on living there until she recently moved out and into sheltered housing.
It was never properly emptied and dealt with when Grandma died, and oh my gods am I dealing with it now.
It isn’t a big house but it is crammed with a lifetime of things. What the hell do you do with them?
My sister hired a skip and it has broken my heart a dozen times to see stuff tossed into it, stuff I remember from my childhood, stuff I know Grandma used and valued.
She used to bake us tiny loaves of bread to have, warm and fresh, with our tea. Discovering the bread tins, made useless with rust, in a kitchen drawer, reduced me to tears.
Cream jugs, glasses cases, ashtrays – all useless now, but how can you throw them out when they are so heavy with memories?
I looked online to see what people do in these situations – clearing out a close relative’s house happens all the time, no? There must be strategies for coping with it, yes?
Apart from suggestions to ‘save one or two special pieces and send the rest to a charity shop’ it seems the advice is to just bin it all.
But I can’t bin the homemade needle case with the rusty needles in it, and a charity shop would look at it askance. The same goes for the address of my first house, written on the back of a Christmas card in that familiar handwriting that no-one will ever write again, or the battered tobacco box of elastic bands, or the Scrabble game with the charred tiles where my sister (as a toddler) gleefully hurled them on the fire and they had to be raked out, amidst much hysteria.
On top of that is the the eternal, unanswered question that underpins every bloody thing we do. How can someone be so very much alive – alive enough to cut out a dress pattern, cast on some knitting, start a shopping list – and then not be there? How can you reconcile yoursef with the fact that everything is futile, because one day, not so very far away, it will all stop?
Everything that was them – their dreams, their unvoiced opinions, their memories, their knowledge, their plans for next week, their future selves – all comes to nothing.
There is no download, no backup on Dropbox, no reboot. They are gone and it is irreversible.
Philip Larkin summed it up.
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.