My father keeps giving me things. Books mostly, and in truth books are what our whole lives have revolved around. Books and movies.
Dad’s 91 and in poor health; next stop nursing home. Stop after that… well, the big cinema in the sky, I guess. Or whatever it is that you personally believe in. He’s frail and tired and he wants things passed on, wants to do the one thing in his life that he’s always done, preserve the past. When all you have is the past, it’s the only thing left to hold onto I guess. So he keeps giving me things. Books, mostly.
I came home with a stack of them the other day, and these I feel, are the ones that signal his acknowledgement that the end of things is approaching. They are books written by a close personal friend, a friend to my parents and a friend to our family. A friend who has seen plenty of triumph and disaster himself, both professionally and personally. A man who values my father’s friendship highly. And therein lies the rub. He’s my father’s friend – the messages he’s handwritten in the front of the books he’s written, the little acknowledgements to my father, my mother and to their shared friendship and interests, belong to my father, not to me. But I feel duty bound to hold onto them. Preserve the past…
Where does the drive to preserve like this come from? I have ornaments belonging to my mother who died 26 years ago. I hated them as a child, and I hate them now. They sit in a drawer in my house taking up space – never seeing the light of day. But they’re still there. They are of no value, not even sentimental. I can remember them, remember my mother, without them being on show. So why do I keep them in a drawer?
I know that before long, I’ll have to clear dad’s house. One way or another, whether it’s to fund his nursing home care, or once he dies, the house he’s lived in for 25 years will have to be emptied and sold. How do you reduce a life to a few boxes, a few plastic bags? It’s something we all ultimately come to – when the end comes, what do you do with everything? In the words of the great Monty Python, ‘you come into life with nothing, you leave with nothing, so what have you lost? Nothing!’ But the truth is that we all have stuff. Houses full of stuff, and someone else has to make a decision about that stuff once we’re no longer around.
What do I do with every letter dad ever got about his employment? What do I do with his gas bills, phone bills, bank statements, army papers and other detritus dating back to the year dot? There are folders in his filing drawer that still have my mother’s handwriting on them. ‘Dad Pension’, one says. I guess reducing a whole life to nothing, wiping it out, is perhaps the hardest job of all. It feels like a betrayal of all that an individual was.
I suppose the reason dad keeps giving me things, is because he trusts me. To preserve the past for him. To preserve his past. The process of letting go is traumatic, and will be traumatic, but it can be extremely beneficial. I’m a great believer in a good old clear out. I’ve always thought it makes space for other things to come in. Dad is a preserver of the past whereas I’ve always wanted to look to the future – to the shiny things up ahead. I don’t think it’ll help me much in the short term when the house clearing has to be done, but long term, I feel strongly that whilst the past needs to be remembered and treasured, respected and learned from, it should not be preserved at any cost.
There is no point in keeping shelf after shelf of books, when I can treasure memories of shared conversations; there is no point in making room for boxes of papers and ornaments, when a handwritten card or photo can evoke past holidays, or Christmases; there is no point in preserving the physical, when what we all crave is the emotional. It’s the absent hug we miss, not the piles of books; it’s the pet name our parents called us that will be lost forever, not the best china; it’s the kind words of wisdom and support that disappear – who gives a stuff about the ornaments? I remember dad giving me things that had belonged to my mother after she died. ‘It was your mum’s, so you should have it.’ I didn’t want them. I still don’t – what I wanted, was my mum. And it’s the same now.
Dad keeps giving me things. Books mostly – I don’t really want them…