Do your memories hold you? Or do you hold your memories?

I have just ‘reclaimed my life’ from the loft and found two things of very great value to me that I thought had been lost.

These are the last two lost items that I feared had  inadvertently gone to the tip when we moved last December. My joy and my house now feels complete! (See ‘A Story of Lost and Found’ from December 2013 http://wp.me/pOEoK-t4 )

About a week ago I took a funeral for a very elderly friend and the reading was from Ecclesiastes 3 said (amongst other things) ‘there is a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away’. I had given up searching and had assumed these items had been thrown away but ‘seek and ye shall find…’. I feel a bit like the woman in the story of the lost coin, ready to throw a party saying ‘come and rejoice with me’.  (But as I’ve thrown several parties in the last few weeks, you are cordially invited to this blog instead!)

The first rediscovered item was a slim handwritten notebook which simply had pages I’d headed 1984, 1985, 1986 and so on… On each page I had hastily scribbled (on the few rare occasions I’d remembered to do so): where we had gone on holiday that year, who had been baptised/married or died, significant birthdays and so on. I called it my photo index book and kept it with all our photo albums knowing that one day I might want to remember when it was that ‘so and so’ was born or ‘the name of that nice place we found when we went to Cornwall’.

The loss of this flimsy notebook bothered me much more than I dared to admit. It distressed me hugely to think of all those small but important events/people or places that now might never be recalled just because I’d lost the book.  The eventual putting up of a set of shelves in our spare room was the first step taken towards replacing this volume. But this meant dragging through all the photo albums in order and making notes.

I’d been putting this off not just because it was a job and a half but mostly because I was afraid I might be turning into my mother. She lives in the past and constantly looses herself in her photo albums which are a huge jumbled mess, much like her memories.

I didn’t want to get inappropriately engrossed in the past. Looking through all the albums felt too hard: it meant having to admit that moving out of the family home in which our children turned into adults has been a huge emotionally jangling experience for me: a chapter had closed in our lives, a new one was opening.  This was partly why the albums had been hastily (and carelessly) consigned to the loft. I knew I needed to move on.

But actually I’ve discovered that it’s a lot easier to move on when the past feels resolved and tidy. I had kind of vaguely sensed that it hadn’t felt right to stuff the past away in boxes but I’d vastly underestimated what a sense of completion and wholeness it would give me to have my albums (the record of my life) accessible and arranged in date order. It feels like I have gathered up my life from places where it’s been left scattered. As if I am allowing myself to say ‘this all matters, it has its appropriate place: my history, my record of events, pictures of people who’ve touched our lives, scrapbooks of cards received, images that record the journey of our lives. I had felt unravelled, like an untidy ball of wool and now I feel ‘gathered up’.  Finding the ‘photo index book’ was like finding the key, it meant I didn’t have to trawl through all the albums, they were already labelled by date, they only needed putting in place.

 

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I’ve also discovered that, being in possession of reasonably good mental health (anyone who thinks they are completely mentally healthy is probably deluding themselves about some aspect of their lives) means that I don’t need to endlessly circle round my memories, in the way mum does.  Simply, having them there and in order feels like having a foundation stone, rarely observed but vitally present.

Perhaps I’ve never properly acknowledged my own inner archivist. I had thought I began to log my life in 1984 the year we were married but to my surprise I also found a huge box of scrapbooks going back to my early teens. It seems I have always recorded, labelled, reflected on events way before the web was invented and blogging made possible. And I know I’ve been rejecting this  part of my own character for complex reasons connected to caring for my beloved mum. I’m watching how she sinks herself ever more deeply into the more secure memories of her past, making up for the fact that day to day memories are slipping from her grasp.

It is as if she has ceased to hold her memories and instead, they hold her: the favourite, often revisited, stories of her life’s high points have become like a script we can all recite but even so it’s good to remember that a script has value: it confers an identity on the character playing that part of the story. An identity and a sense of security that she no doubt fears she is losing.

But it’s not just words and stories. Objects and possessions have also taken on vastly more significance. She cannot let anything go because everything tells her a story from her life and to lose the item might mean to lose the story.

So I am having to learn to bite my tongue over all the ‘stuff and clutter’ in her home. Maybe it’s not for me to decide what items are significant and which are not? Having lost something of significance myself so recently and knowing now how much it helps to know that I can easily reference and recall my life, I must learn patience and compassion for her as the smallest loss can make her feel very ‘unravelled’.

Part of the pressure of caring for a parent in this situation is that you have to start holding their memories for them as well as your own. (And when your own feel like a chaotic and disordered jumble, it can feel simply overwhelming to be asked to take care of someone else’s memories as well).  But I’ve haven’t yet told you about the second recovered item: it was my copy of my mother’s memory book! An autobiography she had self-published a few years ago now. The weird ironic twist is that she has currently lost her own copy of this book which is causing her some distress (for all the above reasons). 

The prayer poem below expresses perfectly for me the painful beauty of this process. It’s called A Prayer for a Parent with Alzheimer’s by Kathleen O’Connell Chesto. It’s a prayer written to be given with a hand knitted shawl and the last line always makes me cry.

 

Woven deeply into the stitches

Knitted gently through the strands,

Are the memories –

The funny memories,

The joyful memories,

The painful memories

The memories of all the love

We have shared.

May you feel the warmth of that love,

Even as the memories escape you.

May you be blessed with the comfort

Of those who hold the memories for you,

Even as you lose their faces and their names.

May this shawl offer security in the confusion,

Courage in the darkness,

Enabling you to walk gently

Into that long night,

Even as I struggle to let you go.

 

 

(from Knitting into the Mystery by Jorgensen and Izard)

 

 

 

 

 

The Hand that First Held Mine

This is the title of a novel by Maggie O’Farrell. We read it for our book group and discussed it a couple of weeks ago.  I highly recommend it for any one out there running book groups. (Or anyone just looking for a good book).  The story centres around two couples, Lexie and Innes in the 1950s and Elina and Ted in the 1990s but it’s not just an exploration of love and relationships, it looks quite deeply as the whole subject of parenthood.
Elina and Ted have a baby and I really ‘enjoyed’ the author’s description of the ‘fog’ of those early days as a parent, even though some of it was so vivid it was terrifying! While Elina bonds deeply with the child, Ted is deeply disturbed by the birth and finds that fatherhood raises really deep questions for him about his own childhood. Some of my group members found Elina and Ted’s story not as engaging because for a long time they fail to connect with one another but I think this is perhaps a very realistic situation for couples who drift unintentionally into parenthood.
Lexie and Innes live in Soho in the 1950s and an entire era is brilliantly evoked.
I won’t tell you very much more of the plot apart from the fact that it’s very clever and has something to do with how we all live in the ghost lives of those who have preceded us. The book’s themes are memory (particularly how what we choose to forget continues to affect us deeply) and parenthood (how who we are is largely formed before we are three). It is a book that made me cry (there was a whole page about loss that I found too distressing to even read) and laugh and remember that I’d ‘been there and felt like that’. It’s also beautifully written. There are some brilliantly drawn characters, part of the writer’s skill is that you loathe one particular character but actually come to pity her.
I rarely read a book twice but I’ve started this one over and expect to enjoy it even more the second time. I may even have to buy a hard copy to give away. (The great Kindle disadvantage is not being able to say ‘Hey, here’s a great book, would you like to borrow it?’)
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hand-That-First-Held-Mine/dp/0755308468/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1