Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Sifting through the past

So, I have a theory that most of you lovely, loyal people who regularly check in to read this blog do so chiefly to find out what novelty excuse I've come up with for not posting for ages. Usually they're a bit lame - obsessively writing/deleting, having an existential crisis, cat ate my laptop, that sort of thing. Today's excuse is a lot more original, but a little bit sadder too.


Two weeks ago my adored godmother died. She was 86, and wasn't ill exactly, but had been struggling since having a really nasty fall earlier in the summer. She was feisty and brave, but having fought hard to get back to normal after she came out of hospital, was getting tired and the fight was ebbing out of her. The last time I saw her she told me that she hadn't been sleeping well because, for the first time in ages, she was having vivid dreams. Nice ones? I asked. People who'd been dead for years, talking to her, she replied, shooting me a look. She died that night, just as she was getting into bed.

My brother and I had known her all our lives. She and her husband had lived next door to our parents when we were born, and they provided us with a sort of local grandparenting service, as our real relatives were spread out between Scotland and Dorset. They had no children of their own so it was an arrangement that suited everyone, and their house, with its china figurines and 1950s furniture, became part of the landscape of our childhood.

When we came to clear it out last week I wasn’t expecting any surprises. All was neat, orderly and familiar – except for the row of Walkers Crisp boxes (circa 1977) in the garage, which were neat and orderly but not familiar. We assumed they were full of rusty tools and old tins of paint and took them down to put in the skip (I didn’t do that bit, obviously – you should have seen the size of the spiders in there). We checked inside first, of course. Some of them were indeed full of rusty tools and old tins of paint, and the others certainly contained a lot of old tins which, when opened later at home, were found to contain letters, photographs, birthday cards from the 1930s, the crumbling and bleached remains of wedding corsages, diaries densely filled with scrawled writing, gramophone needles, ration books and war medals. 

So, that’s where I’ve been, and what I’ve been doing – sifting through the past, and through the lives of people that are not even distantly related to me, and yet who I spookily now feel I know. Most of the stuff belongs to my godmother’s mother-in-law, who I distantly remember as a large and formidable old lady with swollen ankles whose visits meant we had to be quiet and unnaturally well-behaved (unnaturally for us, anyway). Now I have a different perspective of her as a woman called Sarah, who was unhappy in her marriage, whose week was ordered around the ordeal of wash-day and who never threw ANYTHING away. 


Everything was very jumbled up, with receipts for ‘Removing Goods’ (4ft walnut sideboard, jardinere (sic) stand, enamel hearth plate etc) mixed in with death certificates, insurance policies, property deeds and photographs. The things I have discovered include…


A complete archive of Sarah’s wedding paperwork from 1925, including receipts for the dress, flowers and rings, and the engagement ring itself...



The mementoes she kept of her brother who died in 1920 - photographs of him in uniform, a postcard showing a picture of a French bar, a silk handkerchief embroidered with '1919 Souvenir de France' in large letters, and - most poignantly of all - his memorial card. Inside she's written 'My brother Harry. Died of wounds.'


(I wonder if the jardiniere stand that cost 16/11 to move in 1926 is the one in the photograph beside Harry?)



The menu from the dining room of the White Star Line's MV Georgic, in 1932...
(Saute of Veal Belle Meuniere and Puree of turnips, anyone?)



And this rather good news/bad news postcard from the British Red Cross, dated 16th August 1940...
'Very many thanks for the bedsocks - we now require 30 000 day socks...'
(Poor Sarah.)



There's so much else too - ordinary items that somehow seem extraordinary because of the story they tell. The thing I'm going to miss most about my godmother is listening to her stories and raiding her storehouse of memories (as well as her biscuit tin, which was always stocked with the very best Foxes chocolate biscuits) to hear about the past. She couldn't have left me a more valuable legacy than those stories... except perhaps the possibility of new ones I discovered in the tins in the garage. 

14 comments:

Morton S Gray said...

What a wonderful legacy of stories! I look forward to the historicals! Hugs for your loss, but what a lot of lovely memories! Mx

Sharon Kendrick said...

What a poignant and beautifully tender account, India.
Your relationship with your god-mother sounds wonderful - how lucky you were to have had each other. I like your hint that she knew she was on her way "shooting you a look"....and am sure she would have enjoyed your fascinating discovery in the garage.
xx

Catherine J said...

What a lovely post. Sifting through the past is fascinating, but not an easy task when you've lost someone you cared about dearly. Hugs.

India said...

Thank you Morton - I know you're a family historian, so I'm sure you're familiar with all this kind of paperwork. There was a lot that I couldn't make sense of - High Court intestacy documents, relating to people whose names I hadn't come across before, and an awful lot of complicated property stuff, some of it about installing water closets! All interesting stuff, but not quite so eloquent as the wedding receipts!

Thank you Sharon x. The funny thing is we never talked about when she died, except for about 2 years ago when she told me where to find all the information I'd need 'when she went.' I assumed she meant funeral wishes and all that, but there was nothing like that. I wish we'd addressed the subject head on... Lesson learned. I'd love to have asked her about the people in the photographs - and why they were all in the garage!

Thanks Catherine - hugs very much appreciated. (Coffee soon?)

Rachael Thomas said...

Hi India,
Sorry to hear of your god-mother, but what a find. I had a similar experience last year in a house that had been lived in by the same family since 1947. My oldest find was a family bible dating back to 1859!

Michelle Styles said...

How fantstic that your godmother saved those things.
I am very sorry for your loss but I know you will carry her in your heart.

Rachel Lyndhurst said...

So sorry to hear of your god-mother's passing, India, she sounds like a wise and fascinating woman. And all the history you've now uncovered ... wow. A moving blog post, my lovely. take care of yourself now. xxx

Caroline said...

What a lovely poignant post - and a lovely tribute your godmother India. Caroline x

India said...

Gosh Rachael, that's incredible. But the big question is, what did you DO with it all?

Michelle and Rach and Caroline, thanks so much for your good wishes, ladies. She was a lovely person and a big part of our lives, but I know she was ready to go which does make it a lot easier to say goodbye to her. She was a big fan of Foxes biscuits, which she always maintained were far superior to other makes, so buying and eating a lot of them is the perfect way to remember her, wouldn't you say...?

ros said...

Eating Foxes biscuits is a perfect tribute and one which you can pass on to your own children. I think I would like to be remembered in a similar way. ;)

India said...

Me too Ros, except I'd have Tunnock's teacakes as my memorial biscuit of choice. Or the red wrapper Bounties, but that's more of a chocolate bar than a biscuit so might be a bit de trop...?

Trenda said...

Lovely. Simply lovely. *wipes tears* Hugs and much love, dear India. I am so sorry for your loss.

Trenda

India said...

Ahh, thank you Trenda! xxx

NaLiMa KaPooR said...
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