Five-minute memoir: the box of delights

 

The day after my father died, my aunt came to me and said, "You're an orphan now". It didn't matter that I was in my early forties, or that my mother had passed away years before – the fact remained, my dad was gone. My brothers, my sister and I were on our own, lost without the rudder that had once steered the family ship.

Fast on the heels of the funeral came the business of dismantling my parents' house. My sister could barely bring herself to walk across the threshold. My two brothers looked on, helpless and sad, as I sat at the kitchen table and cried.

Nearly 50 years of accumulation filled every corner of the place. "It's like a freakin' episode of Hoarders," my brother-in-law announced after inspecting the garage with crass, unsentimental eyes.

"Our memories are tied to that so-called mess," I countered. "When life's good, you don't want to let go of any part of it." No matter what troubles had occurred in my life, my childhood and my parents' marriage had been solid, as good as it gets.

When I offered to stay on to help sort through the rooms, my eldest brother kindly said, "Go home. I've got this".

It's 1,200 miles as the crow flies from my hometown in Indiana to my current home in Nova Scotia. I'd made a new life in Canada with my husband and children, filling the drawers and closets of a seaside farmhouse with the stuff of our memories. It'd been difficult to be away from them, but harder still to say goodbye to my childhood home.

It was a good thing I left when I did. Forty-eight hours after my plane touched down in Halifax, my 18-year-old son went into hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Texts and phone calls flew back and forth between my siblings and me.

"Is the kid going to be OK?"

"It was touch and go, but he's fine now."

"What do you want from the house?" my brother finally asked.

"I don't know. It's too soon."

"Think about it. Make a list. Let me know."

There was a tea set that my father had sent from Japan when he was stationed there as a flight mechanic in the US Navy. It'd seemed wonderfully exotic to me, delicate and sophisticated, a part of my parents' world that I hadn't shared with them. I put it on my list.

"Anything else you'd like?"

"I'd like dad's photographs and picture albums."

"All of them?" my brother asked with fair bit of scepticism. "There's more here than you might think."

"If you're willing to pack them, I'll pay for the shipping."

The boxes arrived en masse, the scent of my parents' attic infused in every inch of cardboard, every book binding, every paper sleeve and photo-shop envelope. It was almost more than I could bear.

As the youngest in the family, I'd spent many hours with a box of photographs dated 1954-1968, the years between my parents' wedding and the date of my birth. I'd loved going through the pictures of their first trip to the Smoky Mountains, their first house in Indianapolis. I'd count the family dogs I never knew, the pencil skirts my mother wore à la Elizabeth Taylor, the freckles on my sister's nose the year she lost her first tooth.

My siblings teased me whenever they caught me gazing at their past. "You wouldn't remember that," was their collective refrain. "That was before you were born." I didn't mind their light-hearted cruelty. The enchantment I felt from looking at the photos far outweighed their words. Like Alice through the looking glass, I had travelled to a magical world, one that was mine alone.

A few weeks later a final box arrived at my door. The note read: 'Open me'.

The box was filled with slides, images I was sure I'd never seen. The massive shoulders of The Great Buddha of Kamakura. Aerial photographs taken from high above Mt Fuji. Images of a skinny young man, dressed in Navy whites – a boy from a small town in Michigan who'd gone from building model aeroplanes to learning to fly a Navy plane. A young man who looked strikingly like my son.

I placed each slide, one by one, into the hand-held portable viewer my brother had included in the package. My son and I huddled together on the couch, peering at the small screen, amazed by what we saw.

"When were these taken?" he asked, his voice filled with wonder.

I looked at the date that had been written on one of the slides. June, 1952.

"Before your grandparents got married." I answered with a smile. "Before any of us were born."

'The Virgin Cure' by Ami McKay is out now in paperback by Orion

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own