Se­crets, heir­looms – and a lot of love

ella Grif­fin on clear­ing out her par­ents’ house

Woman & Home - - Contents -

clear­ing your par­ents’ home

The hard­est part is the mo­ment just be­fore you be­gin. When ev­ery­thing is where it al­ways has been. your fa­ther’s writ­ing desk. the arm­chair by the win­dow where your mother used to sit. the hig­gledy-pig­gledy line of brass an­i­mals march­ing across the man­tel­piece, the pig nose-to-tail with the ele­phant both, com­i­cally, the same size. Cor­ner pieces of the jig­saw puzzle of your child­hood. it has taken over 40 years to put it to­gether; now you have to rip it apart and throw away the pic­ture on the lid.

there was noth­ing spe­cial about the house in sub­ur­ban dublin where i grew up with my four broth­ers and my sis­ter. it was a small peb­bledashed semi-de­tached, on a street of al­most iden­ti­cal houses, though ours was the one with the slightly wonky ex­ten­sion. it was part of the fam­ily. it had its quirks and scars and se­crets, its own unique per­son­al­ity.

noth­ing was ever thrown away in that house. the at­tic was packed to the rafters with our cast-offs. if you opened a drawer to look for a pen, you’d have to ri­fle through a jumble of dis­carded golf balls and spent bat­ter­ies, keys to lost pad­locks and half-burned birth­day can­dles.

the walls had soaked up years of wa­ter fights and whis­pered phone calls, shout­ing matches and happy Christ­mases. af­ter my fa­ther died sud­denly and my older sib­lings moved on, there were just my mother and me, aged 18, and a house full of echoes.

Grow­ing up

three years later, i moved out too. two decades went by. i must have lived in a dozen places, but as long as that house was still there to go back to, some stub­born part of me still thought of it as home.

We had nine months af­ter my mother’s stroke to say good­bye, and although it was lovely to have that time, it wasn’t enough. maybe that’s why, five years af­ter she died, we had left the house ex­actly as it was. then it sold, sud­denly, and we were jolted into re­al­ity. the fam­ily that bought it needed to move in three days af­ter they signed, and they wanted the house empty.

How do you de­cide what to keep in just 72 hours? the pho­to­graphs, ob­vi­ously. the hand-drawn birth­day cards and scrib­bled post­cards you sent to your par­ents from far-flung places. the rab­bit’s foot good luck charm they found on the steps of a dance­floor on their first date. a sag­ging card­board box of child­hood copy­books. the recipe books with the turned-down cor­ners and egg yolk-stained pages. note­books where your mother, wid­owed at 60, jot­ted down scraps of po­etry and phi­los­o­phy.

but what about the rest? What are you sup­posed to do with the ma­hogany din­ing ta­ble with the carved lion’s feet that dou­bled as a ping-pong ta­ble? the pi­ano no­body played that oc­cu­pied its own cor­ner of the sit­ting room like a for­got­ten fam­ily pet? the bro­ken te­le­scope that be­longed to the brother who grew up to be an as­tro­physi­cist? your dead fa­ther’s cheque books, the stubs filled out in his cop­per­plate hand­writ­ing? your mother’s hair­brush that still has a few sil­ver hairs caught in the bris­tles?

you can’t keep it all. you can’t keep any of it re­ally be­cause you have al­ready ac­cu­mu­lated your own clut­ter.

i must have packed bags and boxes for the char­ity shop, and filled six skips, but i can’t re­mem­ber any­thing about it. my mind re­fused to record this fran­tic purge, this slough­ing of hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands of things that were so fa­mil­iar that they felt as if they were part of me.

New be­gin­nings

What i do re­mem­ber is that on the last day when the rooms were emp­tied out, and the house was just a shell, it filled with some­thing lovely and com­pletely un­ex­pected. the thing my par­ents must have seen when they bought it. Pos­si­bil­ity.

as i took one last walk through the rooms where i’d grown up, i heard the echo of their foot­steps across 40 years. i imag­ined them, as they would have been back then, a cou­ple in the mid­dle of their lives look­ing for a new be­gin­ning. a place where they could raise their fam­ily.

there are things i wish i’d kept now. the lit­tle brass ele­phant. my fa­ther’s shav­ing brush. the set of tar­nished sil­ver cut­lery we used on sun­days. i won­der where they are some­times. then i re­mind my­self that they are here, where they be­long, in my mind and in my heart.

and that the most im­por­tant things in life are not things at all, but mem­o­ries. The Mem­ory Shop by ella

Grif­fin (orion) is out now.


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