Terence Blacker: The evocative things people leave behind

What do you do with a cracked, glued and frankly hideous ornament that was precious to your mother?
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The house where my parents lived is empty now. The last, trickily personal items belonging to my mother (a hairbrush on the window-sill in the bedroom, a bowl of talcum powder in the bathroom, photographs of bantam hens taped to the wall in the kitchen, hazel and ash walking sticks by the back door) have been gathered up. By tomorrow, the house will belong to someone else.

For the past two weeks, my brother and I have been collecting up the past and dispersing it in different directions - to our places, to the auction, to the skip. Nothing quite prepares one for the business of clearing the parental home, an experience that combines the stressed-out upheaval of moving house with the aching sadness of bereavement. While the practical requirements of preparing a house for change of ownership are attended to, there are emotionally charged decisions to be made about what to do with items of real or, equally difficult, emotional value in a manner that is fair to both the living and the dead.

It would be comfortable to think that, just as when life leaves a person's body and only a physical husk remains, then the same process would take place to a house and its contents. In fact, the imprint of the departed remains on the place where they lived. Sometimes over the past few days it has felt as if the spirit of my mother, who died in the spring, has lived on in her possessions. Clearing them up and giving them a new home has been the last stage of saying goodbye.

As we have sorted through things, stripping away, it has sometimes seemed, layer after layer of family history, it has become clear that in our parents' marriage there were two different approaches to the past.

My father, a military man to whom mental and physical order was important, was a great discarder. With a lifelong distrust of nostalgia, he believed that looking back, whether with regret or satisfaction, was futile and merely slowed one's progress towards the next horizon. A few precious letters from friends and from soldiers with whom he served in the war were stored tidily in a drawer. The rest - apart from the impossible number of trophies, awards, presentational plaques, flags and clocks that are part of Army life - had been thrown away by the time he died two and a half years ago.

For my mother, the things that she owned were powerfully important. Possession had nothing to do with monetary value but was a connection with people, places and animals in the past. A small chair would remind her of a cousin with whom she was raised and who died in the war. A decrepit kitchen table survived because it came from a beloved old house. Ornaments, chipped and cracked, or books that had fallen apart years ago, were kept because they had been given to her by a friend or member of the family who was important to her.

Then there were various other bizarre items - small chintzy china objects, naff miniature pictures, a toy koala bear - which she had accumulated down the years for reasons that mattered at the time and which subsequently become part of her character. Things, the giving and receiving of them, played an important part in her dealings with the world; perhaps for her, and for others of that emotionally reserved generation, they were a way of expressing feelings without words.

But what do you do with a cracked, glued and frankly hideous ornament that was once precious to your mother? Add to that, trunkloads of photograph albums, letters and diaries from two families - my mother's first husband was killed in the war and, since he was an only son, she inherited the family archive.

By all appearances, they enjoyed their leisure, my almost-family, spending most of their lives hunting foxes in Buckinghamshire and fishing for salmon in Scotland, but they were determined to leave a record of their time on earth. There are innumerable diaries, most of which recount the weather or a day's hunting with the Whaddon Chase, but form a history of sorts and cannot be thrown away. Then there are mementoes of much-loved animals - a dog collar here, a saddle-cloth there - and some relics from our own school days.

It is at this point that a certain steeliness sets in. With considerable pleasure, my brother's trunk and my own tuck box, painful reminders of boarding-school, were given away. Most of the ornaments and even the precious dog, horse and cattle memorabilia find their way into black plastic bags. Much of the rest has been relocated to the houses of the next generation or two. Out of context, they already seem different, and have lost some of the power they had to bring back memories of the past.

It has been surprising how important a part that things - looking at them, remembering, and then deciding what the hell to do with them - have played in the process of grieving. Now there is a huge relief that it is all over. The house will soon be gone. Pictures and items of furniture are in new places and have begun to acquire a changed character.

Briefly, it felt as if the past were coming back to haunt the present - you spend 40 years trying to get away from your parents and they catch up with you after they die - but soon old things settle in with other slightly newer things and begin to form a new repository of family memories.

terblacker@aol.com

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